Canada Joins Bahrain, Saudi Arabia in Banning Masks — but Only at Riots

The list of oppressive countries legislating the wearing of masks keeps growing: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and now … Canada. Yes, Canada. Last month, we reported on Saudi Arabia banning the Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the movie V for Vendetta, which have been a staple of populist protests from Occupy Wall ...

ROGERIO BARBOSA/AFP/GettyImages
ROGERIO BARBOSA/AFP/GettyImages
ROGERIO BARBOSA/AFP/GettyImages

The list of oppressive countries legislating the wearing of masks keeps growing: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and now ... Canada.

Yes, Canada.

Last month, we reported on Saudi Arabia banning the Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the movie V for Vendetta, which have been a staple of populist protests from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, and now the Taksim Square protests in Turkey. The Canadian ban is a bit different -- but just as strange.

The list of oppressive countries legislating the wearing of masks keeps growing: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and now … Canada.

Yes, Canada.

Last month, we reported on Saudi Arabia banning the Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the movie V for Vendetta, which have been a staple of populist protests from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, and now the Taksim Square protests in Turkey. The Canadian ban is a bit different — but just as strange.

The new law, which takes effect immediately, makes it illegal to wear a mask in Canada "during a riot or unlawful assembly." (Because apparently Canadian laws against rioting aren’t dissuasive enough?) Those caught wearing masks during riots could spend up to six months in jail, not including additional charges for rioting; masked miscreants caught "inciting" a riot face a potential 10-year sentence. CBC reports that "exceptions can be made if someone can prove they have a ‘lawful excuse’ for covering their face such as religious or medical reasons."

Does that include dust masks to prevent getting sick at crowded, dirty protests? Balaclavas so protesters don’t freeze on cold Canadian nights? Handkerchiefs to stave off the inhalation of tear gas? Do fake beards, like the one worn by the Canadian student above, count as masks? That’s unclear, and will be left up to law enforcement officers’ judgment. "In policing that’s always the challenge — we’re required to use our discretion and judgment in every situation," Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association and Vancouver Police Union, told CBC.

Not only are the terms of the new law loosely defined, but the legislation may be redundant. Critics of the bill point out that there is already a Canadian law on the books prohibiting wearing a disguise "with intent to commit an indictable offense." But Canadian law enforcement officials counter that the law’s original purpose — it was aimed at incidences of armed robbery — have made it difficult to apply to rioters.

"We can all rest easier tonight knowing our communities have been safer with [the bill’s] passage," the law’s sponsor, Member of Parliament Blake Richards, told reporters.

So, if you’re planning on rioting in Canada, remember the old "only break one law at a time" rule and don’t wear a mask. Or hope that the law goes unenforced — like that mask ban in Saudi Arabia.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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