Bill C-309 and its Discontents
By: Eric Jacobs
On October 31, 2012, Parliament voted to approve Bill C-309, an amendment to Section 65 of the Canadian Criminal Code also known as the Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act. Following a formal rubber-stamping by the Senate, this bill will establish two new criminal offences, each with alarmingly harsh sentencing provisions. Once Bill C-309 becomes law, individuals charged with wearing a mask or other disguise while participating in a riot (defined as “an unlawful assembly that has begun to disturb the peace tumultuously”) will face an indictable offence carrying a maximum sentence of ten years; those charged with concealing their identity while participating in an unlawful assembly could face either an indictable offence—carrying a maximum sentence of five years—or a less serious summary offence. The crime of rioting currently carries a maximum two year sentence, whereas participation in an unlawful assembly is a basic summary offence.
Bill C-309, submitted by Conservative MP Blake Richards, was one of three private members bills pushed through Parliament by Stephen Harper's majority government that day; the other two included Bill C-217, which sets harsh new punishments for those convicted of vandalizing war memorials and Bill C-350, which forces claimants who are awarded monetary settlements from the court to use the funds to first pay back pre-existing court-ordered debts, such as child support, victim compensation or restitution payments.
Traditionally speaking, private members bills rarely become law; major legislative initiatives are usually promoted by cabinet members of the sitting government, not by party backbenchers. The Harper government has begun to change this convention, publicly throwing their support behind a number of private members bills—which require far less constitutional scrutiny and parliamentary oversight than their government-sponsored equivalents—as part of a broader strategy aimed at tightening their control over the political agenda in Ottawa.
Beyond the populist rhetoric of taking a “tough stance on crime”, recent Conservative efforts such as C-309 are best understood as part of a massive expansion of this country's Prison-Industrial-Complex, and a shift towards a more Americanized system of incarceration. When Stockwell Day announced, in 2010, the government's plan to spend $9 billion dollars on the construction of new prisons, liberal commentators quickly responded by pointing out that crime rates in the country have actually been declining for years. This confusion belies a lack of understanding on the part of many progressives of the true role that prisons play in capitalist society. The myth of prisons popularly conceived of as institutions intended to deter and ultimately rehabilitate criminals ignores the rampant culture of recidivism fostered by a system that does not address the root causes of crime, and purposefully makes the process of reintegration into society more difficult for those leaving prison. It also shrouds the much more important role of the Prison-Industrial-Complex as both a lucrative site of corporate profit and a vital tool of State control.
It is no secret that Bill C-309 is a response to the spread of black bloc tactics in Canada—such as those witnessed in Vancouver during the city's 2010 Anti-Olympic protests and 2011 Stanley Cup riot, in Toronto during the G20 Summit, and more recently during this year's student strike in Québec. Speaking to reporters outside Parliament on the day of the bill's passage, Richards explained why various police chiefs and business leaders had asked him for these tough new laws. “They have individuals coming to gatherings of various types and looking to cause trouble and they come with a toolkit. They've got a bag, they've got a mask, they've got a disguise, black clothing, they've got hammers to break windows, objects to throw at the police, things to start fires with.”
These new measures should hopefully serve as a wake-up call to anarchists and anti-authoritarians in this country. If you identify yourself as an enemy of the State and capitalism, it should come as no surprise when the State begins to treat you accordingly. In this current age of austerity, it is only prudent for the ruling class to reposition themselves into a more advantageous position to crush the resistance that their policies will inevitably provoke. This is why they are building more prisons—and passing new laws to fill them. Realizing this, the question then becomes: what are we going to do about it?
In terms of the deployment of black bloc tactics, this bill suggests the need for a tactical shift, with a stronger emphasis on avoiding unnecessary arrests. What constitutes an unlawful assembly and/or riot is ultimately up to the discretion of police officers on the ground. Any assembly of three or more people can be declared 'unlawful' at any time, thus clearing the way for police officers to surround and arrest small groups of masked protesters. Being aware of police movements and avoiding falling into these types of traps will become increasingly important, as will tactics such as de-arresting and breaking kettles. Along with this must come an increased awareness of the presence of surveillance cameras and the use of plainclothes police—as investigators will likely be happy to wait until after things in the streets have died down to come and arrest black bloc participants in their homes or on their way to work.
Even more importantly, however, anarchists must strengthen our bonds to the mass movements of the working class. The days of the anti-globalization movement are over, and the St. Paul principles that ostensibly served to navigate the rules of “diversity of tactics” are ill-suited to our emergent reality. This approach does not mean we need to compromise our politics—in fact, it demands that we bring anarchism out of the ghetto of radical activism and demonstrate its relevance to those who comprise our natural base of support. The alternative is complicity in the State's ongoing efforts to marginalize us, thereby leaving us even more vulnerable to the full weight of its repressive security apparatus.
Anarchists also urgently need to develop a strategy that sees the potential of incarceration not as a worst-case scenario, but as an increasingly likely consequence of struggle. Our prison support work must extend beyond letter-writing and fundraising events (as important as these are) towards a practice that breaks through the isolation of prison walls in more meaningful and productive ways. If the jails are going to be full of anarchists, then they should become breeding grounds for anarchism. As capitalism ramps up its attacks on the working class, larger segments of the population will be drawn into open class war. Things are going to get ugly. As anarchists and revolutionaries, it is our responsibility to meet this coming period of increased repression with clarity of vision and an inspiring depiction of the new world we believe is truly worth fighting for.