Some Canadian police chiefs are voicing support for a private member's bill that would criminalize wearing a mask or covering the face during a riot or unlawful assembly.

The bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons by Conservative MP Blake Richards of Alberta, proposes making the wearing of a mask during a riot punishable by up to five years in jail.

In a recent speech in the House of Commons, Richards said that current police powers in a riot or unlawful assembly are reactive, meaning police cannot stop someone for wearing a mask during a riot. Given the recent G20 riots in Toronto and Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver, Richards wants the law changed.

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Victoria Police Department Chief Jamie Graham is supportive of the bill, calling the changes overdue.

Graham said the current statute on covering the face during criminal acts — called "disguise with intent" — was drafted to cover such things as bank robberies and holdups, and carries a higher burden of proof when it comes to proving the disguise was put on with intent to commit an offence.

"I think in the current climate that we operate it's well worthy to put forward as a law and debate, Graham said.

"I think it would greatly assist the police in attempting to reconcile these dilemmas they face [trying to identify people] in these huge public disturbances," he said.

Vancouver Police Department Chief Jim Chu has expressed support for the legislation, and Richards has said police in Calgary and Toronto also back it.

The current statutes state that participating in a riot could lead to up to two years behind bars, while anyone who participates in an unlawful assembly is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.

M for mask

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Protesters wear Guy Fawkes masks at the Occupy Vienna protest. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

The stylized masks seen at Occupy demonstrations around the world stem from the graphic novel V for Vendetta and the 2006 film of the same name.

The mask was inspired by Guy Fawkes, who was arrested and executed for participating in a plot to blow up the British Houses of Parliament in 1605's Gunpowder Plot.

British graphic artist David Lloyd, who developed the design of the mask worn by the main character in the novel, said he is pleased to see it adopted by the demonstrators.

"The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny — and I'm happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way," Lloyd told the BBC.

In a twist, the sale of each mask puts money in the account of Time Warner, which owns the rights to it.

Richards' bill would alter the Criminal Code so that any person who participates in a riot while wearing a mask or other disguise to conceal their identity "without lawful excuse" is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

The bill, as it is currently written, does not define what would be a lawful excuse to wear a face covering. Richards said that wearing cultural or religious dress that obscures the face, or bandages for legitimate medical purposes, might fall under the exemption, although the person could still be subject to prosecution for participating in a riot.

The Criminal Code's current "disguise with intent" clause carries a punishment of up to 10 years behind bars.

Natalie Des Rosiers, general counsel with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said she has doubts about the constitutionality of the bill and expects it would be challenged.

"I think it is more a symbolic bill than it is a response," she said. "In our view, it shouldn't come into law, it has no demonstration of a need for this."

Des Rosiers said the "lawful excuse" language in the bill could be problematic.

"You cannot have a limit that is not prescribed by law, that is not clear to the citizens. We have the right to know what is expected of us. When there are vague languages in the context where it infringes a freedom prescribed by the Charter, it becomes an unreasonable limit."

Richards' bill has only passed first reading, meaning it has a long way to go before it ever becomes law.

About two years ago, the City of Montreal considered the idea of enacting a bylaw that would ban masks. However, early discussions did not get far and the issue fell off the radar.

In New York City, some people at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration found themselves in violation of a law banning masked gatherings that has origins dating back to 1845. The original law was enacted to bar the wearing of masks by tenant farmers who were being evicted by their landowners.

The law was modified in 1966 to ban masked gatherings of two or more people unless the masks are worn for "a masquerade party or like entertainment."

New York City used the law in 1999 to try to block a demonstration by a Ku Klux Klan offshoot group. A District Court judge ruled against the city, but the U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit reversed that decision. The demonstration eventually went ahead without masks.

Riots in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2011 also led to some renewed calls for a mask-ban law.