MPs have voted to pass private members' bills to ban masks at riots and to implement a 10-year maximum prison sentence for vandalizing war memorials, as well as a bill to set out priority for payments by offenders who owe money.
All three bills had been supported by the government, and now go on to the Senate.
The mask ban bill, Bill C-309, passed with the support of government MPs, 153-126. The Opposition opposed the bill, known as the "preventing persons from concealing their identity during riots and unlawful assemblies act."
Blake Richards, the MP for Wild Rose, Alta. who sponsored the bill, said earlier Wednesday he wanted to give police another tool with which to target rioters who try to conceal their identities and to provide for harsher penalties for those convicted of wearing a disguise during a riot.
Votes on private members' bills
- C-309 (masking identity at riots): passes 153-126.
- C-217 (mischief to war memorials): passes 181-98, NDP opposed.
- C-350 (offenders accountability): passes unanimously.
Richards said he has had support from police chiefs in Toronto, Calgary and Victoria, as well as business groups in cities such as Vancouver, which was hit by rioting following the Stanley Cup final two years ago.
"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," Richards told reporters Wednesday morning on Parliament Hill.
"They're there to cause damage on businesses and public property ... and it's those individuals that police need this tool to protect the public from."
Richards said in the case of the Vancouver riots, police have documented 15,000 criminal acts but have been able to lay "very few" charges because they can't identify the people involved.
Richards has said the bill won't apply to protests, which are different from unlawful assemblies and riots. An unlawful assembly is a gathering that causes fear. Riots are declared by city officials.
Last May, MPs on the House justice committee increased the penalty in the bill to 10 years for rioters who conceal their faces and five years for those at an unlawful protest. The maximum sentence for rioting is two years.
The opposition said Wednesday the bill is unnecessary.
"The police already have all the tools that they need — we saw that in Quebec," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Wednesday.
"It's a game that the Conservatives keep playing. We look at it we reallize what they're up to, this is part of their so-called 'law and order' agenda — it's nothing of the sort. It's just constant sops to their Reform party base — we're going to vote against it, we know the Criminal Code is sufficiently clear on this, we know the police have the tools they need, we're not going to be a part of that," Mulcair said.
It's already illegal to wear a disguise when committing an indictable, or more serious, offence, which includes rioting. Unlawful protests, however, don't fall under the current law because they're classified as a summary conviction, a less serious offence.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said C-309 is not well thought out.
"I don't think people understand the implications that it has — when does wearing a toque low on your face become a mask?" Rae said on Parliament Hill Wednesday. "Are we going to ban people from appearing in a protest because they are wearing a burka? Are we going to say that on a cold day that people can't wear a mask?"
Richards said the bill poses no threat to people taking part in lawful protest or assemblies.
"Bill C-309 would not criminalize the actions of anyone who wears a mask or a costume of any type that might possibly conceal their identity while they're engaged in lawful protest, marches, gatherings — Halloween, for example," Richards said.
"The bill would actually, I believe, strengthen and protect the right to lawful assembly and expresssion by protecting those individuals involved in lawful assemblies."
Bills tabled by backbench Conservative MPs
The three bills, all of which would make changes to Canada's justice system, were tabled by private members, MPs who aren't in cabinet. All come from the Conservative caucus, which has raised the question of why the government didn't adopt them as its own legislation.
"I don't like the way the government keeps using private member's bills to put forward their own agenda. I don't like the way the government has systematically used private member's bills as a political platform for an agenda that is sometimes not well thought out," Rae said Wednesday.
"I think people have to understand that sometimes these efforts by individual backbenchers to micro-manage every conceivable situation is not necessarily the way to write a Criminal Code," Rae said.
"Let's not pretend the criminal law is somehow completely unable to deal with these kinds of situations."
Bill C-217, tabled by David Tilson, sets up harsh punishments for vandalizing war memorials. It passed with all but the NDP supporting it.
It gives prosecutors the option of charging vandals with an indictable offence as well as a summary offence, and sets out a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first offence and a minimum jail sentence of 14 days for a second offence.
Subsequent offences would have a minimum sentence of 30 days and up to 10 years if prosecutors decide to charge a vandal with an indictable offence. The maximum for a summary conviction under the act would be 18 months.
MPs voted unanimously to pass Bill C-350, sponsored by Cornwall-area MP Guy Lauzon, which would make changes to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. The bill would ensure that any money awarded to an offender by a court or tribunal is used first to pay any court-ordered spousal or child support payments followed by any restitution orders or victim surcharges.