The Conservative MP trying to make it a crime to wear a mask or disguise during a riot says his bill would help protect the right to protest peacefully.

Blake Richards says his private member's bill targets those who try to disrupt peaceful and lawful assemblies and turn them into riots, and that the legislation would help prevent violent situations from erupting.

"What this does is protect the right to peacefully protest, people who want to peacefully protest, who want to make a point are able to do so," he said in an interview.

The Alberta MP's bill was debated for the first time on Nov.17 in the House of Commons.

It seeks to amend the Criminal Code so that it would be an offence to wear a disguise while participating in a riot or an unlawful assembly. It is already illegal to take part in a riot or unlawful assembly; this bill would make it a separate offence to disguise one's identity while participating.

It includes an exemption for wearing a face covering with a "lawful excuse." That would include religious or medical reasons, Richards says, and the burden of proof would be on the person to prove he or she is concealing his or her identity for a legitimate purpose.

The need for this bill was highlighted by the G20 riot in Toronto in June 2010 and the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver last June, and it's something police have been asking for, according to Richards.

'As a private member, that's a right and a prerogative that I have to be able to bring forward an idea that I think will be beneficial, and this I think will have a huge impact on public safety.' —Conservative MP Blake Richards

The Criminal Code currently has a penalty for wearing a disguise with the intent to commit a crime, but Richards says it's challenging to apply and can only be applied after an incident occurs. He says police have no power to deal pre-emptively with people who are concealing their identities while a situation is unfolding.

Richards says his bill would help strip away anonymity from those seeking to commit crimes and police would be able to order the removal of a face covering.

"What this does is target those people who will try to take advantage of a protest to be able to cause trouble. It’s those people who are masking up, trying to disguise themselves that are looking to cause trouble, it's not the people who are legitimately trying to make a point on a matter that they have concern for and I think what this bill will do is protect those people and protect their right to be able to protest without having it turn into a situation," said Richards.

His bill proposes a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, but he said during debate that he is open to increasing that to 10 to bring it in line with the existing Criminal Code offences related to wearing a disguise.

'Solid support' from constituents

The Official Opposition's reaction to Richards's bill was not an enthusiastic one. 

The NDP's Charmaine Borg responded to during the debate by saying she understands Richards's concerns, but that it is unnecessary.

"In its current form, this bill is redundant and could have serious consequences for civil liberties in this country. I encourage members in this House to carefully examine the implications of this bill and to ask themselves whether it is worth jeopardizing our civil liberties," she said.

Liberal MP Sean Casey said the bill is part of the government's "obsession with crime" and is about creating fear among Canadians. He also questioned the need for such legislation.

"Why did the member not introduce a bill to reduce poverty in Canada, a bill to help the poor, and to bring them in from the margins of poverty? Why did he not do that?" asked Casey. "It is as if the Conservatives lie awake at night dreaming about ways to put more and more people in prison. It is an obsession rooted not in science or evidence, or even reason. It is irrational."

Casey said the Liberals will not support the bill until they are convinced it can meet a Charter of Rights and Freedoms test. He also added that Richards has put forward a "government bill in disguise," and that it was deliberately introduced as a private member's bill in order to avoid wider debate and attention. If it had been introduced as a government bill, it would have been open to a review by the Department of Justice to ensure its constitutionality, he said.

Constituents concerned about riot damage

Richards was asked in the interview with CBC News why he chose this issue, of all issues he could have taken on in a private member's bill, and why the MP from Wild Rose, Alta., is tackling an issue that seems to be of more concern in urban centres such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

"As a legislator you have of course the concerns of your constituents in mind, but you also have the concerns of the broader country as a whole," he said. Richards said he has heard from constituents who were concerned about riots and damage to businesses.

It can take a long time for a private member's bill to move through Parliament, and Richards was asked about why the government, with its ongoing focus on crime and justice legislation, wouldn't introduce it as a government bill and use its majority to push it through the House of Commons quickly.

"It was an idea that I had that I brought forward," said Richards. "As a private member, that's a right and a prerogative that I have to be able to bring forward an idea that I think will be beneficial, and this I think will have a huge impact on public safety."

He said he hopes it will proceed quickly and he's expecting another hour of debate on the bill in February.

Richards said he was a little surprised by the reaction to his bill, and that it was interesting to hear the comments for and against it. He said he has "solid support" from his constituents.