Minority Views on the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act

1. Executive Summary

In December 2001, the Parliament of Canada proclaimed into law the Anti-terrorism Act (ATA, formerly Bill C-36). There has been a perception surrounding the enactment of the legislation, as expressed in some media reports for example, that some minority groups may be unfairly targeted as a result of the provisions contained in the legislation.  Given this situation, the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice Canada sought to examine how minority groups viewed the different provisions of the Anti-terrorism Act.  Building on the consultations undertaken with various groups prior to the enactment of the legislation, this study sampled the views of minority group members through focus group discussions across the country. The Research and Statistics Division contracted with the public opinion research firm Créatec in order to conduct the focus groups.

Créatec conducted the focus groups between March 10 and 21, 2003. In total, 16 focus groups were carried out in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver covering 138 male and female participants from approximately 60 ethno-cultural minority backgrounds. Sessions, which had an average duration of 2 hours, were conducted both in English and French.

Focus group participants were selected using random sampling procedures based on telephone lists available for the cities chosen.  They were subsequently assigned to three groups covering a wide range of ethnic and visible minority backgrounds based on Statistics Canada's classification of ethnic groups for the 2001 population census.  Ethnicity was used as the key selection factor rather than religion or racial backgrounds. Group 1 was made up of individuals reporting Arab and West Asian ethnicities as well as those of North African and Pakistani ethnicity. Group 2 was made up of individuals reporting Black, African, East Asian, South-East Asian and South Asian ethnic origins, excluding Group 1 members.  Group 3 comprised individuals of Western, Northern, Central, Southern and Eastern European ethnic origins, including those reporting Aboriginal and Jewish backgrounds. Both immigrant and Canadian-born individuals reporting these ethnic backgrounds participated in these groups.

The moderator's guide for the focus group sessions tapped the following subject areas: (a) awareness of the Anti-terrorism Legislation, (b) reaction to the definition of terrorism, (c) reaction to listing of terrorist entities, (d) reaction to financing of terrorism provisions, (e) reaction to investigative and preventive powers, (f) reaction to some mechanisms associated with investigative and preventive powers, (g) impact of the Anti Terrorism Act on individuals, families and communities.

In general, focus group discussions revealed that awareness of terrorist-related legislation was consistently low among participants, across all target groups and in all locations, whether it concerned the Anti-terrorism Act, the Criminal Code or any other legal measures before or after 9/11.  However, participants were generally aware of new post-9/11 travel-related security measures, especially at airports and borders, including the need for passports and permanent resident cards to travel to the US. 

Overall, participants expressed general support for the provisions of the Anti-terrorism Act, with varying degrees of concern about its application. The Act was generally thought to create a sense of comfort, safety, and increased security.  Participants generally assumed that Canada's anti-terrorism legislation was less severe than that of the United States and the United Kingdom.

More specifically,

The definition of terrorist activity was seen as a good idea, but was not well understood, with some concern expressed about possible misinterpretation and its effect on legitimate protests. 

The intention of the listing of terrorist entities provision was viewed in a positive light, but concerns emerged over the public nature of the listing, possible ethnic minority stereotyping, and doubts about accurate and credible information.

While the financing of terrorism provision made sense, people worried about the potential for misinterpretation, and about certain legislative aspects, which placed responsibility on individuals instead of on the government. 

Overall, there was general acceptance for the new police investigative and preventive powers, despite the possible risks of targeting of ethnic minorities and potential police abuse.  Participants generally approved of the wiretapping section, but were confused about the offence relating to the refusal to give information. 

The notion of safeguards garnered high approval and provided relief and greater confidence in the Canadian approach to combating terrorism. 

The sunset clause was poorly understood as a safeguard, and instead seen as a government expectation that terrorism would not be a problem after 5 years, or as validation that police powers were dangerous. 

The reporting obligation to Parliament was well liked and well understood as a safeguard, which exerted some monitoring of police powers.  However, some preferred an independent watchdog.

Overall, the majority of focus group participants felt the risk of having the ATA and its new police powers were acceptable to protect the country and its population. Most felt safer or the same with the legislation, and most hoped their reservations would not be validated.  People adopted a "wait-and-see" approach.

In terms of impact on individuals, families and communities, participants confused the legislative impact of the Act with the impact of 9/11 events.  When asked about the legislative impact of the Act, most cited discriminatory occurrences at the workplace, in daily activities (e.g. riding public transit), when trying to rent or buy a home, at schools, places of worship, and in social relationships. 

Having looked at respondent reactions to the Anti-terrorism Act, Créatec suggests that some factors may have influenced discussion outcomes such as timing of discussions (i.e., war with Iraq), media exposure, views on Canada's role in the world and participants' own perceptions of terrorism. 

The present research study is part of the efforts undertaken by the Research and Statistics Division to help inform the Parliamentary review of the entire Anti-terrorism Act which is mandated to take place within three years of the Act receiving Royal Assent. 

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