Minority Views on the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act

2. Report Highlights

2. Report Highlights

2.1 Background, Purpose and Methodology

2.1.1 Background

In December 2001, the Parliament of Canada proclaimed into law the Anti-terrorism Act (formerly Bill C-36).  There has been a perception surrounding the enactment of the legislation, as expressed in media reports for example, that some minority groups may be unfairly targeted as a result of the provisions contained in the legislation.  On this point, the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice Canada sought to examine the views of minority groups on the Anti-terrorism Act (ATA).  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.  This was not a consultation but rather an exercise that held structured conversations with participants.  A Parliamentary review of the entire Act is mandated to take place within three years of the Act receiving Royal Assent.  This research was conducted to inform the review.

2.1.2 Purpose

The purpose of this qualitative study was to understand the views of the Canadian public towards the ATA and some of its key components – with special attention to the attitudes and concerns of Canadian of different ethno-cultural backgrounds.

2.1.3 Methodological Considerations

While public opinion surveys can tap the Canadian public's views as a whole, qualitative research canvasses individual opinions by posing questions and listening, and having participants answering freely.  The aim of this study is to discover attitudes, and to derive meaning and understanding from listening to and observing participants.  

Focus group discussions provide an appropriate context for participants to express their views with the flexibility, tone and direction they desire. In addition, ethno-cultural minority views may be difficult to obtain through telephone interviewing, due to small sample sizes and to respondents' comfort levels in expressing views, especially on sensitive topics. With qualitative research such as focus group discussions it is possible for participants to review and then comment on a considerable amount of factual information (which they did throughout the 2-hour sessions).

Focus groups enabled open discussions among people sharing similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds.  The process is not to build consensus, but to explore awareness, perceptions and views.  The moderator's role here was to facilitate the discussion, to collect information and to observe, while encouraging participants to interact freely. It is not to inform, or suggest right or wrong answers.

As in all qualitative research, and in accordance with the Code of Ethics and Standards of the Professional Marketing Research Society (PMRS), findings from this study may or may not be regarded as statistically representative of the target population at large.  However, this research may be further pursued by other instruments to contribute to our knowledge base; for example, if statistically valid results are desired, a separate follow-up quantitative survey is an option.

2.1.4 Methodology

The national study was comprised of 16 focus groups that were conducted in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver, with 138 participants from about 60 ethno-cultural minority backgrounds. Discussions were held March 10-21, 2003. Sessions, which had an average discussion time of approximately 2 hours, were conducted in English in 13 groups (3 each in Halifax, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver plus one in Montreal) and in French in 3 Montreal groups.

Individuals were assigned to groups according to self-reported ethnic backgrounds (see Statistics Canada group classification in Appendix 3) to allow for 3 sub-groups with possible contrasting views on the Anti-Terrorism Act. The 3 groups were the following:

  1. Group 1: comprised of individuals reporting Arab and West Asian ethnic backgrounds as well as those of North African and Pakistani ethnicity.
  2. Group 2 was made up of individuals reporting Black, African, East Asian, South-East Asian and South Asian ethnic origins, excluding Group 1 members.
  3. Group 3 consisted of individuals reporting Western, Northern, Central, Southern and Eastern European ethnic origins, including those reporting Aboriginal and Jewish backgrounds.

All cities hosted each of the groups, with an additional Group 3 for English-speaking participants in Montreal.

Participants were recruited by random sampling procedures based on telephone lists available for the cities chosen. Participants' ages ranged between 18-54 years old.  Each group was of mixed gender, with a range of educational levels and occupations. Most of the visible and many non-visible minority participants were foreign-born, and some were Canadian-born.

Participants in all focus groups discussions were queried according to the approved discussion guide in English and French.  All were given summarized printed handouts (which minimized the legal language) to refer to when discussing aspects of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

2.2 Findings

2.2.1 Awareness of Terrorism and Anti-Terrorism Legislation

Despite some confusion in various locations about what terrorism really was, and what constituted a terrorist act, general awareness of terrorist incidents in Canada was consistently low in all locations and across all target groups.  Overall, participants did not view the current situation in Canada, even in the tense pre-Iraq-war climate, as exceptional or particularly threatening vis-à-vis terrorism.  Most felt that the risk of terrorism in Canada was very low given Canada's multi-cultural composition and its peaceful world reputation. Another important reason expressed was that Canada was not supporting the U.S. in the Iraq war.

In general, awareness of terrorist-related legislation was consistently low, 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.  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 U.S.  Participants also perceived Canada's anti-terrorism legislation to be less severe than that in the U.S. and the U.K.

During the discussions, participants confused the legislative impact of the Act with the impact of 9/11 events, and the possible discrimination against ethnic and visible minorities, especially those of Middle-Eastern descent.  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.  Some Group 1 and 2 participants had become more subject to suspicion and differential treatment since 9/11.

2.2.2 Provisions of the Act

Focus group participants expressed general support in principle for the ATA concept, with varying degrees of concern about its application.  While there was high acceptance for the ideas of protection, defence, and making it harder for terrorists to operate in Canada, prevention was not seen as having a credible benefit for the country (except for the new police powers).

All of the provisions discussed met with approval and were accepted in principle or intent, despite some concerns. 

  • 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 strong concerns emerged over the public nature of the listing, possible ethnic minority stereotyping, doubts about accurate and credible information, the potential for misinterpretation, and loss of privacy.  In addition, while the appeal process was highly valued, most felt that harm to the innocent could already be done.
  • While the financing of terrorism provision made sense, people worried about potential harm to the innocent, 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 the targeting of ethnic minorities, possible misinterpretation, and potential police abuse. Participants supported 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 in fighting 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 control over the application of police powers.  However, some doubted government transparency and preferred an independent watchdog.

Interest in information about the ATA was generally high across all groups and locations.  Participants wanted information to be aimed at "everyone," not just at certain ethnic communities.  They also wanted information to be available in "many" languages, not just English and French.

Despite all concerns, a majority of participants felt the risk of having a "realistic" and "balanced" ATA and its new police powers was acceptable "to better protect the country and the people."  Most felt safer or no different with the legislation.  Overall, people adopted a "wait-and-see" approach.  

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