Minority Views on the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act

4.  Detailed Findings(continued)

4.  Detailed Findings (continued)

4.4 Impact of the Anti-Terrorism Legislation

4.4.1 Perceived Impact

Participants tended to interpret questions about the impact of the anti-terrorism legislation on their personal lives in an extremely broad context -- for example, according to one respondent

The only impact is to hear [about] it 24 hours – adds to stress, that you're not safe anymore. (Toronto Group 1)

Overall, there were only a handful of stories told that seemed to relate directly to the legislation.  One Calgary respondent with a popular Middle Eastern surname did not receive mail for an entire week after 9/11 and then it came all at once.  A woman in the Montreal Anglophone non-visible minority group personally witnessed the phone-tap of her Arab friend.  A Toronto stewardess in the non-visible minority group said her life at work had been completely disrupted by frequent airport security checks.

Actually, many participants confused the notion of legislative impact with the impact of 9/11 events, and the increased discrimination against mainly visible minorities, especially those of mid-eastern descent, which ensued.  In all groups, this tended to become the focus of conversations related to impact.

Discriminatory incidents after 9/11 were generally thought to be on the rise by most in this study, who cited occurrences at the workplace, in daily activities (riding public transit), when trying to rent or buy a home, at schools, places of worship, and in social relationships.  In the Montreal Arab/West Asian group, for example, the question was followed by a long silence, after which each participant was able to mention an example of the impact they or their close ones had felt.  Even those in the non-visible minority groups had either witnessed or heard about discriminatory episodes.

Some participants had simply become more aware of increased tension, suspicion and different treatment than before 9/11.  Montreal francophones of Arab/West Asian descent said they tried to avoid discussing certain subjects in public out of fear of generating suspicions.

If you go to smaller all white communities, you will be treated differently. (Toronto Group1)

In sum, real or actual legislative impact seemed to be quite low, but because participants confused legislative impact with post-9/11 impact, the general perception was that discrimination against and suspicions about visible minorities was on the rise.

4.4.2 Reported Personal Post-9/11 Incidents

Apart from incidents involving the police and discrimination in general, the most frequently mentioned personal impact after 9/11 occurred in 5 main areas:  (1) travel in and outside of Canada, (2) customs incidents, (3) passports and other personal identification, (4) commercial transactions, and (5) workplace changes.

  1. Travel incidents, restrictions or mistreatment were quite common in most groups, and focused mainly on increased security and more searches at airports and border points, especially at US borders, where some had been singled out.
    • One Calgary respondent was taken off a plane at London airport to be checked – while he accepted it because he had no other choice, the rest of his group found this very offensive. 
    • A Toronto respondent told how the Greyhound bus he was on was stopped at the US border, while it took almost an hour for 3 visible minority "kids" to be searched and questioned.
    • We are paying with our racial profile, with our rights – my wife is scared to travel. (Halifax Group 1) 
  2. Customs incidents were also described in most locations, including more questions and searches.
    • A Toronto woman had a friend who was stopped and asked if she had a bomb around her waist.
    • Someone I know, a Hungarian artist coming to perform a concert, missed his flight because he was held so long at customs.  He felt Canada must be the safest country in the world because of this. (Calgary Group 3)
  3. Passports, permanent resident cards and birth certificates were now harder to get, with longer waiting periods, according to participants in various locations.
  4. Commercial transactions were affected – some reported that it was now more difficult to wire money overseas, and to transfer funds between bank accounts in different locations.
  5. Workplace changes, mentioned by several respondents, were positive in nature, and included new security measures, "what if" discussions at the management level, and a zero tolerance policy against discriminatory remarks.

4.4.3 Feelings of Safety and Security

Overall, most participants said that from what they had learned about the ATA in the discussions (whether correctly or incorrectly interpreted or understood), they now felt either more safe and secure or about the same.  However, a minority felt less reassured and less secure.

Participants generally felt safer (to varying degrees) because the legislation at least afforded some protection against terrorism – but no one believed it would or could prevent terrorism.  Many had not seen terrorism as a serious threat in Canada in the first place.  However, in all 5 locations, those who felt safer or the same did have some reservations about the legislation.

  • The law will not stop everything. (Montreal Group 3)
  • I feel more secure, with some side effects. (Vancouver Group 1)
  • Safer, but the innocent need to be protected. (Calgary Group 1)
  • More secure from terrorists, but my privacy is invaded, but I guess that's the price you pay. (Toronto Group 2)
  • Some Group 1 participants in Montreal said they felt safer collectively, but had less individual freedom.  While they already felt safe in Canada (why they chose to come here in the first place), they said that with the legislation, they had lost some freedom of speech, and were at risk of being targeted by the measures.

Those in various locations who felt less safe after learning about the ATA said it was due to fears of potential police abuse and loss of freedom. 

  • I am more scared of the government now than I was before - they have all these powers now!  (I was mistrustful before) - can lead to corruption. (Calgary Group 1)
  • More concerned about the government's powers, what's behind this, than I feel safer from the terrorists -- lost more of your freedom, and you don't even know about it. (Calgary Group 2)

One respondent from Halifax expressed mixed feelings on this issue.  While on the one hand the legislation's existence implied a possible terrorist threat (and fostered an unsafe feeling), on the other, a willingness to give the Canadian government the benefit of the doubt implied increased credibility and trust (and fostered a safe feeling)

The need to implement such legislation means we are potential victims of a terrorist attack in future, an attack might be inevitable -- maybe the government knows something we don't know.  (Halifax Group 1)

In sum, most participants said they felt either safer or the same with what they had learned about the ATA during the discussions.

4.5 Concluding Comments

As in any qualitative research, reactions collected during focus groups are snapshot-time impressions, which may have been coloured in a positive or negative way by various factors.  It is important to identify such possible influences to help the reader put the findings into perspective or context.

Having looked at respondent reactions to the ATA, there were 10 factors that may have influenced or played a role.  It is useful to explore some of these themes, which emerged during the discussions, many of which were directly stated by respondents. 

4.5.1 Possible Influences on Respondent Attitudes

Of the 10 possible factors, the first four could be called situational, and include (1) the timing of the groups, (2) respondents' countries of origin, (3) their educational and work backgrounds, and (4) media usage.

The remaining six factors could be termed attitudinal, since they exerted more of an indirect and subtle influence, and stem not only from the situational factors, but also from respondents' personal experiences.  These factors involve respondent perspectives, general attitudes and frames of reference or mindsets about (5) Canada and its role in the world, (6) the United States and its role in the world, (7) racial discrimination, (8) perceptions about terrorism, (9) contrasting perspectives about the police, and (10) an appreciation of Canada's innocent-until-proven-guilty justice system.

These influences and themes are included to provide some respondent context, in order to appreciate and better understand people's reactions to the ATA provisions explored in this study.

Timing of the groups

Most groups were conducted in the 2-week period leading up to the US war with Iraq (in March, 2003).  In fact, the 6 groups in Toronto and Calgary were held within the 48-hour warning period leading up to the beginning of the war, and the 3 Vancouver groups were conducted a day or two after bombing had started.

Given the current events and worrisome climate, and the sensitive nature of the topic, there seemed to be 3 major effects of timing on discussions, one of them positive and the others less so: (1) appreciation of Canada's non-involvement in the war against Iraq, (2) a general heightened awareness, tension and apprehension, and (3) a strong antipathy towards US aggression and foreign policy.

  1. A strong general appreciation for Canada's non-involvement in the US-led war effort in the days leading up to the war and after it started may have fostered a greater trust in decisions made by the Canadian government;
  2. A general heightened awareness, tension and anticipation -- based on increased media exposure to what-could-happen scenarios, and on high anti-terror security alerts in both the US and Canada, including the newly created US Department of Home Security-- may have increased the concern of many visible minority participants (especially those of Group 1 ethnicities) about possible backlash against their communities, and may have placed potential discrimination more in focus than it might otherwise have been. 
  3. A strong antipathy towards American aggression and foreign policy emerged in most groups.  Not surprisingly, a few Vancouver participants expressed anger, not only because of the "invasion of Iraq" but also because of former US policy in Iran (putting the Shah in power) and elsewhere.
Respondents' countries of origin

Many foreign-born participants told us at various points during the discussion that they came from countries where the Canadian style of democracy did not exist.  Many Canadian-born participants had family members who still lived back in their heritage countries, and some had relatives in Canada with first-hand memories of what it was like back home – some positive and some not.

During discussions, participants in most groups referred to their particular ethnic background or heritage when talking about the various ATA provisions and what they considered to be related topics.  Many indicated the effect this had on their value systems – and often spoke of a stark contrast between Canada and their homelands, especially with regard to (1) individual civil rights and liberties (or lack thereof in their homelands), (2) the legal and policing systems (which were sometimes referred to as "corrupt" and "brutal" back home), and (3) their feelings about people in authority (trust, vs. fear-based obedience back home).

The overall impact this may have had on their reaction to the legislation was positive.  Participants generally tended to trust rather than mistrust the Canadian government and legal system – which may help explain why after spending considerable time discussing their concerns about various aspects of the ATA, they still supported and accepted all the provisions of the legislation under study.  It also may explain the very positive response to the reporting obligation safeguard, and the potential support for the sunset clause, a safeguard that was not generally seen as such.

Respondents' educational and work backgrounds

All groups had a mix of participants with differing levels of education and work backgrounds, including (1) highly educated professionals (e.g., physicist, engineer, management consultant, teacher, computer systems analyst, controller, financial planner); (2) those with some specialized training (e.g., stewardess, chef, nurse, massage therapist, photographer, baker, book designer, cosmetologist);  (3) those in blue collar occupations (e.g., trucker, waiter, retail sales, daycare worker); and  (4) some university or college students, studying diverse subjects (e.g., film production, photography, chemical engineering, philosophy, and one studying the law).

In addition, there were varying degrees of fluency with the English or French language, both written and spoken.

While the educational/work factor could apply to many qualitative studies, on this particular project it is important to note that some participants had an easier time reading and understanding the printed handouts, and explaining their points of view, than others.  In fact, some had noticeable difficulty (even with the simplified handouts).  As one Vancouver woman explained:

Is very difficult for me to understand the English on the handouts.  Want to be more active than what is on paperwork. (Vancouver Group 1)

It was often the more articulate participants who would first comment on a specific aspect of a particular handout and raise the relevant issues.  Others in the group would then give their views, agreeing or disagreeing, as the case may be.  This is not at all unusual in a focus group setting – someone must always initiate the discussion.

However, one main effect of educational differences and language difficulties may have been that not all aspects of the handouts were covered or discussed, given the 2-hour time constraints, and that some details were discussed briefly only by certain groups (as has been pointed out in the report).

Another effect might shed some light on why most participants did not spend a great deal of time discussing the positive aspects of the various ATA provisions.  After saying "I like it,"  "It's good," or "I agree," it was hard for many to elaborate further and explain why they felt this way, other than to make general statements like "We need to do something" (which appear frequently throughout the report). Once a concern had been raised, the conversation then focused on that particular issue and then on others.  It is important to note here that all of the ATA provisions explored received the support of the majority of participants, regardless of the concerns expressed.

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