Public Views on the Anti-Terrorism Act
(formerly Bill C-36)


This report is part of the ongoing efforts undertaken by the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice Canada to help inform the Parliamentary review of the Anti-terrorism Act which is mandated to take place within three years of the Act receiving Royal Assent. The Anti-terrorism Act was proclaimed into law by the Parliament of Canada in December 2001.

As a first phase, the Research and Statistics Division undertook a focus group study in March 2003 to examine how minority groups viewed the different provisions of the Anti-terrorism Act. This was done in response to concerns that the Act's provisions might lead to certain minority groups being unfairly targeted.

As a second phase, the Research and Statistics Division sought to obtain the views and examine the attitudes of the Canadian population in general with regard to the Anti-terrorism Act. The firm Millward Brown Goldfarb was contracted to conduct focus group discussions and analyze the results. A total of 22 focus group sessions were held between February 2 and March 5, 2004, in Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Montreal, Calgary, Regina, Vancouver, Quebec City, and Halifax.

Focus group participants were first selected using random sampling procedures based on telephone lists available for the locations. Participants in each city were then divided into two age groups: Group 1 was comprised of participants between the ages of 18 and 39, and Group 2 of participants 40 and over. In all, 196 male and female participants over the age of 18, with varying social and educational backgrounds, were selected. Sessions of approximately 2 hours in duration were conducted in English and French.

The moderator's guide for the focus group sessions consisted of a modified version of the one designed for the first study; it was adapted for the general public. The focus group discussions centered on the following seven areas:

  1. awareness of the anti-terrorism legislation;
  2. reaction to the definition of terrorism;
  3. reaction to the listing of terrorist entities;
  4. reaction to the financing of terrorists;
  5. reaction to new investigative and preventive arrest powers;
  6. reaction to some mechanisms associated with investigative and preventive arrest powers; and
  7. impact of the Anti-terrorism Act on individuals, families, and communities.

Materials for each of these areas of discussion were distributed to participants prior to the discussion on each area.

Key Findings

Awareness of the anti-terrorism legislation was generally low, with about only half of the participants in each group saying, when prompted, that they were aware of some aspects of the legislation. There was also low recall of pre-9/11 Canadian terrorist incidents; post-9/11 terrorist incidents outside of Canada were mentioned more often. The general feeling was that terrorist incidents in Canada prior to September 11, 2001, would have been dealt with under the Criminal Code; however, there was uncertainty as to what aspect of the Code would apply to terrorism. Participants were generally aware of heightened airport and border security measures, as well as tougher immigration procedures post-9/11.

Although many participants felt that the brief overview of the Anti-terrorism Act was too broad and somewhat vague, there was general support for the concept of the legislation. Participants felt it was a step in the right direction, and some felt a certain level of comfort knowing that it was in place. There was a general assumption among participants that Canada's Anti-terrorism Act was less severe than similar legislation in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

The brief description and the accompanying provisions had a general appeal; however, they also gave rise to varying degrees of concern.

The definition of a terrorist activity was well received, with participants appreciating the fact that it was broad and, therefore, would not exclude any potential terrorist group. However, some expressed concern that the broadness of the definition might lead to non-terrorist groups (such as environmentalists, labour union activists, and anti-globalization protestors) being unjustly defined as terrorists.

While participants generally felt that the provision regarding the listing of terrorist entities was a necessary evil, concerns emerged over labeling individuals or groups as terrorists before they have a chance to appeal. This concerned several participants who saw it as reversing the well-known and respected concept of 'innocent until proven guilty.'

In general, the provision regarding the financing of terrorism made sense to participants. However, there was great concern over the maximum sentence of 10 years for being found guilty of this offence; it was seen as being too lenient. The reporting obligation also concerned participants, as it places the responsibility on individuals to report potential activities and subjects them and their families to what they view as a considerable amount of risk.

The provision bestowing new investigative and preventive arrest powers on the police was generally seen in a positive light, although there was some concern expressed about the possibility of it leading to the invasion of the privacy of innocent citizens as well as the potential for abuse by the police. Some were also concerned about the potential targeting of minority groups.

The sunset clause, associated with the investigative and preventive arrest provision, was generally understood and participants felt that it was a good tool for monitoring police use of the new powers. A few participants in each group thought the sunset clause meant that the terrorism legislation would disappear in five years.

The obligation of reporting to Parliament was also seen as a good tool to prevent police abuse of their new powers. However, some participants felt that initially there should be multiple reporting obligations.

Overall, participants felt that the risks associated with the Anti-terrorism Act and the new powers it bestows on the police were acceptable in light of the protection the Act affords to the country and its citizens, although the level of safety they felt did not change after learning about the provisions of the Act, since they did not feel unsafe to begin with.

The majority of participants said that the Act has had no direct impact on them, apart from them having to wait longer at the border or in line for ticketing or security at airports, which can primarily be attributed to post-9/11 security measures rather than to the Act itself. A few participants stated that they had friends or relatives adversely affected by post September 11 security measures, with experiences ranging from being pulled over at the border to being deported from the United States. In these cases, the individuals affected were said to be members of visible minority groups.

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