Public Views on the Anti-Terrorism Act
(formerly Bill C-36)
As in any research done with the public, opinions collected during the focus group sessions are 'snapshot in time' impressions, which may have been swayed in either a positive or negative way by various factors. It is, thus, important to identify such influences in order to put the findings into perspective and context.
Seven factors may have played a role in shaping respondents' reactions to the Act and its provisions. The first four factors are situational and include: (1) the timing of the sessions; (2) the educational and occupational backgrounds of the participants; (3) the ethnic background of the participants; and (4) participants' media habits. The remaining three factors are attitudinal in nature and may stem from the first four as well as from the personal experiences of the participants. These factors are: (5) Canada and its role in the world;(6) the United States and its role in the world; and(7) an appreciation of the presumption of 'innocent until proven guilty' in the Canadian justice system and an understanding of the scope of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Timing of the Sessions
The focus group sessions were conducted over a one-month period from February 2 to March 5, 2004. The schedule was extended by one week because of a snow storm in Halifax. By that time, the war in Iraq had subsided and other concerns had entered into the public consciousness, such as the outbreak of SARS, the West Nile Virus, and Mad Cow disease. Although 'terrorism' remained in the news, it was possible that participants had become 'numb' to the almost daily reports of incidents occurring in the Middle East.
A news story did break during the second week of February about Ottawa being a potential terrorist target; this story was indeed mentioned by some participants in groups conducted that week (in Montreal, Calgary, Regina, and Vancouver). As well, the incident involving Juliet O'Neill (the Ottawa Citizen journalist) and the Maher Arar affair were still fresh in many participants' minds.
Overall, the participants respected the fact that Canada did not enter into the war against Iraq and stood aligned with the United Nations rather than the United States and the "coalition of the willing."
Educational and Occupational Backgrounds
As mentioned in the introduction of this report, the focus groups were composed of people of very diverse backgrounds, including students, blue-collar workers, teachers, professionals, clerks, programmers, sales representatives, homemakers, even a retired university professor of criminal law. This diversity led to varying degrees of knowledge about the Criminal Code and about the law in general as well as to varying degrees of concern about the provisions presented.
While many of the participants were Caucasian, the focus groups also included members of several visible minority groups. Participants from visible minority groups were somewhat more likely to feel that the police would misuse their new investigative and preventive arrest powers. As one participant noted,
"They have done it before, so what is stopping them now?" Nevertheless, participants from these groups generally agreed overall with the Act and its provisions.
Participants' Media Habits
As also mentioned in the introduction of this report, most participants regularly kept in touch with what was going on around them. While only a few participants said that they do not pay attention to the news, most watch the news regularly on television and read a daily newspaper, at least occasionally.
Canada and its Role in the World
Participants in all groups expressed a sense of pride in Canada and in being Canadian. Universally, Canada was perceived as a peaceful nation, and there was a deep appreciation that Canada did not join the war against Iraq. Some participants were concerned that if the new government led by Paul Martin was to more closely align itself with the United States, Canada's reputation as a peacekeeping nation might be put into jeopardy and Canada might become a potential target of terrorism.
Generally, participants felt that Canada was a fair nation in terms of dealing with people who have broken the law in some way.
Some participants felt that our image as a peaceful nation also leads to the perception that we are too 'easy going' and lenient when it comes to the laws and enforcement of the laws. Hence, there was some concern that the Anti-terrorism Act might not be fully and effectively enforced.
The United States and its Role in the World
During the focus group discussions, participants tended to mention the United States in rather negative terms, describing the United States as a fairly aggressive nation, "doing as it pleased" and acting like "bullies." Participants pointed out that this view was largely based on the actions of the United States in relation to the war in Iraq. In light of the September 11, 2001, attacks, the United States was viewed as a primary target for terrorists.
Participants also felt that the American media exhibits a bias and tends to put 'pro-United States' slants on most of the stories they report. Generally, participants felt that the United States exerts a certain influence over Canada, and many were concerned about Canada being too closely aligned with them.
Appreciation of Canada's Fair Justice System
Participants in all groups generally expressed pride in, and appreciation for, Canada's fair justice system. They explained that such feelings stem from knowing that what constitutes the cornerstone of our justice system is the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty.'
During the sessions, however, as participants delved more deeply into the provisions of the Act, they expressed concerns that certain provisions were in violation of this cornerstone principle. In general, they were concerned that the responsibility was being placed on those accused of terrorism or labelled as terrorists to prove their innocence. This applied to the following provisions:
- The listing provision, under which groups or persons can be labelled as terrorists before they are given the right to appeal;
- The financing provision, under which those accused must prove their innocence after having their assets frozen; and
- To some degree, the new police powers, whereby those accused can be arrested without a warrant or strong evidence against them.
It is important to note that, as was the case in the first study, while participants appreciated the appeal concept, they still expressed fundamental concerns about the possibility that, despite the appeal, the lives of innocent people could be ruined.
In summary, while the Anti-terrorism Act and all of its provisions met with general approval and were, for the most part, accepted, some concerns were raised during the discussions.
- In response to the brief summary of the Anti-terrorism Act, participants reacted generally positively to the fact that Canada had adopted this legislation; they felt that it was a step in the right direction. However, many thought it was too broad or too vague and that it used terminology that they were unfamiliar with. They felt that it could be misinterpreted.
- Overall, reactions to the definition of a terrorist activity were positive. The broadness of the definition and the fact that a person or a group had to meet all three criteria contributed to the definition's appeal. Still, participants looked for 'loopholes' in the definition and found that it had the potential for misinterpretation, that it might lead to legitimate protests and other acts being defined as terrorist activities.
- While focus group participants viewed the provision regarding the listing of terrorist entities as a necessary evil and an effective tool for identifying terrorist groups or persons, they felt it challenged one of the cornerstones of our justice system. In their opinion, the legal principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' was being replaced with 'guilty until proven innocent,' given that the provision stated that one could be labelled a terrorist before being able to appeal this designation.
- The provision concerning the financing of terrorism was viewed positively by participants. Many felt that it was a good tool in disabling terrorist activities. Despite this acceptance, participants also felt that it too challenged the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty.' The reporting obligation was also met with unease. In addition, many participants felt that the 10-year maximum sentence was too lenient and should be increased, as terrorism is a serious act.
- The new police investigative and preventive arrest powers were met with general acceptance, despite concerns regarding the potential for abuse by the police and for targeting of visible minority groups. Reactions to wiretapping were also generally positive; however, some felt that this was a dated practice given the proliferation of computers in today's society, and some felt that, overall, the provision constituted a fundamental invasion of civil rights and liberties.
- There was overall approval for the safeguards built into the Act. The sunset clause was perceived as being an effective tool to curb potential abuse by the police of the new investigative and preventive arrest powers the Act bestows on them. A few participants in each group misunderstood the clause and thought that the Act would disappear after five years. The obligation of reporting to Parliament was held in high regard, as participants felt it would help monitor police use of their new powers and would be an effective safeguard against abuse. A few participants felt the reporting obligation should be more frequent than once a year.
In conclusion, participants felt that the risks in adopting the Anti-terrorism Act and in bestowing these new powers on the police were acceptable for the greater good of society. After having been informed of the Act in more detail, the majority of participants said that they felt "about the same" as they did before. This appeared to be due to a feeling that, while terrorism is a serious act, it did not affect participants in their daily lives. The legislation had had no impact on the personal lives of the participants, except to increase the waiting time at borders and in line at both ticketing and security stations at airports. Nonetheless, the Act was perceived as being "nice to have."
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