Analysis: On anniversary of Parliament Hill attack, a review of Canadian opinions on domestic security

How public opinion on the terrorism file has evolved over the last 12 months

October 21, 2015 – Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of the Parliament Hill shooting, an attack that has shaped much of the domestic safety discourse over the last 12 months.

The Angus Reid Institute has conducted several public opinion polls regrading this and related issues over that period. In this special analysis, we take a look back at our findings.

Lack of confidence in security forces at the time of the shooting

When Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial on Oct. 22, 2014, the Angus Reid Institute was coincidentally in field with a survey asking Canadians about the threat of terrorism and the ability of security forces to keep them safe.

On this latter issue – perhaps related to news of the shooting – more than half of Canadians (55%) said they weren’t confident in the ability of domestic security services to prevent homegrown radicals from carrying out terrorist attacks in Canada.

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See more findings from this survey here.

Confidence improves, but fears of radicalization remain

In a special report on radicalization and homegrown terrorism released in November 2014, ARI found that confidence in security forces had begun to rebound, with 50 per cent now expressing trust in the ability of institutions such as the RCMP, CSIS and local police to stop radicalized Canadians from carrying out acts of violence.

A more specific question asked respondents whether the Parliament Hill shooting was either a terrorist attack or an act of someone with a mental illness.

Canadians were almost evenly divided in their views on this issue. Nearly two-in-five (36%) said the shooting was a terrorist attack. About as many (38%) said it was an act of mental illness. The rest (25%) said they weren’t sure.

Placing the attack in the broader context of homegrown terrorism and radicalization, ARI asked respondents whether they believed there were already radicalized individuals living in their communities, and whether the threat such individuals would pose is serious or overblown.

Overall, one-third of Canadians (35%) said they felt there were already radicalized individuals living in their communities, and nationally, 62 per cent said homegrown terrorism was a serious threat, though significant regional variation existed:


This study also canvassed opinion on Bill C-44, which would give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) increased powers to watch Canadians, the authority to operate outside Canada, and to share information about Canadians with other countries. It also gives more protection to confidential sources.

Although the introduction of this legislation didn’t come as a direct response to the shootings on Parliament Hill five days earlier, it did nonetheless capture the attention of Canadians and change the tone of debate in House of Commons.

In terms of public opinion surrounding the proposed legislation, ARI asked and found that half (51%) of Canadians overall felt Bill C-44 does a “good job” of addressing security threats. Just over one-quarter (27%) felt the legislation goes “too far” and steps on civil liberties; just under one-quarter (22%) said Bill C-44 doesn’t “go far enough” to protect Canadians.


See more findings from this survey here.

Fears lead to strong initial support for Bill C-51

The support seen for Bill C-44 in late 2014 was a precursor to the strong support seen for Bill C-51 when it was introduced in early 2015.

In February, an ARI poll found 82 per cent of Canadians expressing support for the law, with fully one-third saying it “didn’t go far enough.”


Despite strong support across regional and demographic groups for Bill C-51, Canadians were almost equally emphatic about their desire for additional police and law enforcement oversight to accompany expanded powers. Seven-in-ten (69%) were of this opinion, while three-in-ten (31%) said existing oversight of law enforcement in this country was adequate, and nothing further was needed.

Angus Reid Institute

See more findings from this survey here.

C-51 gains detractors, becomes a campaign issue

In May, after several months of vociferous protests against the bill over its perceived infringement of civil liberties, ARI again asked Canadians about C-51, and found that while opposition had soared, overall support to be quite high.

This time, 72 per cent of Canadians said they supported the bill – a 10-point decline from earlier in the year. Likewise, the number of people saying the bill “went too far” nearly doubled from February to May, while the number saying it “didn’t go far enough” collapsed:

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See more findings from this survey here.

As Parliament Hill attack grows distant, other issues rise to the fore

In August, writs of election were issued, and the long 2015 election campaign began. While Harper and the Conservatives continued to be seen as best to lead on the issue of terrorism and security, the electorate largely moved on to other issues.

Most of the polls ARI conducted between August and last week were election-related, and each of them began with a question asking Canadians to pick the two most important issues facing the country. In the last of these polls, terrorism was chosen as one of the top-two by only seven per cent of respondents.

Perhaps more importantly for its political implications, the issue’s importance remained high among Conservative supporters, but fell among supporters of other parties.

When ARI asked respondents in September to choose their top-two issues from a list of foreign-policy issues only, 46 per cent of CPC supporters chose terrorism, compared to one-quarter of Liberals (25%) and one-fifth of New Democrats (20%).

Angus Reid Institute

The issues come full circle under a new prime minister

Described by media accounts as a “political juggernaut” in February 2015, Bill C-51 and the domestic terrorism file gave the Conservative Party of Canada and Stephen Harper a politically advantageous wedge. In terms of support for the legislation overall, the CPC’s 2011 voting base was most enthusiastic about the anti-terror legislation, with nine-in-ten (89%) supporting it.

The advantage did not last for the Conservatives – but it set off a chain of political events that would shape the pre-election period and the first weeks of the campaign. In voting for C-51 with the Conservatives, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals assured left-of-centre voters outraged by this move that they would also, if elected, move to amend the legislation and provide greater independent oversight.

In the short term, it was not enough to quell anger among C-51’s opponents – during the spring of 2015, Canadians marched on Parliament, and marched their political support to the NDP, which had come down against the bill. But by Monday night, any political advantage this issue afforded Thomas Mulcair had evaporated.

Now, Canadians will watch to see how and when an incoming Liberal government makes good on its amendments to C-51. The Angus Reid Institute will watch for changes in public opinion.

Shachi Kurl, Senior Vice President: 604.908.1693

Image Credit: Norman Maddeaux/Flickr