Security vs. privacy: Canadians want more accountability, but accept trade-offs on civil liberties

Security vs. privacy: Canadians want more accountability, but accept trade-offs on civil liberties

Support for anti-terror law Bill C-51 remains high, but most back proposed changes to it

 March 18, 2016 – Canadians say they have high hopes and broad support for the Trudeau government’s proposed changes to Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terror law that prompted mass public protest.

But in the ongoing debate over where Bill C-51 Poll | Angus Reid Instituteto draw the line between civil liberties and anti-terror measures, a new poll from the Angus Reid Institute shows Canadian support for greater oversight of government agencies that collect and share personal data is accompanied by the majority view that anti-terror efforts may sometimes justify infringements on privacy.

Indeed, while two-in-three Canadians say changes to Bill C-51 are needed, an even greater majority – fully four-in-five – are in favour of the legislation as it stands today.

Further, more than half would rather the government scrap plans to repeal another security and terror related law – Bill C-24.

Key Findings:

  • Most Canadians (61%) are closer to the view that security and anti-terrorism efforts sometimes require infringing on civil liberties
  • Eight-in-ten Canadians (80%) say they support Bill C-51, while a significant majority (67%) are also in favour of proposed changes to increase oversight and protect privacy
  • Two-in-three Canadians (68%) say the federal government is doing either a “good” or “very good” job on the national security file overall
  • But just over half (53%) believe the Trudeau Liberals should not be repealing Bill C-24, which among other things, strips citizenship from dual citizens who are convicted of terrorism

National Security versus Personal Privacy

This pollster has been canvassing Canadian opinion on such issues for years, from security in the post-9/11 era, to issues of trust in government in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, to ongoing tracking of how Canadians feel about the security-versus-privacy trade-off.

Today, when asked which sentiment is closer to their own point of view, most Canadians (61%) say the occasional infringement on civil liberties trumps safeguarding personal privacy at all costs, while a significant segment say otherwise:

Bill C-24 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

Amending C-51: Security risk or much-needed change?

When it comes to Bill C-51, Canadians continue to firmly support legislation that enables government agencies and police to collect and share information about Canadians they suspect to be terrorists, but they also enthusiastically await amendments tempering that legislation.

From the time it was first proposed in January 2015, Bill C-51 has both enjoyed the support of a strong majority of Canadians and has been the subject of vociferous opposition on the basis that it goes too far.

In ARI’s first poll on C-51 in February 2015, nearly seven-in-ten Canadians (69%) chose “there should be additional oversight to ensure the police agencies do not go overboard with these new powers” over the alternative: “we already have adequate oversight.”

These numbers held steady when ARI asked again in May 2015, with 71 per cent calling for additional oversight.

Today, the view that this law doesn’t include adequate checks and balances is reflected in the roughly two-thirds (67%) of respondents who say changes to it are needed:

Bill C-24 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

The feeling that the law should be changed is strongest on the coasts, with three-quarters (75%) of British Columbians and four-fifths (83%) of Atlantic Canadians saying changes are needed.

Younger Canadians (those ages 18 – 34) are also more likely to say Bill C-51 should be modified. And while majorities of each age group feel this way, the majorities grow increasingly smaller as respondent ages increase:

Bill C-24 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

Most support proposed changes to C-51

The position most Canadians take today on this anti-terrorism law roughly parallels the one taken by the Liberal Party since the bill was introduced.

Bill C-51 passed in the House of Commons last year under the previous Conservative government, but with the support of Liberal MPs led by Justin Trudeau. At the time, Trudeau said the bill wasn’t perfect, but was good enough to earn his party’s support. He promised to make amendments to the bill if his party formed the next government. This happened when the Liberals won a majority mandate last October 19.

Now that Trudeau is Prime Minister, Canadians are looking to the new government to make the changes his government promised and proposed:

Bill C-24 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

Overall Support for C-51 remains high

In spite of the staunch outcry and opposition to this legislation in the form in which it was introduced, debated and passed, Canadians remain steadfastly supportive of the law: 80 per cent support in its current form, while 20 per cent oppose it.

As it has on two other occasions, the Angus Reid Institute asked Canadians about some of the specific provisions of Bill C-51 – as well as whether they support or oppose the law overall. The following graph shows how support has changed since the legislation was first introduced:

Bill C-24 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

Indeed, if anything, support has ticked up slightly over the past ten months. This may be due in part to less focus on terror and security issues in general, because other issues such as the economy, are currently preoccupying Canadians.

A change in national government may also have made Bill C-51 less of a lightning rod for voter dissatisfaction with the now-defeated Harper Conservatives. (A more fulsome discussion of the political divides driving views on these issues is found at the end of this report.)

When the law is deconstructed into individual elements, support remains high for each provision canvassed, as seen in the graph that follows. Indeed, support for each individual component of Bill C-51 has been above 70 per cent every time ARI has asked about the law (read February 2015 results here and May 2015 results here).

Bill C-24 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

Repealing C-24: Right or Wrong decision?

But while the new federal government’s direction on C-51 appears very much in line with public opinion, this alignment does not extend to all aspects of its approach to the public safety and anti-terror file.

Case in point, its intention to repeal Bill C-24, known as the “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act”. This law – which the Liberal party campaigned against – made Canadian citizenship harder to acquire and allowed government to strip citizenship from dual citizens who are convicted of, among other things, terrorism and high treason.

Trudeau explained his opposition to the law by arguing that it created a two-tiered system of citizenship that unfairly threatened dual citizens, famously saying “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” during one of the leaders’ debates, a mantra that his government has repeated in moving to repeal the law.

But Canadians are not entirely on board with the government’s plan. This survey finds a narrow majority (53%) of respondents would prefer to leave the law as it is, while roughly one-in-four (21%) say government should go ahead and repeal it (the rest, 26% are unsure). Expressed another way, Canadians of a firm mind on the issue want Ottawa to leave C-24 alone two-to-one over those calling for it to be repealed.

Age is a driver of opinion on this matter. Younger Canadians and those with higher levels of education are more inclined to say the law should be scrapped:

Bill C-51 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

Political divides and government performance:

With the Trudeau government continuing to enjoy its honeymoon with the Canadian public, it should come as no surprise that a full majority (59%) rates the government’s performance on terrorism and national security as “good.”

Another 8 per cent say the government has been doing a “very good” job on this issue:

Bill C-51 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

This rating from the public is notably better than the 55 per cent who said the Trudeau government is doing a good job on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women file and expressed confidence in its handling of the mission against ISIS.

As might be expected, those who voted for the Harper Conservatives last fall are less likely to approve of the Liberal government’s performance on this file, or its plans to change and undo legislation designed by the previous administration:

Bill C-51 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

Similarly, political lines divide opinion Conservatives are more likely to prioritize security over privacy:

Bill C-51 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

And, on C-24 Conservatives are much more certain in their opinion than supporters of the other main parties, and overwhelmingly prefer to leave the law in place:

Bill C-51 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

That said, this survey also finds a great deal of common ground between partisans. On C-51, for example, majorities of Liberal and NDP voters say they support the law (see summary tables at the end of this release). And while most past Conservatives say C-51 doesn’t need to be changed, the majority are in favour of specific changes to the law proposed by the Liberals:

Bill C-51 Poll | Angus Reid Institute

The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research organization established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.

Click here for the full report including tables and methodology

Click here for comprehensive data tables

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey


Shachi Kurl, Executive Director: 604.908.1693

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