Please stop saying “The Overwhelming Majority of Canadians Support Bill C-51”. The polls don’t support it.

A version of this article was published in Now Magazine on March 5 2015.

bill_englishIt’s the most controversial piece of legislation in recent Canadian history. And yet, cry some journalists, citing Bill C-51’s apparent 82% national approval rate, there has “rarely been a bill before Parliament that was more popular”.

82%! My, what a large number! When countries like Russia and Iran and Kyrgzstan boast of 95% election turnout rates and 96% presidential approval rates, we in Canada collectively guffaw – a big, hearty, democratic belly laugh at the sheer absurdity of voter unanimity. This isn’t to imply that the Angus Reid poll was fixed or even biased – merely that as a serious assessment of how Canadians really feel about Bill C-51, it just isn’t very good.

Let me assure you that 82% of Canadians agree on precisely nothing, never mind eternal fidelity to a piece of abstruse legislation. First, the poll is not a random sample. It was a sample of 1509 individuals drawn from a larger pool of people registered at the online Angus Reid Forum, a website where anyone who completes a survey can enter “sweepstakes draws to win gift certificates or cash”. The problem isn’t that respondents were paid. It’s that the poll was (a) peppered with poorly designed questions and (b) restricted to a self-selected batch of Canadians who have the kind of time, internet savvy and computer access that permits leisurely completion of surveys. It simply cannot be used to support grandiose statements about the general Canadian population like the Globe and Mail’s proclamation that “More than four in five Canadians back the new legislation to expand the powers of intelligence agencies and police.”

Still, though – let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and pretend that the survey is a random and representative sample of the real-life opinions of average Canadians. 82% of people is still a lot of people. It’s even more impressive when you consider that 57% of the total people surveyed openly admitted that not only do they endorse this bill, they’ve barely even heard of it. More specifically, 855 of the 1509 survey-takers self-characterized their own knowledge of Bill C-51 as either “Not read/seen anything at all” or “Just scanned/saw the headlines”.

To paraphrase: more than half of Canadians who don’t really know what Bill C-51 is think it’s just utterly marvellous. Or do they? How many Canadians do you know who run around bellowing about Parliamentary bills they haven’t read?

Bill C-51 is a block of dense legal text that would make most lawyers wince. The Angus Reid poll consists of 2 large-print pages populated by seven nice-and easy questions, one of which is essentially “Do you actually know anything about this bill?”. In other words, the poll is less onerous than the typical hotel satisfaction survey, and with ponderances that include whether or not one is in favour or opposed to “making it illegal to promote terrorism”, it’s probably less subtle too. Tell me, typical Canadian, which one of the following two statements resonates nearer and dearer to your own heart:
(a) There is a serious threat of terrorism here in Canada
(b) Politicians and the media have overblown the threat of terrorism in Canada

I choose (c), “I’m not CSIS. Questions about my personal appraisal of the threat of terrorism are irrelevant to the actual content of Bill C-51, so why don’t you take your leading questions elsewhere and ask me something else?

In its favour, the poll successfully ascertains that 65 people in Manitoba who go online to complete surveys are indeed worried about terrorism. The numbers in Saskatchewan were somewhat more troubling: in response to the question “How familiar are you with the proposed legislation?”, 13% of people had “read stories about it”, 28% had seen “a story or two”, 39% had “just scanned the headlines” and 21% had not read “anything at all” – all of which is fine, except the numbers sum to 101%. Mathematics! In sum: media outlets should probably stop citing the Angus Reid poll as hard evidence of Bill C-51’s burgeoning popularity.

It’s a free country. If you want to support Bill C-51, then thine is the power. But the idea that this bill is an unstoppable juggernaut, a force of nature with such awesome powers of public approval that it’s simply irresistible at this point is nonsense. This isn’t Facebook. I couldn’t care less how many “likes” Bill C-51 has. I only want to know two things: (a) what it’s about and (b) exactly under what circumstances and how far the government intends to ram its snout into my private life. I suspect most Canadians would agree.