The lowdown on crime in Canada

We have a higher murder rate than Germany and a lower one than Scotland

The lowdown on crime in CanadaThe war on crime is near the top of the Conservative government’s agenda, so it’s little surprise that Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has enjoyed a busy year. In February and April, he proposed a series of mandatory minimum sentences for crimes from drug trafficking to auto theft. On June 5, he tabled legislation aimed at repealing the “faint hope” clause that allows convicted murderers to seek an early parole hearing. Ten days later it was a proposal to put an end to conditional sentences—those served under supervision at home or in the community—for such crimes as theft over $5,000, drug trafficking or arson, “to make sure,” he said, “that those who commit serious crimes serve time behind bars.” Taken together, the implication is that courts are soft and offenders roam free on a national crime spree. That’s one interpretation. Conversely, critics accuse Nicholson of parroting the harsh U.S. anti-crime policies. In their view Canada is already a country of low crime and murder rates, due in part to a hefty dose of gun control.

In fact, neither assumption is on the mark. A look at Canada, in the context of international crime statistics and the factors behind them, yields some myth-busting results. More guns, for instance, don’t always equate to higher murder rates. Nor are the streets necessarily safer with more police on the street and more bad guys in jail. Comparing international crime rates is a dicey proposition. Definitions of crimes vary and the statistics are often incomplete, sometimes deliberately so. Does Canada really lock up as many prisoners per capita as China? Not when you count those China holds off the books in administrative detention. It’s safest to focus on homicide, the ultimate crime, and, as Statistics Canada noted in a study last October, “the only criminal offence that is truly comparable among nations.”

In that study, Homicide in Canada, 2007, StatsCan looked at Canada’s murder rate among 15 countries. In that limited sample, Canada was decidedly middle of the pack. Its rate of 1.8 murders per 100,000 people was slightly lower than New Zealand, and slightly worse than Northern Ireland, which has mercifully shed its bloody reputation with the fading of the sectarian Troubles. Still, Canada’s murder rate is about twice that of Denmark, almost three-times higher than Japan, and five-times that of Hong Kong. At the other end of the spectrum, the Canadian rate is less than one-third that of the Turkey and the United States, which have, respectively, the first and second highest murder rates among the 15 nations. In another comparison of 62 countries compiled by the website, Canada sits a comfy 42nd on the list, right below Australia. Even the U.S., Canada’s perpetual touchstone, is a relatively safe 24. The top five, in ascending order of murders per 100,000 people are Russia with 20, Venezuela, 32, Jamaica, 32, South Africa, 50, and Colombia, 62. A more apt comparison for Canada is the European Union, which just released a crime comparison among 39 European jurisdictions. Here, Canada isn’t quite the peaceful kingdom many imagine. England, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Austria are among some 25 countries with lower murder rates than Canada. Canadians are slightly less likely to be murdered than Scots or Finns, and they’re much safer than citizens of Lithuania and Estonia, who live (or die) with a higher murder rate than the U.S.

What factors determine murder rates aren’t always clear or consistent, says criminologist Gary Mauser, a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University and a member of the federal firearms advisory committee. Most countries take their crime control strategies to varying degrees from all points on the political spectrum. Imprisonment, rehabilitation, prevention, policing and education all play a role. “It’s a mixture of carrot and stick if you wish and the balance and mix is the devil in the machine,” says Mauser. “How do you get that right? That’s hard.” Then there are the intangibles, things like age, economics, and the social mix. “I think demographics and social changes are the most powerful factors here, but we don’t understand what they are or how to measure them, so that’s not a very helpful explanation,” says Mauser.

Among the factors determining murder rates, levels of gun ownership is among the most overstated and least reliable, in Mauser’s view. “There is no empirical support for the claim that gun ownership is related to violence rates,” he says. Certainly Canada is not the gun-free zone you might think. It has the 13th highest civilian gun ownership in the world, according to the Small Arms Survey by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. Canadians have more firepower—31 guns for every 100 civilians—than South Africa (13 per 100) Jamaica (8 per 100) or Columbia (six per 100), where murder rates surpass Canada by as much as 20-times or more. Americans are among the best-armed civilians on earth with some 89 firearms per 100 people. Their availability makes them the weapon of choice in 68 per cent of American homicides, and yet even in the U.S. murder rates have been falling. The pro-gun lobby in the U.S. credits this decline with the sharp increase in states allowing defensive concealed weapons permits, although there are no studies to back that claim. In Canada, guns and knives each account for one-third of homicides. Others victims die of beatings, strangulation, suffocation, even rampaging vehicles. “If you really want to kill someone there are lots of alternatives at hand,” says Mauser.

The war on drugs and calls for ever tougher sentences are always political winners, but if such rhetoric translated into results, the U.S. should be the safest place on earth. It isn’t close, though it has the world’s largest prison population—2.3 million inmates, 750 for every 100,000 people. Canada’s per-capita prison population is almost six-times lower, though the hard-core federal prison population has jumped 18 per cent in a decade. Canada, in turn, has almost twice the level of prisoners as Norway, which has almost one-third our murder rate.

We have fewer police per capita than about 80 per cent of the world, yet a murder rate lower than Scotland. The 65,000 active officers today are up eight-per-cent from 10 years ago, with a 43 per cent hike in spending, to $10.5 billion in 2007, about $320 per Canadian.

What priorities are the best investment remain an unsolved mystery, according to a paper on crime and imprisonment by Michael Tonry, a leading American authority on international crime policy, and his coauthor Joan Petersilia. “Rising crime rates may affect imprisonment rates, or rising imprisonment may affect crime rates, or both may be caused by something else,” they wrote, effectively throwing up their hands. “The world keeps changing and it is often impossible to know why things happen when they do.” But strip away the dire pronouncements and the false nostalgia for innocent times, and the news is good. Canada is among the world’s safest countries, and it’s getting safer. Canada’s overall crime rate hit 30-year lows in 2007, the most current numbers available. The murder rate dropped 40 per cent from its peak in 1975, and violent crime is at its lowest point in 20 years. The higher U.S. rates have fallen in tandem over the same period using its tougher approach: more police, more prisoners, longer sentences and the death penalty in many states. U.S. gun crimes are at levels last seen in 1988. Violent crime fell 18 per cent and murders 11 per cent between 1998 and 2007. Much of Europe, with incarceration rates lower or equal to Canada, saw crime in general, and murder in particular, fall steadily since 2002. Same story in Australia: murder down 38 per cent since 2000. Perhaps by accident or design, each country has chosen an approach best suited to its needs “The crime rate in Canada is certainly a reasonable one by both European, North American or English commonwealth standards,” says Mauser. “If the U.S. is a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away approach, we’re a pat-’em-on-the-head-and-let-them-out approach. Both seem to be reasonable in protecting the public. We’ve got a lot to be self-congratulatory about, but we can also improve.”

In an event, the world—the developed world—is a safer place. Perhaps the greatest of many unanswered questions is this: why then are we so afraid?

Guns per 100 civilians

United States    88.8
Switzerland    45.7
France    31.2
Canada    30.8
Germany    30.3
England & Wales    6.2

Prisoners per 100,000 population

United States    760
Russia    628
England & Wales    151
Canada    116
France    96
Germany    88
Norway    70

Sources: Weapons (2007): Averaged rate of civilian ownership from the Graduate Institute of International Studies’ Small Arms Survey; Prisoners per 100,000 population (2007): International Center for Prison Studies

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.