This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 24, 2008. Partner content is not updated.The call from Victoria police dispatch comes about 11 p.m.: woman with a weapon threatening staff at Gorge Road Hospital. Acting Sgt. Peter Lane responds along with a second police vehicle, roof lights ablaze. Dispatch provides further details; Lane heaves a sigh and eases off the accelerator.
Canada's Most Dangerous Cities
The call from Victoria police dispatch comes about 11 p.m.: woman with a weapon threatening staff at Gorge Road Hospital. Acting Sgt. Peter Lane responds along with a second police vehicle, roof lights ablaze. Dispatch provides further details; Lane heaves a sigh and eases off the accelerator. "I almost hate to have you see this one," he tells a Maclean's reporter and photographer riding in his patrol supervisor's SUV. The woman is 78, in a dementia ward. She has been disarmed of her weapon: a pair of scissors. Sleepy old Victoria, he says, "it's such a stereotype." And so untrue, as the night would reveal.
Surprises emerged when Maclean's went searching for Canada's safest, and most dangerous communities. Toronto and Montreal, obvious crime-ridden candidates with their well-publicized racial tensions and gun and gang violence, rank well down a danger list of the 100 largest cities or regions in the country - those of 50,000 people or more. Montreal ranks 19th on Maclean's crime list and Toronto the Good (some stereotypes are true) is a sleepy 26th, gruesome headlines notwithstanding. The most notable result is the geographic distribution of Canadian crime. Halifax is the only eastern city in the top 10. The top nine - the Wild West - stretch from Winnipeg to Victoria.
The rankings are based on 2006 per capita crime rates, the most recent available from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Maclean's created a ranking based on aggregate results of six personal and property crimes: murder, sexual assault, aggravated assault (the most serious kind), robbery, breaking and entering, and auto theft. These are similar to the crimes measured and the criteria used by Congressional Quarterly Press for its annual "Crime In Metropolitan America" report. Detroit, followed by St. Louis, Mo., has the highest overall crime of major U.S. cities. Detroit's 2006 murder rate - 47.3 per 100,000 - is 10 times higher than Edmonton, which had the highest rate that year among major Canadian cities.
Canadians, though, can't be smug. We fare no better than the U.S. in other areas. The break and enter rates in Chilliwack, B.C., Victoria and Regina, for instance, rank within the top 10 per cent of all American cities. The per capita robbery rates in Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Regina would put them among the top 10 robbery-plagued metropolitan areas of the U.S. And you are far more likely to have your automobile stolen in Winnipeg or Joliette, Que., than anywhere in the U.S., including metropolitan Detroit and Las Vegas, the auto theft capitals of America. Even at that, a crime analysis this January by the Vancouver Board of Trade concludes official rates are misleadingly low: "only about one-third of actual crimes in Canada are reported to police." The board helped pressure Statistics Canada to consider an annual crime victimization survey. The last such measure estimated in 2004 there were more than eight million criminal offences - 2.7 million of them violent - three times the number reported to police.
The top 10 high-crime cities in the Maclean's list are led by Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg in a near tie at between 146.3 and 144.6 per cent above the national average. Those are followed by Prince George, Edmonton, New Westminster, Chilliwack, Victoria, Vancouver and Halifax. The reasons a city makes the top 10 list vary. Winnipeg leads in auto theft at more than 334 per cent above the national average. Robberies plagued Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Regina, all at more than 200 per cent above average. Residents of Chilliwack, Victoria and Regina endured break-ins at rates more than 100 per cent above average. Regina and Saskatoon led in aggravated assault; Saskatoon in sexual assault. (Arthabaska, Que., which sits halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, was Canada's murder city, 2006, but ranked 21st in the overall rankings.)
For all that, these are hardly cities under siege. The worst of the crime is often visited upon the most vulnerable, those in the poorest postal codes. These are gathering places for the addicted, the psychiatrically disabled, and those who prey upon them. Canadians live with the consequences of releasing mentally ill people from institutions, says Allan Castle, in charge of crime analysis for the RCMP's Pacific region. "Like a lot of rights-based reasoning, it sometimes doesn't work in the interests of those whose rights are being protected," he says. "You have pockets of real disadvantage in some of these communities. Obviously [Vancouver's] Downtown Eastside is one, but there are demographic and geographic pockets in Regina, Winnipeg and Saskatoon, and other cities where there is a lot of social dysfunction, a lot of poverty, a lot of social inequity. Crime comes to those areas, always."
Certainly affluence helps shape Canada's statistically safest place, Caledon, Ont., a scenic, semi-rural suburb northwest of Toronto. It is, at least by the most recent numbers, a larger, real-life equivalent to such fictional television inventions as America's Mayberry, or Dog River, Sask., of Corner Gas fame - an idyllic world of carefree kids and unlocked doors, or more likely, of very good security systems. Caledon's policing district of almost 71,000 residents comes by its reputation honestly (naturally), with no murders or aggravated assaults in 2006. Caledon has the third-lowest level of robbery among the 100 areas and the lowest rates of break and enter, sexual assault and auto theft, combining for an overall crime rate of 107 per cent below the national average.
Next on the safe list is the region of Maskoutains, including the agricultural hub of St-Hyacinthe, in southern Quebec, with a crime rate almost 90 per cent below average, followed by Nottawasaga, Ont. Larger communities, like the sprawling suburban outskirts of Toronto, can also be safe havens: Halton Region, pop. 456,560, is fourth on the list, at 76.6 per cent below the national crime average, and York Region, pop. 947,096, ranks eighth.
The district of North Vancouver, across Burrard Inlet from the higher crime rates of Vancouver's downtown and east side, has Canada's sixth-lowest criminal activity. It, and the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert, in ninth place, are the only centres west of Ontario among Canada's top 10 low-crime communities. This begs a vexing question: what's wrong with the West?
Again, the issues and demographics vary from city to city, but POVERTY and marginalization, both by race and neighbourhood, are often part of the mix. The top three high-crime communities also have proportionately the largest urban Aboriginal populations of any Canadian cities. Nine per cent of the populations of both Regina and Saskatoon are Aboriginal, as is 10 per cent, more than 68,000, of Winnipeg's population - most of them concentrated in the inner city. "The size of local Aboriginal populations is a big part of the picture," says University of Ottawa criminologist Ronald Melchers, whose recent research includes a study of policing in northern Saskatchewan. The Aboriginal population, which reached 1.2 million in 2006, is dramatically younger. Its median age is 27, compared to 40 for the Canadian population as a whole. Younger people commit substantially more crimes, regardless of race, says Melchers. The lack of strong Aboriginal cultural and family roots in urban centres make the young especially vulnerable to the allure of gangs, he says. "They head up a whole series of factors of risk: no single-family housing, poor parental guardianship, substance abuse issues, alcohol issues, histories of family violence." Melchers says. "When you sum it all up, the tragedy has a huge impact." (See NATIVE PEOPLE, SOCIAL CONDITIONS.)
The gross overrepresentation of Aboriginals in custody is both an indicator of the problem and part of the reason it is perpetuated. In Saskatchewan, Aboriginal youth represent 75 to 90 per cent of all youth in open and closed custody, estimates a 2003 report by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). Often, they are both victimizer and victim. Nationally, Aboriginal people are three times more likely than non-Aboriginals to be assaulted, sexually assaulted or robbed. They are seven times more likely to be victims of homicide - and 10 times more likely to be charged with homicide. The FSIN report says Aboriginal people accounted for 55 per cent of Saskatchewan's homicide victims and 60 per cent of those accused of homicide between 1994 and 2000. There is little reason to believe that has improved.
In Winnipeg, as elsewhere, gang life is hardly limited to Aboriginal groups. The Hells Angels, a model of organization, pull the strings of more chaotic street gangs of every sort. Disaffected immigrants and refugees, scarred by the violent anarchy of places like Somalia and Ethiopia, form the nucleus of ultra-violent gangs like the Mad Cowz and the African Nation. "Sometimes people focus on the Aboriginal gangs," says Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill, "but it's everything, it really is."
It's easy to paint a lurid picture in Canada's major cities of crime rampaging out of control. In fact, Canada's overall national crime rate hit its lowest point in over 25 years in 2006, led by a drop in property crimes in all provinces. Still, the violent crime rate, which climbed from the 1960s through the end of the last century, was unchanged. Headline-grabbing gun crimes, perhaps the biggest driver of public fear, were stable in 2006 for the fourth straight year. Almost 2,000 people in the Toronto area were victims of gun crime, one-quarter of the national total. Proportionately, however, Vancouver and Winnipeg had higher rates of gun victims, and Edmonton, followed by Abbotsford, B.C., had the highest rate of gun homicides.
The crime issue almost sent Canadians to the polls recently. The federal Conservatives had promised to trigger an election if their Tackling Violent Crime Act wasn't passed by March 1. It passed just under the wire, imposing mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes, toughening bail restrictions, and cracking down on some repeat offenders, among other things. Though Melchers says most criminologists see removing judicial discretion in sentencing as "counterproductive," he concedes the Tories accurately read the public mood. "Crime makes political hay," he says. "I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of that issue."
Last month's federal budget committed $400 million to recruit 2,500 new police officers across the country, a welcome assist to overtaxed departments. In B.C. and Alberta, for instance, a vibrant economy compounded by lofty house prices has left cities desperate for officers. Victoria's interim police chief Bill Naughton ended an interview by pleading, only half in jest, for Maclean's to publish the number of the department's recruiting office. The 222-person force is overwhelmed by a growing workload, and by court rulings that have exponentially increased the time and complexity of moving a case to trial.
Victoria's crime rate stems in part from its role as the hub for government, tourism, entertainment and social services, says Naughton. "We triple our population during the day and, come the evening, by those coming into the entertainment district. About half the people we arrest aren't citizens of Victoria." Add to this the mild weather, which draws the homeless and fair-weather criminals from across the country, and the West Coast's "narco-centric universe," and you have the roots of much of the city's high rates of break and enters and robbery, he says. "We have over 1,200 chronic IV drug users, with probably 90 per cent of them within five to seven blocks of where we are," he says during an interview at downtown headquarters. "I think the image of Victoria the Good has long slipped into history."
A night on patrol with Lane proves Naughton's point. Although it's slow by the standards of a Thursday, with neither a gun call nor a stabbing as the night before, it is, as the chief had predicted, a different city after 11 p.m. Street-level dealers scuttle into the shadows as Lane cruises by. A tearful woman at a homeless shelter describes an assault. He attends the Salvation Army hostel to back up two members of the emergency response team there to pick up a man who breached probation for drug trafficking and a string of local break and enters. He doesn't know they're coming, and such an arrest can go either way. This guy proves remarkably passive, considering he faces 18 more months of federal prison time. His downfall was a urine drug test taken four days ago, one he knew he'd fail. He shrugs at the inevitability of it, offering up his hands for the cuffs. "Just a little bit of weed," he says, "a bit of coke."
An impressive run of street fights marks the hours before closing time at several downtown watering holes. Tempers fray, shirts are ripped, blood is spilt, pepper is sprayed. After Lane helps sort out one brawl, a smitten young woman totters up in her heels. "Can I have your number?" she coos. "Yes," says Lane, "911." A bloodied, belligerent few are cuffed and hauled to the cells to sober up. Most see the wisdom of the alternative: shut up, cool off, go home, save everybody a lot of paperwork. Besides, says Lane, looking at the bloody clothes of one still-thirsty combatant, "I don't think you'll pick up any ladies with a shirt like that."
As for the old woman and her scissors, that's another case to be handled off the books. Lane left her in the hospital cafeteria pouring out her life story to the responding constable, a man of much patience. "She's already in a hospital," says Lane. "If they can't handle her, what am I supposed to do, throw her in jail?" Like the chief said, crime stats don't tell the whole story.
Maclean's March 24, 2008