Of the largest 100 cities or regions in Canada, the 10 safest are in Quebec and Ontario, Canada’s two most populous provinces. The Ontario city with the highest crime score is Belleville, population 51,000 and ranked 15th worst (cities in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba flesh out all the positions above it). The first Quebec city to show up is Montreal, ranked 24th, despite the fact it’s the third biggest city in Canada. Toronto is a sleepy 57th, while Peel, York and Halton regions—Toronto’s populous, sprawling suburban ring—have among the lowest crime scores in the country. So what gives?
Criminologists are divided on the question of why Central Canada sees the least amount of crime—and in particular violent crime—and why police-reported crime rates climb as you head west. One popular theory focuses on where crimes are more likely to be reported—for example, that western Canadians “have a tendency to be more law-and-order, and so therefore report more crimes,” as Mount Royal University criminologist Doug King puts it.
King, based in Calgary, doesn’t actually buy into that theory—he thinks the West’s demographics and tightly packed but isolated cities can tell the whole story. But Irvin Waller, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa, points out that reporting levels in Ontario and Quebec have been dropping for years. According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics figures for 2004, the most recent published data available, just 30 per cent of all victimization incidents get reported to police in Ontario, the lowest in Canada (Waller says victims of sexual assault are the least likely to contact police). And most victims who report crimes do so not because they think police can help, but as part of an insurance claim.
So maybe Ontario isn’t all that safe after all. Quebec, however, has the highest reporting in Canada, at 40 per cent. Waller speculates the difference has much to do with the victim services programs available in Quebec and largely absent in Ontario, where, he says, compensation amounts are smaller, there are fewer applicants, and “we have a bill of rights for victims that is worth absolutely nothing.” For example, Ontario’s Victims’ Bill of Rights stipulates that female sexual assault victims can choose to see female officers, but the province does little to ensure this happens, and the proportion of female officers remains low compared to Quebec—where, for example, 30 per cent of Montreal’s force is female (only 17 per cent of Toronto police officers are women). In 2007, Ontario ombudsman André Marin blasted the compensation system, saying that it hurt the very people it was designed to help. “So basically victims in Ontario in my view are rightly not going to the police,” Waller says.
Ontario’s low reporting rate also has much to do with the large numbers of new Canadians who have arrived from countries, like Jamaica, where police carry a reputation for corruption and abuse. That may be why York, Peel and Halton suburbs, part of the 905 donut surrounding Toronto and with a reputation for youth crime, come in so low on the crime-score totem pole—indeed, York and Halton land in the bottom 10.
Yet even if Ontarians reported more crime, that wouldn’t erase the gap between Central Canada and the West. Why? Tanya Trussler, a sociologist at Mount Royal University, says that Quebec and Ontario are more broadly middle class than the West, where a wider income gap helps fuel crime. Still, if experts believe Ontario only seems safer, its eastern neighbour actually boasts many of the safest communities in Canada. It has an older, more law-abiding citizenry, and receives fewer migrants than, say, Alberta, which contributes to a more commonly held view of what’s socially acceptable.
Trussler also notes Quebec’s focus on social programs. “If you recognize poverty as something that creates criminal behaviour, that would make sense for explaining why Quebec is lower than Alberta,” she says. “Alberta is very much oriented around punishment rather than prevention.” Margaret Shaw, of the Montreal-based International Centre for the Prevention of Crime, says Quebec has long embraced diversion programs that keep youth out of the criminal justice system and instead “got them into the community, into mediation, into centres where they can stay and work, and work on their issues. Quebec takes more of a social democratic approach to offending.”
METHODOLOGY: Maclean’s obtained annual crime data from Statistics Canada for municipal police services serving the nation’s 100 largest populations, each encompassing a city or town of at least 10,000 people. Using 2009 rates per 100,000 people for six crimes—homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault, vehicle theft, robbery plus breaking and entering—in each area, Maclean’s calculated the percentage difference from the national rate. The overall crime score ranking for the 100 communities was created in consultation with StatsCan, using its Crime Severity Index (CSI) score and calculating the percentage difference from the national CSI score.