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

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The lowdown on crime in Canada

  1. It is great to see a balanced, objective look on crime and its relationship to guns and law enforcement. Much too often articles on this subject are nothing more than propaganda and emotional appeals for a person's pet cause (be it anti-gun, "get tough on crime", or something else entrely). This was very refreshing.

  2. The tool used in self defense does not matter, really. The ability to engage in lawful self defense against violent attack by criminals is what matters.

    In England, violent crime has increased steadily as previously lawful acts of self defense have been rendered prosecutable.

    Oh, Canada, do not follow England into that dark illogic where victims of criminal acts cannot defend themselves!

  3. I also note that the incarceration of criminals is discussed. While it seems complicated to some, removing violent criminals from the public results in their inability to commit crime for as long as they are incarcerated. Remove them for long periods and early in their criminal careers and the crime rate drops. Of course, incarceration rates increase when this is done.

    Sorry, it really is that simple.

    • By that logic, locking them up and throwing away the key on first offense would solve crime, correct? Except the problem is.. we can't do that. Sooner or later they either have to come out, or we have to pay for them their whole lives. Neither is an acceptable option.

      Ideally, we want to concentrate on rehabilitation so that, where possible (and I realize in some cases it may not be) the person rejoins society as a productive member rather than a drain. Longer sentences alone does nothing to encourage this.

      • Rehabilitation does not work..Just watch any prison documentary on what happens in prison..A place being so horrible you never want to go back is what changes people.So in that regard ‘yes’ some get rehabilitated.

  4. Perhaps the greatest of many unanswered questions is this: why then are we so afraid?

    Maybe one of these days, one you "journalists" can tackle that. You've been telling us to be afraid for so long, you might have some idea about that.

    • You’re confusing journalists with the NRA, Conservative government, etc.

  5. "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." This is a deceptive statement. I encourage people to actually read the report you draw loosely from:

    Canada is not in the "middle of the pack"; rather, we are on the low end of "normal" compared to 14 other industrialized countries. What's the difference between averaging 1.5 and 1.88 homicides per 100,000 people? Several places on the league table — but not much in practical terms.

    The outliers in this study are those with high homicide rates (we have fewer than 2 per 100,000; the US and Turkey have 5 or 6). The differences between Canada and other low-homicide countries are trivial in comparison to our differences with the high-killing countries.

    • Canada is sitting in the middle. Far lower than Turkey and the U.S., but significantly higher than places like Japan and Hong Kong.

  6. As one who has been collecting crime statistics for over 40 years, I can assure you that such statistics are probably the very worst way to compare crime rates. If every jurisdiction reported all the crimes reported to the police you would have a workable system. But England does not count homicides until after conviction and all appeals. Some American cities have reported only one crime in ten. Some countries report a smaller percentage than that – and some report as much as 9 of 10 reported homicides. And so on and so on.

    So what's the truth? There are 22,309 restrictive gun laws currently in force. None of these have ever reduced crime. Sorted by severity and level of enforcement, they group nicely, with the harshest laws and strictest enforcement resulting in the sharpest post law crime increase. On the other hand there are 309 laws that require, permit, or allow citizens to own or carry a gun. Of those, not even one has failed to reduce crime.

    As any statistician will tell you, that's not proof of anything. But the odds of that happening by chance are at least 3.12 times 10 raised to the 132nd power. That may not be proof, but it is very suggestive. And even more suggestive is a quick look at the actual crime rates on the two sides of the Canadian and US border. The side with the most relaxed laws has the lowest actual crime rate.

    Pete Allen

    • Precisely. High crime areas likely have crime rates many times the reported rate. How many armed robberies in American ghettos get reported to the police? Probably fewer than 1%, given that the majority of stick-up artists and muggers focus on robbing drug dealers because they're the ones walking around with large quantities of cash. Low crime areas might have somewhat more accurate statistics, as their reporting rate is higher, but even there, differing reporting mechanisms can mean large discrepancies.

  7. Nice objective article.

    However I should point out that the gun ownership stats are based murder, with little discussion on things like home invasion, felony rape, etc.

    That is where the anti-gun argument falls flat on it's face.

    UN statistics has Canada creeping up the scale of these type of crimes, when the Coalition on gun control works even harder to disarm the law abiding citizens.

    Why won't they understand that there is a cause & effect, to the level of crime with the fact that citizens are unable to defend themselves against violent criminals

    • "But England does not count homicides until after conviction and all appeals."

      Where did you get this from? Anyway, you are wrong. UK Home Office "A homicide case is generally presented in the official statistics against the year in which the police recorded it. This is not always of course the year in which the offence took place, the year in which the accused is brought to trial, or the year in which a person is finally found guilty"

      "The side with the most relaxed laws has the lowest actual crime rate."

      Ha ha and that squares with the following how? "Some American cities have reported only one crime in ten."

    • No proof of anything you’re saying. StatsCan uses police reports in its surveys, which show rates of violent crime, including assault and robbery, are significantly higher in the U.S. than in Canada.

  8. Macleans "criminologist Gary Mauser " Gun nut Gary is member of the Business Administration faculty and not the criminology department.

  9. "the harshest laws and strictest enforcement resulting in the sharpest post law crime increase."

    What utter dribble. Anyway, Bill 68 came into affect in 1998 and this is what suicide rate and homicide rates looked like before and after.

    The average suicide rate per year between 1970 and 1976 was 13.35, between 1977 and 1983 it was 14.5, between 1984 and 1990 it was 13.1, between 1991 and 1997 it was 13 and between 1998 to 2004 it was 12.

    The number of suicides by firearm in Canada dropped from a high of 1287 in 1978 to a low of 568 in 2004. There was an average of 1033 fire arm suicides per year between 1970 and 1976, 1197 between 1977 and 1983, 1084 between 1984 and 1990, 970 between 1991 and 1997 and 682 between 1998 and 2004.

    The rate of homicide in Canada peaked in 1975 at 3.03 per 100,000 and has dropped since then, reaching lower peaks in 1985 (2.72 per 100,000) and 1991 (2.69 per 100,000) while declining to 1.73 per 100,000 in 2003. The average murder rate between 1970 and 1976 was 2.52, between 1977 and 1983 it was 2.67, between 1984 and 1990 it was 2.41, between 1991 and 1997 it was 2.23 and between 1998 and 2004 it was 1.82.

  10. Here are the number of accidental shooting deaths for good measure.

    The number of accidental shooting deaths in Canada stood at 143 in 1971 and has generally declined since then; a low of 20 was reached in 2000. There was an average of 117 accidental shooting deaths per year between 1970 and 1976, 70 between 1977 and 1983, 62.3 between 1984 and 1990, 50.1 between 1991 and 1997 and 28.1 between 1998 and 2004.

  11. Perhaps what we should be looking at is the social policies of the countries with the lowest rates of murder rather than the justice systems. Denmark, for example, with half the murder rate we have would be a good place to start.

  12. Koby…..still trying to back up your arguement? How many sites do you try to do this on?


  13. The rate of gun ownership listed for Canada as 30.8/100 is incorrect. this number they present suggests that there are only 10.3 million firearms in Canada.

    A report tabled for the Solicitor General back in 1975 showed that based on manufacturer figures, imports/exports minus lost/destroyed/stolen (RCMP data) pegged the number at 18 million…in 1974. Fast track ahead to 2005, and continue the import/export records, along with manufacturer data, and RCMP data, and the number climbs to 25+ million.

    That is 75 guns per every 100 people.

    What is really interesting is that when you subtract the known number of registered firearms of 7+ million, you are left with approximately 18 million unregistered firearms out there. If we use the same "owner to gun" ratio present in the current system, that of about 3 guns to each owner, then we can figure about 6 million unlicensed owners possessing 18 million firearms.

    Thusly we can lead to two simple conclusions…unlicensed gun ownership does not lead to violence(or else the numbers of crimes and homicides would be much higher than we see today if we are to take the CGC view on gun ownership in general)…and that 7 out of 10 gun owners do not trust the government or it's intentions after viewing similar practises in other nations being used as the general model for private property confiscation.

    In any grade school 50% is a passing grade…30% compliance gives gun control a failing grade in anyone's books.