First, the good news. For the second year in a row, Caledon, Ont., 40 km northwest of Toronto and a world away, ranks as the safest city in Maclean’s annual crime ranking of Canada’s 100 largest cities. Its crime score is 87 per cent below the national average. If not for a single murder, it would put even more distance between itself and its nearest rivals, Oromocto, N.B., a scenic, riverfront community near Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, and Lévis, Que., a prosperous civil service enclave across the St. Lawrence from Quebec City.
Quebec’s capital, incidentally, is another safe haven. Its crime score for the six offences tracked in the Maclean’s index (murder, robbery, aggravated assault, sexual assault, breaking and entering, and auto theft) ranked 40 per cent below the national average in 2007, the last year for which Statistics Canada data are available. Even more impressive for a city of 535,000, it recorded not a single homicide that year—by far the largest of 34 cities that were murder-free.
Canada’s two largest cities, Toronto and Montreal, also fared well. While news headlines leave the impression streets run with blood, the worst of the crime is committed within a few high-risk areas. Maclean’s ranked Toronto’s crime score a respectable 29th of 100 cities, improving from 26th last year. Montreal improved to 24th from 19th.
As for the blot on Caledon’s record, it warrants an asterisk. “That particular homicide was not committed in the Caledon area,” says Greg Sweeney, Ontario Provincial Police detachment commander for the region of 74,000. “The victim was brought back and left here. Within six weeks we had it solved and people before the courts.” Caledon isn’t free of big city problems, says Sweeney, “but the frequency of it is low.” It helps that Caledon is a semi-rural oasis, with a stable and prosperous population.
Life isn’t so sweet at the other end of the spectrum. Saskatoon has the highest crime ranking in the Maclean’s survey, 163 per cent above the national average. Winnipeg ranks second with a crime score 153 per cent above average while Regina finishes third at 136 per cent. The same cities were in a virtual three-way tie last year for the worst crime score.
The three cities share several things in common: much of the crime is rooted in poor, inner-city cores and targets its most vulnerable citizens. There is a large gang presence feeding off the drug trade and other illegal activities. Those areas also house a young transient population, with a low level of education, substandard housing and high levels of unemployment, broken homes, addictions and psychiatric issues—all risk factors for crime. They have proportionately the highest urban Aboriginal populations among major cities, about 10 per cent. This is a predominately young population, burdened with risk factors. “They are 10 times more likely to be victims and suspects,” says Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University. “It’s basically a very tragic reality.”
The West continues to have chronically high crime levels. Of the top 10 crime centres, only Halifax (No. 7) is east of Winnipeg. The others in the top 10 include Edmonton (No. 5) and the B.C. cities of Prince George, Chilliwack, Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.
While crime rates vary from year to year, comparing the results with data from 2002 and 1997 shows that specific crimes plague certain cities. Port Coquitlam, B.C., was Canada’s murder capital in 2002, and again in 2007. It also made the worst jump in the overall crime score, rising to 11th place from 34th in 2006. Saint John, N.B., led in sexual assaults in 2007. It was also in the top 10 both five and 10 years back, as were Prince George and Saskatoon. Auto thefts are chronic in several cities, notably Winnipeg and Surrey. Five cities—Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Vancouver, New Westminster and Montreal—were top 10 robbery capitals in all three surveys.
Few crimes afflict more Canadians than breaking and entering, and no region is more beset than the West. Chilliwack, Regina, Prince George and Vancouver consistently figure in the top 10. In 2007, the 16 cities with the highest break-and-enter rates are all from Winnipeg or further west. More remarkably, 13 of those 16 cities are in B.C.
The western crime wave defies easy explanation. Calgary alderman and police board member Diane Colley-Urquhart says many criminals followed the wealth to Alberta and further west. “Along with the economic prosperity that the western provinces have enjoyed comes the underbelly of organized crime.” Adds Boyd: “We have resource towns of young men. That’s part of the portrait as well.”
Drugs drive crime, especially in a port city like Vancouver, he says. And feeding drug habits is the key cause of B.C. property theft. Vancouver police are monitoring 379 chronic criminals with an average of 39 convictions each. Perversely, the jail time given the worst of these drops as their number of convictions rise, a study by the department found. A frustrated police Chief Jim Chu wants Parliament to pass a version of the get-tough American law that puts chronic offenders away after three offences. His uniquely B.C. take would be “30 strikes and you’re out,” he says. “We were actually willing to be 10 times more lenient.”
With Patricia Treble
Thursday, March 5, 2009