The truth about hate crimes in Canada

Many fret about intolerance in Canada, but hate crimes are getting less common

A furious game of speedball in a small-town Ontario gym class culminates in a fist fight between two high school students after one calls the other a “f–king Chinese.”

Was it a hate crime? While the incident involving a white and a Korean youth from Keswick, Ont., created a brief media sensation, and was closely investigated by the local police hate crime unit, charges were never laid for reasons that should seem obvious. Most Canadians have in their mind’s eye a definition of a hate crime that is serious, targeted, violent and abhorrent. It is not to be found in a commonplace schoolyard fight. In fact, hate crimes in Canada are exceedingly rare, and getting rarer.

A Statistics Canada/Juristat report released last week shows hate crimes to be in significant decline across Canada. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of hate crimes reported to police declined from 892 to 785. In per capita terms, that’s a 13 per cent decrease. This is the first time a year-over-year comparison has been possible.

The largest drops came in Toronto and Montreal. And all the major motivators for hate crimes showed declines: race, religion, sexual orientation and disability. Significantly, hate crimes directed toward religious groups exhibited the biggest drop; and those aimed at Muslims fell by more than a third.

The study also reveals that the vast majority of reported hate crimes were relatively minor. Half were considered mischief, such as graffiti or vandalism. About 70 per cent were non-violent. One-third were committed by (predominately male) youths aged 12 to 17. The most worrisome form of hate crime—that involving serious violence—has always been remarkably uncommon. Since 1991 there’s been an average of just one murder per year attributable to hate, a figure that straddles Canada’s 1996 legislation aimed at cracking down on such attacks.

We might expect hate crime statistics to bear some relationship to the amount of resources allocated to their investigation, for the same reason speeding statistics often rise when the police spend more time looking for speeders. But despite the extra attention given to hate crime units, the numbers are falling, not rising.

The fact that police properly avoided hate crime charges in the case of the Keswick high school fight seems a positive sign for those who fretted over 1996’s changes. It would be a misapplication of the justice system to draw the net for hate crimes so wide that it criminalizes a heated curse word between immature high school students.

Canada is certainly not immune to intolerance. As Maclean’s revealed in a recent cover story, many Canadians hold surprisingly narrow views regarding the religious beliefs of their fellow citizens. Nonetheless, Canada’s self-perception remains intact: that of a peaceable nation where serious hate crimes are an exceedingly unfamiliar sight

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