For the first time, an index tracking the severity of crimes across Canada is painting a picture of just how safe this country's communities are.
Statistics Canada's new Crime Severity Index reports both the number of crimes nationwide, and the seriousness of those crimes. The results, released yesterday, reveal good news for residents of the country's safest cities, with Guelph, Ont., topping the list. But there is also bad news for people in Regina, whose crime severity rate was the highest, and Abbotsford-Mission, B.C., which saw the biggest jump in violent crime and is now the country's homicide capital.
Canadians in the north and west are more likely to face serious crimes where they live, with the Northwest Territories and Nunavut racking up a severity rate of more than double the highest provincial rate, in Saskatchewan.
But the overall picture for crime in Canada is encouraging, said Rosemary Gartner, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto. In a trend that has been continuing for five years, Canada's rate of police-reported crime fell in 2008. Both the traditional crime rate and the new severity rates have decreased by 5 per cent.
"Pretty much everything is down slightly from the previous year. These aren't huge drops, but it's important in the context of long-term decline," she said. Prof. Gartner said the general trend has been on the decline for more than 10 years, although crime rates have spiked for a year or two during that time.
In 2008, 77,000 fewer crimes were reported to police, and there were declines in such crimes as auto theft, break-ins and thefts under $5,000.
"These numbers challenge people's stereotypes," Prof. Gartner said. "For example, people assume Toronto is a more dangerous place, when in fact it's one of the safest cities in Canada."
The safest, according to the new numbers, is Guelph. Andrea Burger moved there from Toronto's east end about 10 years ago and says she immediately noticed how much smaller and quieter it was.
"We have a lot of retired couples, lots of families," Ms. Burger said. "But it's expanding. Don't get me wrong, we have our fair share of problems, too."
Ms. Burger, a daycare worker and mother of two, is in charge of the community volunteer patrol that acts as the eyes and ears of the Guelph police, helping with minor concerns such as clearing rowdy teens out of parks on weekend evenings.
Efforts like this help authorities focus on important incidents, said Sergeant Doug Pflug of the Guelph Police. He also says the community is quieter.
"One of my better buddies is a sergeant in Peel," he said. "A lot of his calls tend to be priority one, real emergencies. Those are big drains on resources."
But Canada's Minister of Justice, Rob Nicholson, says good news stories obscure the larger issue.
"Crime is unacceptably high in this country," he said. "We've got quite a few pieces of legislation before Parliament right now, bills that crack down on auto theft, bills that crack down on drugs, and these bills are updating the law."
But Prof. Gartner says that crime stand is not borne out by the numbers - even though the study relied only on crimes that were reported to police.
"I often hear, when these stats come out, that they aren't capturing all the crimes that go unreported," she said. "But none of the national victimization surveys indicate that people are less willing to report now than 10 years ago. The rates are down. It's a long-term trend."
Crime in the cities
The police-reported Crime Severity Index measures crime rates, giving greater weight to more serious offences.
Greater Sudbury: 73.6
St. Catharines-Niagara: 80.1
St. John's: 86.4
Saint John: 102.9
Thunder Bay: 107.3
* ONTARIO PORTION AND ** QUEBEC PORTION
THE GLOBE AND MAIL 66 SOURCE: STATSCAN