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Toronto, which has seen multiple gun homicides in recent weeks, is set to begin a pilot project modelled after a successful northern Saskatchewan strategy which targets youth in crisis before they become criminals. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto, which has seen multiple gun homicides in recent weeks, is set to begin a pilot project modelled after a successful northern Saskatchewan strategy which targets youth in crisis before they become criminals. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)

Firearms slayings drop to lowest level in half a century, Statscan says, but more knives being used Add to ...

On a rural road in the Beauce region of Quebec, Stéphane Doyon was driving his family in March, 2011, when he intentionally pointed his van at an oncoming truck, killing himself, his wife and two of their children.

That same spring, in an Edmonton back alley, police found the body of 25-year-old Ahmed Ismail-Sheikh after he had been beaten to death by an acquaintance.

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In the fall in Winnipeg, 15-year-old Clark Stevenson, who once boasted of having gang ties, was biking with a friend when he was fatally stabbed in a fight with another group of males.

The three tragic events were among the 598 homicides recorded in Canada in 2011, bumping up the national homicide rate by 7 per cent just a year after it had hit its lowest level in four decades. In releasing the figure Tuesday in its annual survey of homicides, Statistics Canada noted that the latest fluctuation is within a broader trend that has seen the rate remain stable in the past decade.

It also fits longer-term patterns: Homicide often involves men and young people; victims are usually killed by someone they know; and firearms, especially long guns, are less and less used to kill people.

Lowest rate of firearm homicides since 1966

The rate of firearm homicides for 2011 was 0.46 per 100,000 population, the lowest since 1966. Rifles and shotguns, which used to be the cause of two-thirds of firearm killings in the 1980s, are now only blamed for one-fifth of the slayings in that category. In the past decade, 65 to 70 per cent of firearm homicides involved handguns.

Much like the overall homicide rate, homicide by guns has been generally dropping since the mid-1970s. Firearms were involved in the slayings of 158 people in 2011, 13 fewer than the previous year. Virtually all the increase in homicides in 2011 was attributed to a 39-incident increase in fatal stabbings.

Rémi Boivin, a criminology professor at the University of Montreal, cautioned against drawing conclusions from any one-year shift in homicide data. On the one hand, homicide numbers are considered a good indicator of criminality. While not every fistfight or theft is reported, killings almost invariably get investigated by police, Prof. Boivin said. But the drawback, he said, is that the number of homicides in Canada is small, so a variation of a few cases will generate a big rate change.

The homicide rate in 2011 rose to 1.73 per 100,000 population. Despite the increase, Statscan analyst Samuel Perreault said the national homicide rate has been within the same bracket for the past decade, between 1.60 and 2.00.

While Canada has the lowest homicide rate in the hemisphere (the U.S. figure is three times higher), he noted that some countries have significantly lower rates. France’s homicide rate is usually half Canada’s, and the rates for Japan and Scandinavian countries are usually under 0.50, Mr. Perreault said.

Regional differences

The 2011 increase came mainly because there were 32 additional killings in Alberta and 21 more in Quebec. Nearly half of Alberta’s increase occurred in the Edmonton area, with almost a doubling of homicides committed by a friend or acquaintance. Quebec’s jump was attributed to an increase in non-spousal, family-related homicides, such as the high-profile case of Mr. Doyon.

In Ontario, there were 28 fewer killings, pushing its homicide rate to 1.20, its lowest since 1966. In contrast, Manitoba, with a 4.24 rate, had for the fifth year in a row the highest homicide rate among provinces. Manitoba also has a 0.96 rate of gang-related slayings, the highest provincial rate for that category and nearly 3.5 times the national rate of 0.28.

Among census metropolitan areas, Winnipeg had the highest homicide rate, 5.08, an 80-per-cent jump from the previous year. The mayhem in Winnipeg was illustrated in the fall of 2011 when the teenaged Clark Stevenson was stabbed on Sept. 15. He had boasted online about being a member of a local street gang. A 14-year-old and an 18-year-old were charged in his death.

Methodology

The figures used by Statistics Canada are based on police-reported data and include not just murders but also manslaughter cases and infanticides, a separate criminal offence for women who cause the death of their newborns.

Also, figures for urban areas are defined by census metropolitan areas, which don’t necessarily match the jurisdiction of a local police force.

Friends, strangers and acquaintances

As noted in past years, homicides were mostly a male affair, between people who knew each other. Men made up 70 per cent of homicide victims and 90 per cent of people accused of homicides.

Only 15 per cent of victims were killed by a stranger, while 33 per cent were the victim of a relative and 45 per cent of a friend or acquaintance. Mr. Perreault said the 2011 rate of homicides by stranger is the lowest in 40 years.

Rates of homicides involving intimate partners remained stable. Of the 89 victims in that category, 76 were women and 13 men.

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