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JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The homicide rate in Canada has fallen to levels unseen in 45 years – a decline fuelled by a drop in Western Canada and a reduction in the number of offences committed with rifles and shotguns.

Even though the general crime rate has been falling for several years, proponents of the federal Conservatives' tough sentencing laws sometimes point out that it has yet to mirror that of the 1960s.

But figures released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday show a homicide rate in 2010 of 1.62 per 100,000 people, a level comparable to that achieved in 1966.

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"It's quite wonderful," said Rosemary Gartner, a criminologist at the University of Toronto.

Experts are at a loss to explain it, Dr. Gartner said. The aging baby boom generation, and the fact that older people commit less crime, account for only a small part of the decline, she said.

Ron Melchers, a criminology expert at the University of Ottawa, said there is undeniable evidence of a secular trend in all Western societies towards reduced violence and more peaceful management of conflicts.

Drop in homicides driven by the West

The drop in homicides was driven by fewer incidents in Western Canada, where the rates have traditionally been higher than in the East.

British Columbia had 35 fewer homicides in 2010 than in 2009, police in Alberta reported 18 fewer homicides, and the number in Manitoba's was down by 12.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan were the provinces with the highest homicide rates in Canada in 2010, although Thunder Bay had the unenviable distinction of topping the list of the country's cities for the second year in a row.

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The West's high crime is likely related to large impoverished areas in the big cities like Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg, said Michael Weinrath, a criminal justice expert at the University of Winnipeg.

Killings with long guns are way down

Police reported 170 homicides committed with a firearm in 2010 – down 10 from the year before. The trend has continued for more than three decades.

Much of the reduction can be attributed to a drop in homicides committed with long guns and rifles. But the federal long-gun registry can't take much credit, because the downward trajectory in homicides began long before it was created.

Dr. Melchers instead points to the shift in population from rural to urban areas, as well as 1977 legislation that brought in new rules around firearms acquisition and the safe storage of guns and ammunition.

Gang-related homicides drop two years in a row

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Gang-related homicides, which reached a record high of 138 in 2008, fell for the second year in a row in 2010. Across Canada, 94 killings were attributed to gang activity.

However, Statistics Canada says that previously the overall trend of homicides committed by gangs had been increasing in all provinces except Quebec since 1991. Quebec hit its peak in 2000.

A drop that has occurred two years in a row "says something may be happening," said Dr. Weinrath. But he urged caution in assuming a trend is developing.

"Maybe some anti-gang initiatives are bearing fruit," he said, "but I am not aware of any large-scale successes that would explain that."

Spousal homicide did not fall last year

Eighty-nine people in Canada were killed by an intimate partner or spouse in 2010, one more than the year before. The number has remained fairly steady for a decade, says Statistics Canada.

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But Dr. Gartner said that in the long-term, the spousal homicide rate has been falling for both male and female victims. "So the fact that it didn't drop last year just means it didn't drop last year," she said. "But it's been going down."

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