Skip to main content

Police officers block off the road at the scene of a police involved shooting in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on July 30.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In the middle of the night, a woman was doused in a flammable liquid and set on fire in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In broad daylight, bullets tore through a car, killing a woman and injuring her husband in a quiet Calgary suburb as they pulled out of their driveway.

Two locals were beaten to death with blunt objects outside businesses in Edmonton’s Chinatown. Outside a home in a Victoria neighbourhood, a man was stabbed in the chest after refusing a stranger cigarettes.

Violent and brazen incidents like these have led to widespread fear and anxiety in those four major cities across Alberta and British Columbia. Police forces and politicians have promised to devote more resources to public safety.

But criminology experts and police officials say that although concerns about deteriorating public safety are justified, the real extent of the problem is difficult to determine, and its causes may be more complex than they appear.

Violent crime has become a political issue in Vancouver ahead of the city’s municipal election in October, with Mayor Kennedy Stewart promising to assemble a team of 25 counsellors to address street disorder if he is re-elected. A report released this week by the B.C. government noted that the number of unprovoked attacks increased in the city by 35 per cent in 2021-22, compared to 2019-20 – an uptick it said was exacerbated by methamphetamine-induced psychosis.

Homeless community struggles to process shootings in Langley, B.C.

In Calgary and Edmonton, city leaders have bolstered law enforcement at transit stations after several high-profile assaults earlier this year.

Temitope Oriola, a criminology professor at the University of Alberta, said there are clear indicators across the country that violent crimes are becoming more frequent and more shocking. But he added that it’s important to recognize that such incidents are still rare in Canada.

Statistics Canada puts the country’s homicide rate in 2021 at 2.06 per 100,000 people. In comparison, Prof. Oriola said, the rate is between 5 and 6.1 in the United States. He said violent crimes make up less than 1 per cent of all crimes in Canada.

“Obviously that is no comfort to families affected,” he said. “But we need to maintain perspective.”

In 2021, Alberta and B.C. were responsible for drops in the national crime severity index of 7 per cent and 5 per cent respectively, primarily because of decreases in non-violent crimes. The index assigns the most weight to crimes that are serious and lead to long prison sentences.

Both provinces saw increases in sexual assault, and B.C. marked an uptick in homicides. There were 125 in the province in 2021, compared with 100 the year before.

It’s much harder to draw comparisons at the city level, because each police agency has its own data collection, categorization and statistical practices. All four cities are experiencing increases in certain types of violent crimes. In Calgary, the number of assaults with weapons shot up by 19 per cent in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same period last year.

Prof. Oriola said the issue with non-uniform data collection is that it allows police agencies and politicians to cherry-pick statistics for political gain. This can inadvertently intensify fear or anxiety about crime, or certain types of crime, in communities.

“Unfortunately, the phenomenon of crime lends itself to political theatre,” he said, adding that Canada shouldn’t shy away from the realities of crime, but should make the distinction between it and basic disorder.

Disorder is generally defined as a non-criminal contravention of social norms. It is linked to issues such as homelessness, addiction and mental illness, all of which have become more visible during the pandemic.

Chief Constable Del Manak, of the Victoria Police Department, said failure to support people with severe or persistent mental-health or addiction issues can result in crises. “These incidents are playing out in downtown Victoria, right in neighbourhoods, public places, a park or in a bus stop. When these incidents play out, people are calling 911. It’s not even a criminal offence,” he said.

Prof. Oriola said data from all four cities show that police are dealing with higher volumes of disorder-related calls, which can skew statistics.

Tamara Humphrey, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Victoria, said rates of sexual assault across Canada are not necessarily higher than they were in the past, but that reporting of such incidents is increasing.

“It’s becoming a more accurate reflection,” she said. “It looks like we’re actually doing a better job to make it a safer space for survivors to come forward.”

For other types of crimes, the opposite is true. Constable Tania Visintin, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, said hate crimes are under-reported in the city, meaning the reality is far worse than statistics show. Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee said the city recorded a 55-per-cent jump in hate crimes reported to police in 2021, compared with 2020.

In Calgary, Deputy Chief Chad Tawfik said organized crime, shootings, certain types of assaults and reports of non-violent domestic abuse are on the rise. At the same time, the city’s police force has tracked a decrease in violent domestic incidents and sexual assaults not including weapons.

But none of these numbers tell the whole story – and that, experts say, is why gauging public safety is so tricky. Media reports, social-media content, and descriptions of crime by public officials all play roles in people’s perception of crime in their communities.

Dr. Humphrey said social media, specifically, is a “little bit of an echo chamber” that makes people feel as though one person’s experience could happen to anybody. She said public discussion of crime fails to account for who is at the highest risk of becoming a victim of violent crime. Those vulnerable groups include Indigenous and racialized people.

“Historically, we know that there’s an overreporting of violent incidents in the news, as well, compared to how much is actually happening,” she said. “It gives us a sense that it’s immediate all around us, anybody who’s at risk. But that’s actually not accurate.”