Canadian murder rates pushed to new highs by gang shootings

It’s the most reliable indicator yet of a Canada experiencing an across-the-board surge in violent crime

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Nearly 20 years of progress on Canadian violent crime have effectively been erased as the country emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with a homicide rate worse than any time since the mid-2000s.

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A total of 788 people were murdered in Canada in 2021, according to new data released this week by Statistics Canada. What’s more, nearly a quarter of those murders were gang-related; the highest raw number of gang homicides since the federal government started tracking it in 2005.

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Canada’s rising murder rate is the most reliable indicator yet of a Canada that is continuing to experience an across-the-board surge in violent crime.

In August, Statistics Canada reported that while property crime was on the downswing, there was a noticeable rise in the numbers of Canadians being raped, harassed, stabbed or assaulted.

Data released in August showing a sharp upswing in the severity of Canadian violent crime.
Data released in August showing a sharp upswing in the severity of Canadian violent crime. Photo by Statistics Canada

In 2021, there was an 18 per cent surge in “level one” sexual assault; a term used to describe assaults that compromise the sexual integrity of the victim, but result in minor physical injuries. Hate-motivated crimes, meanwhile, rose by 27 per cent.

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And those are just the violent crimes that are being reported.

Vancouver, for instance, has witnessed a sharp rise in reported violence, particularly in the realm of unprovoked stranger assaults and anti-Asian hate crimes. Despite posting some of the highest violent crime rates in a decade, Vancouver Police still suspect that many incidents are never being brought to their attention.

One reason is that calls to the police’s non-emergency line are increasingly going unanswered — leading to Vancouverites abandoning their attempts to report illegal activity.

Since murders rarely escape the attention of Canadian law enforcement, they are generally considered the most accurate gauge of violent crime trends.

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All told, a Canadian was murdered every 11 hours in 2021, and there were 29 more homicides than in 2020.

Compare that to 2013, when a record drop in homicide rates worked out to 509 annual murders; the equivalent of a Canadian being murdered every 17 hours.

A chart from 2020 showing the gradual decline in Canadian homicide rates since the 1990s.  Rising homicide rates throughout 2020 and 2021 have reversed this trend to rates last seen in 2005.
A chart from 2020 showing the gradual decline in Canadian homicide rates since the 1990s. Rising homicide rates throughout 2020 and 2021 have reversed this trend to rates last seen in 2005.

Canada’s murder rate is still well below the peaks that it hit throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The country’s 2021 homicide rate was 2.06 per 100,000. In 1975, it surged as high as 3.02 per 100,000 – meaning that a Canadian in the 1970s had a roughly 50 per cent higher chance of being murdered than they do today.

Given Canada’s ever-expanding population, however, the year 2021 yielded the largest raw number of murders in the country’s history. Even amid spasms of violence throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the total annual number of Canadian murder victims rarely peaked above 700.

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Canada’s 2021 homicide rate dwarfs almost anything seen in Europe. According to 2020 data on intentional homicides, Canada has a homicide rate that is roughly twice that of the UK or France, and quadruple that of Italy.

Nevertheless, Canada is still doing way better than the global average. According to the United Nations, the average homicide rate around the world is roughly three times’ that of Canada’s.

Canada also easily ranks as one of the least homicidal countries in the Western Hemisphere. Last year, Jamaica saw a murder rate that was more than 22 times higher than that of Canada’s.

Homicide rates in the US also continue to outpace Canada. In 2020, the US homicide rate of 6.3 per 100,000 translated into more than 20,000 total murder victims. And in particularly dangerous states such as Mississippi, that rate soars as high as 20 per 100,000.

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The rise in the Canadian homicide rate can almost exclusively be blamed on gang-related killings, which represented 23 per cent of all murders and also constituted a significant share of the country’s shooting deaths.

While most Canadian homicides are not committed with a gun, shootings represent 74 per cent of gang homicides. These murders are also more difficult to solve. In the case of stabbings, police were able to lay murder charges in 84 per cent of cases; compared to just 47 per cent for gun murders.

Chart illustrating the relative difficulty of solving gun murders as compared to murders committed by stabbing or beating.
Chart illustrating the relative difficulty of solving gun murders as compared to murders committed by stabbing or beating. Photo by Statistics Canada

In fact, if you remove gang-related killings from the equation, Canada would be eking out a homicide rate roughly on par with that of Iceland, Belgium or Finland.

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