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Homicide rates in 2010 dropped to the lowest level in several decades, according to Statistics Canada. ((Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press))

Canada's homicide rate last year fell to the lowest level since the mid-1960s, according to Statistics Canada, a decrease the agency says was driven largely by fewer incidents in major cities and the western provinces.

In 2010, police reported 554 homicides in Canada, 56 fewer than the year before, the agency reported Wednesday, following a decade of relative stability. The homicide rate fell to 1.62 for every 100,000 population, its lowest level since 1966, the agency says.

The data was released a day after the Conservative government launched its third attempt in the House of Commons to abolish the federal long-gun registry and destroy its records, arguing the program is wasteful and ineffective in preventing gun crime.

The national rate of gang-related slayings also decreased for the second year in a row, with police considering 94 killings to be connected with gangs in 2010, down from 124 in the previous year.

Police in several of the nation's largest cities reported substantially fewer homicides in 2010. The homicide rate in Metro Vancouver, with 25 fewer killings, fell 42 per cent to its lowest level since data in metropolitan areas became available in 1981.

With 35 fewer homicides in 2010 than in 2009, the rate in British Columbia, which has witnessed several high-profile gang-related slayings in recent months, fell to its lowest point since the mid-1960s.

The decrease in British Columbia is particularly significant, considering it has been home to a bloody and highly public turf war between rival drug gangs in recent years, said Ronald Melchers, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa who serves on Statistics Canada's academic advisory board.

"Vancouver has seen a bit of a crisis over the first few years," Melchers told CBC News on Wednesday.

Melchers suggested the Vancouver area's dramatic decrease could be similar to the drop in Montreal's homicide rates in the early 2000s following a spike in gang-related slayings in the city.

But Vancouver Police Department spokesman Const. Lindsey Houghton noted the city of Vancouver had fewer than half the number of homicides last year than it had in 2009 — and that the nine killings in the city limits represent the lowest number in the city's history.

Houghton also stressed that recent high-profile shootings occurred in other jurisdictions such as Surrey and Abbotsford, while also crediting their police forces with working on a "massive scope" with Vancouver police and other agencies to target "the most violent offenders in our communities."

"We've targeted them, arrested them and put them in jail, and it's made our streets safer," Houghton told CBC News.

Thunder Bay recorded the highest homicide rate for the second year in a row, with five slayings — a rate of 4.2  per 100,000 population. The next highest rates were in Saskatoon and Regina, Statistics Canada says.

Meanwhile, police in Alberta reported 18 fewer homicides, while those in Manitoba reported 12 fewer.

Political hot button

The national decrease in the homicide rate follows a downward trend in Canada's overall recorded crime rate over the past three decades.

Canada's crime rates have become the subject of a fierce debate in Ottawa, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's majority government moves forward with its tough-on-crime agenda, despite opposition parties pointing to declining crime rates and questioning the price tag of the measures such as mandatory minimum penalties and sentences at a time of a record federal deficit.

Some government members, including Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, have maintained the number of crimes that go unreported is on the rise, which they say suggests Canadians have little faith in the justice system and underscores the need for tough measures.

But Melchers said homicide figures tend to be the most reliable indicators of overall crime rates because "not many homicides are invisible."

"Crime is really going down," Melchers said. "What it does is confirm that what is happening is actually happening, despite what some ministers say — and will say again."

When contacted by CBC News on Wednesday, Toews's office issued a statement saying the minister is pleased to see the numbers of homicides down, while adding the latest information "does not change our approach."

"Canadians gave our government a strong mandate to crack down on crime and keep our communities safe," Toews's press secretary, said in an email.

"This government’s tough on crime measures, additional investments in more officers on our streets, and tools to fight crime are working. However, one homicide is one too many. That is why we will continue to take action to toughen the laws, stand up for victims and hold criminals responsible."

Gun killings down

Police reported 170 homicides with a firearm last year, down from 180 the year before, which Statistics Canada said is consistent with a general decline in gun-related homicides seen over the past three decades.

Rates of homicide involving rifles or shotguns in 2010 were about one-fifth of those seen 30 years ago.

Stabbings, accounting for 31 per cent of homicides, were nearly as common in 2010 as shootings, at 32 per cent. Another 22 per cent of homicides involved beatings, while eight per cent were by strangulation or suffocation. The remaining homicides used other means such as motor vehicles, fire and poisoning.