Child pornography offences have exploded by more than 200 per cent in the last decade, a trend that advocates say is fuelled by the easy spread of illicit material over the internet.
According to new data from Statistics Canada, incidents of child pornography climbed for the eighth year in a row in 2016. The agency recorded 6,245 incidents last year, up from 4,380 in 2015.
That represents a more than 40 per cent rate increase in just one year, and a 233 per cent spike from the rate reported in 2006, according to Statistics Canada.
Signy Arnason, associate director of the Winnipeg-based Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said the increase reflects the ability of offenders to record, upload and distribute child pornography online.
"It's easier to connect with other like-minded individuals for the purpose of sharing and exchanging and being completely engaged in that community that also then can allow you to rationalize your behaviour," she told CBC News. "It has connected everyone in that regard whereas previously you wouldn't have had those opportunities."
The centre runs a national online tool to report child abuse, Cybertip.ca, and receives more than 4,000 tips a month about the exploitation of children that reflects what Arnason calls an "enormous problem."
She said Canada has taken many positive steps with legislative initiatives and a national strategy for dealing with child exploitation online, but believes more policies and resources must be deployed to help police assess a massive volume of data.
"This is information that should be sobering to Canadians, and we need to be doing more to protect children," she said.
Statistics Canada said the increase in reported pornography offences can be partly linked to a project by the British Columbia Integrated Child Exploitation Unit, which recorded internet protocol (IP) addresses that were in possession of, and possibly sharing, child pornography.
The project targeted Vancouver, where there was a 124 per cent increase in reported offences.
In its annual release that measures the volume and severity of crime, Statistics Canada also reported today there were about 6,900 incidents of sexual violations against children reported in 2016, a spike of 30 per cent from 2015.
There has been an upward trend since 2010, when the first full year of data was available, according to the agency.
New maximum penalties
Stats Can said the jump may be partly attributed to the July 2015 implementation of Bill C-26, the Tougher Penalties for Child Predators Act, which increased maximum penalties for most types of sexual violations against children.
Because crime statistics are reported based on the severity of offence and the maximum penalty, legislative changes like Bill C-26 can lead to an increase in the number of incidents captured in the data.
While most types of sexual crimes against children rose in 2016, the biggest increase was in incidents of sexual interference, the act of touching any person under the age of 16 for sexual purposes. The number climbed to 4,602 incidents in 2016, up from 3,283 incidents in 2015.
John Muise, a retired detective sergeant with the Toronto Police Service and a long-time victims' advocate, said the growing numbers reflect the fact that more people are willing to come forward to report abuse, and that police are responding on a priority basis.
He said it's important to dedicate the proper resources to prevent exploitation and root out predators, as victims suffer real and potentially life-long pain.
"Whether or not there's more of them, I don't know," he said. "But it's a very real problem and it impacts on children that we ought to be protecting."