Canadian cities largely safe but rising gun violence ‘disturbing’

A shooting at a Toronto block party that left two dead and 22 injured has garnered international attention. A Toronto criminologist says that most Canadian cities are safe, but that greater social disparity could lead to an increase in gun-related incidents in this country.
Despite the fatal shooting of two people at a block party on July 16, Toronto remains one of the safest big cities in the Americas, says one criminologist. (Canadian Press)

International media are focused on Toronto after a shooting at a block party in the city’s east end on Monday left two people dead and another 22 injured.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair called it "the most serious crime of its kind to ever take place in the city of Toronto," but also said, "I’ve been a cop for 35 years and this is the worst incident of gun violence, in my memory, anywhere in North America."

Toronto has witnessed a spate of brazen gun violence in the past few months. One man was killed and another later died of his injuries after a gang-related shooting on June 2 in a food court at the Eaton Centre, a downtown hub for shoppers and tourists alike.

On June 18, a man was killed in an execution-style shooting on the patio of an ice-cream parlour in the Little Italy neighbourhood. Two more gun-related incidents occurred on the Canada Day long weekend, one injuring a toddler who was grazed by a bullet and another involving a man who was shot in the chest during an altercation.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Mayor Rob Ford repeated a prior claim that Toronto is "the safest city in the world."

Scot Wortley, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre of Criminology, has been studying Canadian crime stats for years, and confirms that Toronto’s homicide rate "is among the lowest in North and South America."

Based on 2006 crime figures — which Wortley says remain stable — Toronto’s murder rate was 1.8 per 100,000 people. By way of comparison, Regina’s murder rate was 4.5 and Edmonton’s was 3.7. Over the border, New York’s homicide rate is 7.3, Buffalo’s is 26.4 and Detroit’s is 47.3. Chicago, often considered Toronto’s sister city, is 16.4.

Wortley spoke to CBC News about Toronto crime, perception versus reality and the rise in public shootings.

CBC News: Should people be concerned for their safety in Toronto? 

Scot Wortley: New York sells itself as the safest big city in the world, and their homicide rate is more than four times Toronto’s. I think it’s interesting how much media attention incidents like this receive in Canada.

When we have a worldwide conglomeration of media outlets that are always looking for a story, the fact that this shooting garners such saturated news coverage [is remarkable]. If a similar shooting had taken place in a disadvantaged area of Buffalo, it would warrant very little news coverage and it would be forgotten the next day. I think this is a good thing. I think it’s good that Canadians are that concerned, and not apathetic when violence happens, like many of our American counterparts are.

But I do find it funny, that there seems to be a desire for Torontonians to want to state that we’re a really dangerous city, when we’re not. Is it part of our inferiority complex in terms of wanting to be a big-time American city, we need the crime rate to go with it?

Toronto has a very low murder rate, but statistics suggest a definite rise in gun violence. This year alone, the number of shootings in Toronto is up 34 per cent from 2011.

Canada may be at a crossroads right now. Although there are these very positive findings [about murder rate], and we are relatively safe compared to most of the rest of the world, there are some clouds on the horizons.

A couple of the more disturbing trends are that gun violence appears to have gone up over the last decade. This gun violence has become increasingly concentrated within our most socially disadvantaged communities. It’s usually men, between 18 and 29, from our most economically disadvantaged communities, who in my own interviews are very economically and socially isolated from the rest of Canadian society.

Many have felt that we need to explore whether these trends have led to an increase in the severity of gang activity. I find that when you take those pieces of information and you link that to the economic information that is coming out of our urban centres, we’ve got something to be worried about.

The information indicates that cities like Toronto are becoming more polarized. The size and population of our poor communities have grown significantly over the last 30 years, while the middle class has been shrinking. If this economic trend continues, the social consequences might be more crime, more violence, more social isolation, which will disproportionately impact only those who reside in our poorest neighbourhoods.

Is there any significance to the number of brazen attacks in Toronto?

The reason for the violence might vary from case to case. I really don’t have enough information yet. But there are a number of hypotheses, I believe, that we should be exploring as to why is this happening.

One of them might be an increase in the gang subculture, where young people, who have beefs or conflicts with one another because of the subculture they’re ingrained in, just don’t – pardon the language – give a fuck. I’m actually paraphrasing a lot of the men that I’ve interviewed that are involved in gangs. They’ll just say, "Nobody messes with me. And if you are going to insult me, or fight me or push me in a public area, I’m going to come back and use extreme violence, because nobody does that to me."

The other possibility is that — and I’ve garnered this from some of the interviews I’ve conducted — often, beefs will be long-standing. [People] will want revenge for a previous shooting or a previous slight, and they will go looking for these individuals, and individuals will hide out from each other. They either go looking for each other, or they randomly cross paths. And when this happens, again, the subculture indicates that action needs to be taken, and they really don’t care about themselves or anyone else.

Some people are wondering, why isn’t this happening in back alleys? Sometimes it’s because the people don’t care if they get caught. Other times, they’re actually trying to enhance their reputation. If you have an audience that has seen you use extreme violence with little regard for others, does that enhance your reputation as somebody not to be messed with?

Are there any other reasons?

There is an equally important hypothesis to examine, which is, to what extent are these shootings the result of fear.

I’ve also heard, through my interviews, that a lot of people in these disadvantaged communities are arming themselves not because they’re involved in a gang subculture, but because they are afraid of people who are in that subculture. They’re afraid of being involved in a confrontation with a gang member where they will have to defend themselves.

And if that attitude of fear exists in these communities, does that make individuals quick to pull a gun out and use it when conflicts arise in public settings?

Can we call these public shootings in Toronto a trend?

As a criminologist, you’re sometimes conservative. And with this recent rash of shootings, I think a criminologist would say, "Let’s sit back and see if this pattern continues for the next two or three years before we can say it’s a definite trend." Sometimes, things like this happen coincidentally in close proximity to each other and give the illusion that a new trend has started, and it gets a lot of media attention.

This recent trend of shootings is disturbing, and deserves our attention, but I really don’t think that Torontonians or other residents of Canada or tourists to Canada should feel that we are an unsafe place, because most of us will never see a gunfight in our lifetime – luckily.