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Metrocide: A History of Violence

Is Toronto a dangerous city? And is it getting worse? This week for Metrocide, Torontoist is examining a sea of homicide data and trying to come up with conclusions based not in fear or fantasy but fact.
Photo from 1986 by .allen from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
1981 was the first year for Canada’s Wonderland and NOW, the year of the Toronto bathhouse raids, and the year that Terry Fox died. That year, Toronto the (still) Good had 40 fewer homicides than there were in 2007—and the second-highest homicide rate of any year since.
In today’s edition of Metrocide, we’ll examine homicides and homicide rates, going back to 1981.

Notes on Statistics

For today and tomorrow, we’ve used both Statistics Canada and Toronto Police statistics. They don’t match, and that’s for one key reason: when it comes to homicides, both organizations define “Toronto” differently. Statistics Canada’s numbers for homicides in cities since 1981 are for those cities’ Census Metropolitan Areas (or CMAs)—so for Toronto, that means that Ajax, Aurora, Brampton, Markham, Pickering, Uxbridge, Milton, and Newmarket, among others, all count as part of Toronto (a map of Toronto’s CMA is here; Toronto’s CMA is in green). The Toronto Police boundaries are substantially smaller; their Toronto ends once you cross Steeles, for instance, or Highway 427. Toronto Police data pegged Toronto’s population as 2,724,784 in 2006; Statistics Canada counts 5,113,149 Torontonians in the same year.
Today and tomorrow, we’ll focus largely on StatsCan data, because, as the Toronto Police year-end statistical report from 2007 notes, “the statistics in this report count all offences reported to the police….a single incident reported to police may generate more than one offence.” Moreover: “it is not recommended that the crime statistics in this report be compared to crime statistics prepared by other agencies due to the fact that different methods of categorization, geographic, technical, data and time constraints may affect the outcome.” The reason we’re including Toronto Police data rather than abandoning it altogether is because, as that same report notes, “although comparing exact numbers is not recommended, the general trends and magnitude of change should be similar regardless of the counting method.” They’re also useful for examining homicides that occur in the smaller boundaries of Toronto—something we’ll be doing more of tomorrow when we examine homicides in central and downtown Toronto. Either way, take Toronto Police data with a grain of salt, but don’t rule it out altogether.
Also, though crime statistics are available for Toronto going back further than what we’ve used here, we’re only using numbers from 1981 on from Statistics Canada, and from the 90s on for Toronto Police. For Statistics Canada, the most recent data is the most reliable; we’ve spent some time looking through StatsCan volumes going back as far as the 1940s, but there seems to be no consistent treatment as far as we can see until 1981 for how to count and compare homicides in Toronto and other Canadian cities. (A StatsCan account executive advised us against using any homicide statistics before 1981 and comparing them to what we were using from that point on, and it’s probably wise to take their advice.) Second, for both Toronto Police and Statistics Canada, the recent statistics are the most readily accessible, meaning that anything we present can easily be reframed, reinterpreted, or reviewed. Statistics Canada’s data can be purchased from them for next to nothing ($6 for what we used below), or for more recent years compiled for free from yearly PDF reports, all from their website. Toronto Police data is available in annual statistical reports from 1997 on on their website—and some of those annual reports also contain data for previous years, which is why some charts we’ll have today and tomorrow go back earlier than 1997.
So, onto the data.
Overall, the number of homicides in Toronto does seem to be increasing according to Statistics Canada data. The average number of homicides from 1981–1990 was 67.2; from 1991–2000 was 80.3; and from 2001–2007 was 95. Determining any trend on a year-to-year basis, however, seems futile, since the number of homicides often rises and falls sporadically. For instance, according to StatsCan data, there were 103 homicides in Toronto in 1991, more than there would be for another fourteen years. Five years before that, in 1986, there were only 46 homicides, 15 fewer than there have been in any other year charted above. While Toronto Police reported 84 homicides in Toronto last year, if this year’s pace holds steady—which we’ll have more to say about on Friday—2008 will see a noticeable dip in the number of homicides recorded by year’s end.
What any chart that simply counts homicides ignores entirely is population. Because of Toronto’s growing population, even while the number of homicides appears to be inching up, the homicide rate has been perceptibly inching down. So while in 2007 Toronto had more homicides than it had had any other year going back to 1981—that year simultaneously had a homicide rate equal to or lower than the homicide rates in 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1991, 1992, and 1994.
What the homicide rate chart shows that the homicide chart didn’t is that Toronto seems to have been more dangerous in the 1980s and early 1990s than it is now. For instance, according to Statistics Canada’s data, no year since 1994 has had a homicide rate above 2.0 per 100,000 people—but the rate hit or exceeded 2.0 per 100,000 eight times between 1981 and 1994. The average StatsCan homicide rate since 1981 is 1.89 per 100,000; in the past 12 years, only 2005 and 2007 have had rates higher than that.
In Toronto, is there anything that directly causes about as many deaths as homicides do? As it turns out, there is: motor vehicle collisions.
A fatal motor vehicle collision is defined by the Toronto Police as any death that results from a collision involving one or more motor vehicles in any way. Any car crash that results in the death of drivers or passengers counts, as would a fatal crash where a cyclist is hit by a car, or a motorcyclist crashes into a guardrail.
Over fifteen years, fatalities from motor vehicle collisions and homicides have been quite close in the numbers measured by Toronto Police: over that period, the average number of people killed a year in motor vehicle collisions has been 73, while the average number of homicides has been 63. Toronto Police statistics point to a conclusion that is at once obvious and underreported—that in Toronto, you are more likely to die because of a motor vehicle than because of a gun or knife (and that is excluding deaths caused by problems that cars indirectly contribute to, like respiratory diseases and certain kinds of cancer). And while the graph above shows the two statistics headed in different directions of late, there have been more traffic fatalities than there have been homicides this year.


Metropolitan Toronto homicides from 1981 to 2007 are from Statistics Canada. (Table 253-0004—Homicide survey, number and rates [per 100,000 population] of homicide victims, by census metropolitan area (CMA), annual, CANSIM [database].)
All Toronto Police statistics are from their year-end statistical reports.