TORONTO - On the eve of dramatic Conservative efforts to toughen up the justice system, a new Statistics Canada survey suggests a vast majority of Canadians don't see crime as an imminent threat.
The study, conducted in 2009 and released Thursday, found 93 per cent of those surveyed said they feel safe from crime — a similar result to a similar survey in 2004, before Stephen Harper's Conservatives began their tough-on-crime campaign.
Crime rates overall have been falling for a decade.
"The numbers seem to hold, despite a lot of rhetoric which you would think would drive them in another direction. I think that's a pretty interesting thing," said Vincent Sacco, a Queen's University sociology professor who has studied perceptions of crime in Canada since the 1970s.
"It's difficult not to interpret that as optimistic... Maybe people's attention is elsewhere, maybe it's on the economy, maybe it's not on crime."
The Conservative government has made its controversial anti-crime crusade, a portion of which is slated to come into effect on Friday, a central tenet of its mandate.
Critics, however, say the Tory legislation — boosting prison terms for some crimes, imposing mandatory minimum sentences and stripping two-for-one credit for time served — is based more on ideology than hard evidence.
Opposition MPs and some provinces, which stand to bear the brunt of the cost of keeping more people in jail longer, have complained the Conservatives ignored the advice of experts and did not provide cost estimates for the changes.
The Statistics Canada report comes the day before two of the Conservative government's latest measures go into effect. One ensures those convicted of multiple murders serve their parole ineligibility periods back to back, while the other effectively repeals the so-called "faint-hope clause," which allowed convicted killers to apply for early parole.
"Canadians want to know that criminals are held accountable for their crimes," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in a statement.
"These two pieces of legislation are further examples of our government's commitment to keeping our streets and communities safe."
NDP justice critic Jack Harris said the latest figures illustrate a disconnect between the Conservatives and Canadian reality when it comes to crime.
"They're very useful to help Canadians understand that this government is going down the wrong road," Harris said.
"In light of the sense that Canadians have that they do feel safe ... there should be no motivation or reason to bring in these very, very harsh measures that we are told by experts won't work."
According to the Statistics Canada numbers, the number of younger Canadians who are satisfied with their personal safety from crime is slightly higher than for their older counterparts: 94 per cent of those aged 15-24, compared with 90 per cent aged 65 years and older.
About 83 per cent of respondents said they were not at all worried when home alone in the evening, while 90 per cent who walked alone in their neighbourhoods at night said they felt safe doing so.
None of that means, however, that there aren't neighbourhoods in Canada that are struggling with high crime rates, Sacco warned.
"When you do a national survey like this, a national snapshot, it does hide the pockets of problems, simply because of the statistical fact that the numbers of people in those areas may not be big enough to have an impact on the overall findings," he said.
Still, the importance of perceptions of safety shouldn't be discounted, he added.
"People who are afraid in their neighbourhoods, that's a problem for them in many ways that can be as detrimental to the quality of life as an actual crime can be."
The study indicates those living in Eastern Canada, where crime rates are generally lower, were more satisfied with their personal safety than Westerners, who form the base of Tory support.
But not by much.
Residents of Prince Edward Island were among those with the highest levels of satisfaction, at 97 per cent, while residents in British Columbia were among those with the lowest, at 89 per cent.
Among cities, levels of satisfaction with personal safety were highest in Moncton, N.B., and Kingston, Guelph and Oshawa, Ont. They were lowest in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Edmonton.
The survey, first conducted in 1988, is now in its fifth cycle. It includes estimates of risk factors associated with victimization, reporting rates to police, measures of fear or crime and public perceptions of crime and the criminal justice system.
The survey had a response rate of 62 per cent and was expected to be within 0.95 percentage points of true population estimates, 19 times out of 20.
Globally, Canada has typically fared well when it comes to how safe its citizens feel. The last International Crime Victims Survey, which analysed data from 2004-2005, showed Canada was perceived as one of the safest of 30 countries surveyed, along with the Netherlands.