OTTAWA - Fewer crimes were reported to police in Canada in 2011 than at any other time in the last 40 years, Statistics Canada said Tuesday — a revelation that comes as political leaders wrestle with how to curb gun violence on the streets of Toronto.
Finding an answer to that question — Mayor Rob Ford met Monday with Premier Dalton McGuinty, then Tuesday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper — should be the focal point of the debate, not the numbers, according to at least one crime expert.
Though the city's wounds are still raw from two recent deadly shootings, the agency reported that the seriousness of crime in Toronto was down last year, as it was in almost every major Canadian city.
And while the overall homicide rate was up seven per cent — there were 598 homicides in Canada in 2011, 44 more than the previous year — the number in Ontario actually hit record lows.
Altogether, police services reported nearly 2 million incidents last year, about 110,000 fewer than in 2010, the agency reported.
The decline in the crime rate was driven mostly by decreases in property offences, mischief, break-ins and car theft. But the severity of crime index — a tool used to measure the extent of serious crime in Canada — also declined by six per cent.
"Overall, this marked the eighth consecutive decrease in Canada’s crime rate," the study said. "Since peaking in 1991, the crime rate has generally been decreasing, and is now at its lowest point since 1972."
Not surprisingly, the Conservatives took credit for the decline Tuesday, attributing falling crime rates over the last four decades to the government's tough-on-crime agenda, which is just six years old.
"These statistics show that our tough on crime measures are starting to work. Our government is stopping the revolving door of the criminal justice system," said Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
"The fact of the matter is that when the bad guys are kept in jail longer, they are not out committing crimes and the crime rate will decrease. However, there is still more work to do."
The New Democrats said that focus was misplaced, and should be on crime prevention instead.
"Things like arguing that we need more laws to create longer penalties or minimum sentences don't have any impact on the kind of things we've seen in Toronto," said NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison.
"People who are responsible for the shootings obviously didn't care about the consequences or they wouldn't have committed those acts in public."
The debate does need to move beyond how long to keep a criminal in jail and move to how he or she gets there in the first place, said Irvin Waller, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.
"We don't need any more debate on the Criminal Code," Waller said.
"What you see with all the shemozzle in Toronto is that folks aren't looking at real solutions. Real solutions are things that reduce shootings and reduce homicides and that means you have to look at what has worked to do that."
Waller said it's important for all sides to approach the police-reported crime statistics with caution, given that other surveys show the vast majority of crimes actually never get reported to police.
In 2009, the latest year of available statistics, it was estimated that about two-thirds of all criminal victimization was not reported to police, Statistics Canada said.
That number is often cited by the Conservatives as the basis for their tough-on-crime agenda.
Earlier this year, they passed into law a major piece of crime legislation, the Safe Streets and Communities Act.
Among other things, it increased penalties for crimes involving drugs and the sexual exploitation of children.
"They're correct to have used the statistics, but I don't think that (the bill) was a significant way of reducing what they were calling attention to," said Waller.
The seven per cent increase in homicides is almost certainly tied to an increase in gun and gang crime, said Waller.
"What's clear to me is that even if (the bill) will change it, we need something else," he said. "We're living in a period where people are saying you can't arrest your way out of this crime — you've got to tackle the risk factors that lead to this crime."
Rather than focusing on statistics, the government needs to pay attention to the slew of other information it has at its disposable, Waller said, which includes pages of research on programs designed to stop people from becoming criminals.
Ford met Monday with McGuinty and Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair and secured permanent funding for anti-violence programs from the province in the wake of the two deadly shootings there.
Two people were killed and 23 wounded in a mass shooting at a community barbecue in east Toronto last week.
Last month, two men died after a gunman opened fire June 2 in the food court of the Toronto Eaton Centre, one of Toronto's most popular shopping destinations.
While the crime rates in Toronto are dropping, other cities are seeing a spike, Statistics Canada reported.
Winnipeg had a six per cent increase in the severity of violent crime, giving it the highest rank among census metropolitan areas.
Five other census metropolitan areas recorded increases in the seriousness of violent crime with the largest being reported in Gatineau, Que., and Guelph, Ont.
Western provinces generally reported higher crime rates and crime severity than those in the east.
The volume and severity of police-reported crime were highest in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut and lowest in Ontario.
Statistics Canada also reported decreases in several major crime categories, including attempted murder, major assaults, sexual assaults, robberies, break-ins and motor vehicle thefts.
The agency cautioned that many factors can influence police-reported crime statistics, including local policing policies and various demographic, social and economic factors, as well as public perception and attitudes.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Prof. Irvin Waller's first name.