Northern Economist 2.0

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Comparing Homicide Rates: Why Thunder Bay Has a Problem

From a peak reached in the early 1990s, police reported crimes rates in Canada have been on a downward trend.  This is also the case for homicide rates, which have been on a downward trend nationally since the early 1980s.  There is of course variation from year to year in homicide rates so some type of regression smoothing procedure is helpful in establishing what the longer-term trends over time are.  What quickly emerges from an examination of long-term trends is that Thunder Bay followed national trends in homicide rates until the early 21st century but that since then there has been a substantial divergence.  It is not a “northern Ontario” thing because the Greater Sudbury CMA tracks provincial and national homicide rates quite closely.

Figure 1 presents LOWESS Smoothed homicide rates for Canada and major regions from 1981 to 2015.  LOWESS is a particularly useful smoothing tool because it helps deal with “outliers” – that is extreme observations that can often distort averages taken over time. The data source is from Statistics Canada (Table 2530004 - Homicide survey, number and rates (per 100,000 population) of homicide victims, by census metropolitan area (CMA), annually).  Canada as a whole has seen a steady decline in homicide rates going from smoothed values of 2.74 per 100,000 in 1981 to 1.51 by 2015 – a drop of 45 percent.  This decline is a feature of the West, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada though Atlantic Canada sees a sight upturn after 2006.  In terms of regional rankings, homicide rates are now the highest in the West, followed by Atlantic Canada, then Ontario and finally Quebec.

Figure 2 presents the homicide rates for major western Canadian CMAs.  Here there is some divergence from national trends.  Regina drops dramatically from the early 1980s, then rises from the mid 1990s to about 2005 and has since declined.  Saskatoon follows a similar pattern.  Calgary and Victoria have seen declines over time, with Edmonton less so.  Winnipeg declined in the early 1990s but then began to increase though the last few years have witnessed moderation. Vancouver appears to have had the steepest and most consistent decline going from a smoothed value of 4.02 in 1981 to 1.60 in 2015 – a drop of 60 percent.

Moving eastward, we come to Ontario and Quebec in Figures 3 and 4.  All Ontario CMAs save one at present have smoothed homicide rates below 2 per 100,000 – the exception being Thunder Bay. As for Quebec, the rates all show a downward trend since the early 1980s though Trois-Rivieres sees a slight rebound after 2005.  Smoothed homicide rates in all of these major Quebec CMAs in 2015 were below 1.5 per 100,000.

Finally, Figure 5 plots the smoothed profiles for three Atlantic Canadian CMAs (Moncton did not have a series going back to 1981) and homicide rates are by 2015 at about 2 per 100,000 or lower.  However, Saint John, New Brunswick has seen a surge since 2003 somewhat similar to what has occurred with Thunder Bay’s trend though not of the same magnitude. Meanwhile, Halifax has been stable at just over 2 for most of the period since the early 1990s while St. John’s Newfoundland has also stayed approximately stable at about 1 homicide per 100,000 of population.


Thunder Bay’s homicide rate has always been above the average for major Ontario CMAs but it tracks downward with the others until the early 21st century when it begins to rise.  Indeed, the smoothed series (Figure 3) shows a steady increase from 2.06 homicides per 100,000 in 2002 to 5.44 in 2015 – an increase of 164 percent since 2002.   Thunder Bay’s homicide rates are higher than they were in the early 1980s.  Sudbury - also in northern Ontario- and Windsor, used to have homicide rates quite close to Thunder Bay in the early 1990s but have dropped substantially and by 2015 have smoothed values of about 1.0 per 100,000. 

If you need more evidence of Thunder Bay’s “exceptionalism” when it comes to homicide rates, take a look at the next three charts (Figure 6-8) which compare Thunder Bay and Sudbury smoothed profiles first to national and provincial profiles (Figure 6), then to western Canadian cities (Figure 7) - which have traditionally had higher homicide rates –and then to some Quebec and Atlantic Canadian cities of comparable size (Figure 8).


As the assorted figures show, Thunder Bay’s rising homicide rate is indeed out of sync with pretty much every other city in the country.  Even in the case of western Canadian CMAs, Thunder Bay’s smoothed homicide rate since 2002 has surpassed the rates for Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg.  It is not a “northern Ontario thing” because even homicide rates in Greater Sudbury have continued to trend down. 

When it comes to homicide rates, it is pretty obvious that Thunder Bay has a problem.  While homicide rates in Thunder Bay have often been higher than other Ontario cities and indeed more closely resembled those of western Canada there is now a substantial divergence in trend even from western Canadian cities. The divergence from national and provincial trends starts just after the year 2000.  The even bigger issue is exactly why there is this divergence and what can and should be done to address it.