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Perceptions and reality collide over crime levels in Western Canada

When British Columbians pondered which party to support in last month’s provincial election, “crime and public safety” was mentioned by only 4% of likely voters as the most important issue facing the province.

When British Columbians pondered which party to support in last month’s provincial election, “crime and public safety” was mentioned by only 4% of likely voters as the most important issue facing the province. In Saskatchewan, “crime and public safety” reached 7% when the same question was asked. Topics like health care and the economy dominated electoral discussions in the two provinces and were more likely to move voters to support one party or another.

When criminal activity is assessed as a component of everything that is happening in a province, it usually fails to reach double digits as an issue that commands immediate attention. However, media reports about crime can play a major role in delineating our views. What we have lived through can differ greatly from the acquired impression that lawlessness is rampant in our communities. With this difference in mind, Research Co. and Glacier Media recently asked residents of the four western Canadian provinces about their experiences with criminal activity and their perceptions of how it may be affecting their communities.

Among the four provinces, British Columbia houses the lowest proportion of residents (20%) who have been victims of a crime that was reported to the police over the past three years, such as an assault or a car break-in. This number is at the same level as it was when we asked this question in August 2019.

Residents of northern B.C. (31%) and Metro Vancouver (21%) are more likely to acknowledge having experienced crime than their counterparts in southern B.C. (18%), Vancouver Island (14%) and the Fraser Valley (12%).

The proportion of Albertans who were the victims of a crime that required police intervention is slightly higher (24%). Edmonton appears to be afflicted with crime at a higher rate (26%) than Calgary (22%) and the remaining areas of the province (23%).

In Saskatchewan, 27% of residents were the victims of a crime that was reported to the police. In this province, the numbers are highest in Saskatoon (28%) and drop to 24% in Regina and 18% in other areas of the province.

The results are worse in Manitoba, with 31% of residents experiencing a crime that was reported to the police – including 29% of those who live in Winnipeg and 33% of those in other municipalities.

We could look at these statistics in a moderately positive way, as practically seven in 10 residents of Western Canada did not experience a crime that was reported to the police over the past three years. When these same respondents are asked about perceptions, the numbers take a drastic turn towards negativity.

About two in five residents of Saskatchewan (41%) and British Columbia (42%) believe the level of criminal activity in their communities has increased in the past three years. The numbers climb higher in Alberta (48%) and Manitoba (54%).

Some regional disparities are worth analyzing. In the Fraser Valley, where only 12% of residents experienced crime over the past three years, almost half (49%) believe crime is on the rise. In rural Alberta, only 23% reported a crime to the police since 2017, but 57% believe unlawful activity is increasing.

In Manitoba, residents who do not live in Winnipeg are more likely to express negative thoughts about the state of affairs (57%). Saskatchewan provides some consistency, with residents of Saskatoon being more likely to believe that crime is increasing in their community (47%) than those in Regina or other parts of the province.

Politicians running for public office sometimes emphasize “law and order” as a way to connect with voters. In most cases, those in opposition are the ones who promise a different approach to crime and public safety than the incumbents they are trying to unseat. The biggest hindrance to this approach is a perceived intrusion into municipal issues, especially in places where policing is in the hands of local forces.

The notion of perception and reality being at odds on criminal activity is not new, and certainly not unique to Canada. The survey outlines some regional variations in the incidence of crime experienced in specific areas, but nothing that would suggest – aided by data compiled by police forces and other measurements – that crime is rising in communities across the four western provinces.

Public opinion research can measure both perceptions and experiences. On issues such as public safety, pretending that one equates the other – regardless of the good intentions of the people interested in the information – does a disservice to the society we serve. •

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from November 14 to November 16, among 800 adults in British Columbia, 600 adults In Alberta, 600 adults in Saskatchewan and 600 adults in Manitoba. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in each province. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for British Columbia and plus or minus four percentage points for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 19 times out of 20.