New data from Statistics Canada shows the national homicide rate has surged to levels not seen in more than a decade — an increase driven largely by violence in Alberta and the deaths of 22 people in Nova Scotia last year in Canada’s worst-ever mass murder.
Across the country, police reported 743 homicides in 2020, which is the highest number of homicides recorded in Canada since 1991.
It was also 56 more homicides than in 2019, a hike that pushed Canada’s “rate” up seven per cent to 1.95 homicides per 100,000 population in 2020, compared to 1.83 in 2019.
Statistics Canada tracks the number of homicides using two different measurements. It looks at the number of actual homicides in each region, then also accounts for the rate of the crime within a given population.
While the number of homicide victims last year was the highest it had been since 1991, the national homicide rate was the highest since 2005.
The Toronto Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) continued to have the highest number of homicides in Canada — with 105 victims in 2020 — yet saw the greatest year-over-year decline in homicides of all CMAs, with 25 fewer victims last year.
Consequently, the largest provincial decline in the number of homicides was observed in Ontario.
A tragedy in Nova Scotia
In Nova Scotia, a single attack contributed to a stark change in the numbers.
With 35 homicides in 2020, the highest number since data became available in 1961, the provincial homicide rate was 3.57 per 100,000 population.
In April 2020, Gabriel Wortman committed multiple shootings and set fires at multiple locations in Nova Scotia, killing 22 people and injuring three others.
The attack contributed to the uncharacteristically high homicide count and rate for Nova Scotia and is also reflected in the increase in firearm-related homicides for the province, Statistics Canada said.
Crime patterns shift amid pandemic
While the motivations for each crime are complex, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on crime patterns across Canada, Statistics Canada said.
In 2020, the Crime Severity Index (CSI), which measures the volume and severity of police-reported crime in Canada, fell by eight per cent.
In contrast, homicide rates increased.
“Many victim service providers and victim advocates have expressed concerns over the impact of lockdown restrictions and stay-at-home orders put in place due to the pandemic on violence in the home,” the report said.
“Risk factors for family violence such as social isolation, reduced income and job loss were amplified amidst the pandemic, potentially leading to increased tension in the home and escalations of violence.”
Violence in Alberta
The data shows 2020 was the deadliest year ever for killings in Alberta, as the province recorded 139 homicides, many of them committed with firearms. That was also the highest number for the province since data collection began in 1961, according to Statistics Canada.
The provincial homicide rate of 3.14 per 100,000 population was the highest recorded in Alberta since 2015.
The Edmonton and Calgary metropolitan areas recorded the largest increase in homicides among all CMAs in Canada, Statistics Canada said. They saw the largest increases in homicides in 2020, with 15 more victims in each region compared to 2019.
The increases came largely from a spike in firearm-related homicides. Edmonton saw a 97 per cent increase in the rate of firearm-related homicides, while Calgary saw a 48 per cent increase.
In the Edmonton CMA — which includes surrounding communities like Beaumont, Fort Saskatchewan, Leduc and St. Albert — there were 47 homicides in 2020. The homicide rate increased to 3.19 per 100,000 population, up from 2.21 per 100,000 in 2019.
The Calgary CMA saw 39 killings in 2020, increasing the homicide rate to 2.53 over 1.57 in 2019.
Handguns remain the most widely used firearm in homicides across the country, a trend observed since the early 1990s, Statistics Canada said.
In Alberta, rifles or shotguns were used in 45 per cent of all firearm-related homicides in 2020.Twenty-nine Alberta homicides last year were tied to gang-related violence, accounting for about 20 per cent of all homicides in the province. There were 24 gang-related homicides in Alberta in 2019.
The devastation caused by ongoing gun violence should make the government of Canada consider a gun buy-back program, said Temitope Oriola, associate professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Alberta
Reducing the number of high-calibre weapons in circulation will help save lives, he said.
Oriola noted the data reinforces established and disturbing patterns in Canadian crime.
Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the data, Oriola noted, with the rate of homicide for Indigenous people in 2020 almost seven times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous people.
He also noted that four out of five victims of solved homicides in 2020 knew their killers — as in previous years.
“Most people continue to die at the hands of people who are known to them,” he said. “The pandemic has only exacerbated the potential for that.”