Canada's Liberals feel election heat over gun violence

Polls show voters, rattled by high-profile shootings, trust Conservatives on the major issue in the Jan. 23 election.

Published January 16, 2006

The day after Christmas, 15-year-old Jane Creba was shopping on Toronto's high-fashion Yonge Street when a hail of bullets shattered the happy holiday mood. Creba was killed and six others wounded, all caught in a shootout between rival gangs.

The death of the star student and athlete was Toronto's 52nd gun-related homicide of 2005, a record for Canada's largest city. It and other high-profile shootings have made violent crime - especially gun-related crime - a major issue as Canadians prepare to vote Jan. 23 in an election that could see the Liberal Party ousted from power for the first time since 1993.

Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin has called for a ban on handguns. But his party continues to suffer for its support of a controversial firearms registry that has cost eight times as much as expected.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper, meanwhile, wants to dump the registry but increase mandatory minimum sentences for gun offenses and other serious crimes. Recent polls show the Conservatives leading across Canada, including the Liberal stronghold of Toronto.

"Everybody had to respond to the fact that these incidents occurred, but some polling shows Canadians trust Conservatives more on the issue of violence," says Christopher Manfredi, a professor of political science at Montreal's McGill University.

"I don't think it's the biggest single issue, but (crime) is an important wedge issue for Conservatives in areas where they have been less competitive in the past," Manfredi said. "For Conservatives to be successful in the election, they have to make significant inroads in Toronto and this is an issue they can use."

No one doubts Canadians have been rattled by the rash of shootings, which include the killings of a young policewoman in Quebec last month and four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Alberta last spring. But experts and some commentators dispute the notion Canada is becoming a violent nation - as headlines might indicate - or that Toronto's rise in gun crime is the fault of weapons smuggled from the United States, as Martin has suggested.

"Toronto being Toronto, and the national media being mostly located in Toronto, that city's spate of gun violence has become big news," columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote in Canada's dail y Globe and Mail .

"Front-page coverage. Politicians rushing to propose quick solutions. America-bashing. The rest of Canada has seen and heard it all. Toronto's problems equal Canada's. Except that they don't. Step back from the frenzy and look at the numbers."

Although Toronto's gun-related killings set a local record, the total number of homicides last year - 78 - is paltry by U.S. big-city standards. Chicago, with roughly the same population, had 446 homicides. Detroit, with less than half as many people, had 374.

Nor are the chances of being murdered elsewhere in Canada nearly as great as in the United States. While Canadian homicides increased 12 percent in 2004 - the latest year for which figures are available - the rate was just 1.95 victims per 100,000 people compared with 5.70 across the border.

"Except for the very unlikely event of being hit by a stray bullet, the country is very much as safe to walk around in as it was a decade ago," says Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Despite the disparities in crime rates, the current debate in Canada is not all that different from what is often heard in the United States.

African-Canadian groups complain that politicians ignored the gun-related deaths of dozens of black youths, but rushed into action when a pretty young white woman was killed. Others say massive media attention has exaggerated the extent of the crime problem, although they understand the interest in the Toronto case.

"It would be like a shooting outside Macy's," says Wendy Cukier, a Ryerson University professor and co-founder of the Coalition For Gun Control. "It was so public, most of the victims were bystanders and that of course makes people much more fearful than with other forms of crime. It's not to minimize the importance, but it's not that common."

Cukier credits strong gun control laws with the fact Canadians are far less likely to be killed by firearms than by other means. Stabbings - the most common form of homicide - account for a third of all killings, while firearms are used in slightly more than a fourth, a proportion that has held fairly steady.

In the United States, by contrast, about two-thirds of homicides are gun-related.

Canada requires all firearms - handgun, rifle or shotgun - to be registered, and all firearm owners to have a federal license. But the registration system has been plagued with problems, especially cost overruns that have sent the price tag soaring from $119-million to more than $1-billion.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police "has long been a supporter of the registry process, but in fairness, it has been subject to controversy on several fronts," acknowledges Vince Westwick, who advises the organization on legislative issues.

"We don't have a constitutional right to bear arms as in the U.S., but there was a strong feeling this was an infringement on privacy and so on. Now the opposition has shifted to the cost of it, and I would certainly concede it was more expensive than anticipated."

Westwick says law enforcement officers across Canada have seen an increase in the "intensity" of some crimes, especially ones involving unregistered guns, but cautions that it's too early to pin down a reason.

"To say that the firearms registry isn't working, or that there's increased smuggling - there are not enough facts to draw a conclusion other than the fact there is a significant problem."

Martin, the prime minister, pressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the gun-trafficking issue when she visited Canada in October.

"I think there's an obligation on their side to work with us to prevent the smuggling of guns into Canada," he told reporters, claiming that "up to 50 percent of the gun crimes" in the country are committed with U.S. firearms.

However, even gun control advocates say there's been no big surge in cross-border smuggling and that when guns are brought in illegally, it's usually by Canadians, not Americans.

Martin dissolved Parliament in November after a no-confidence vote stemming from a scandal over the Liberal Party's alleged misuse of public funds. Although that remains a big issue, Conservatives appear to be gaining ground with their claim that Liberals are also soft on crime. One of those charged in the Toronto shootings was out on parole at the time.

Cukier, of the gun control coalition, agrees that some of the blame lies with the criminal justice system.

"There are four-year mandatory sentences for a variety of gun-related crimes, but we find those aren't being used. When people bring guns into Canada they are charged with customs violations, which is a slap on the wrist, rather than under the criminal code. The existing laws could be better applied."

Other experts say much of Canada's recent crime stems from drug trafficking, including the deaths of the four Mounties shot while raiding a marijuana farm. Gang violence - such as that in Toronto - is also a major problem and one for which there is no easy solution.

"These street gangs emerge out of low-income, inner-city areas where you get a history of youth problems - unemployment, school dropouts, family problems, poor housing," says Raymond Corrado, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University. "It's classic, it's not different from the United States."

Corrado recently returned from Chicago, which had 25 times as many homicides last year as Vancouver, the biggest city in British Columbia. Still, he understands the attention to Canada's perceived crime wave.

"The concern always across Canada is that if it starts in Toronto or Vancouver, it will spread to other major Canadian cities. The important thing for Canadians is that if you got 20 incidents a year, it seems like an epidemic."

--Information from the National Post and the Globe and Mail was used in this story. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com