Canada’s Most Dangerous Cities

O Canada, how the world loves you! For decades, the U.S.’s northern neighbor has been lauded for its kindness and lovably quirky manners. Just recently, in an international U.S. News & World Report survey of the best countries, Canada came in first, receiving perfect scores for quality of life and social purpose. Yet even nice countries like Canada have their dark spots. And to remind us of that fact, Canada’s premier business publication, Maclean’s, compiles a yearly list of the country’s most dangerous places.

Using the Statistics Canada’s Crime Severity Index (CSI), the Maclean’s list focuses on violent, dangerous offenses and reveals “where incidents of serious crime per capita are most frequent.” According to data in Statistics Canada, the violent crime rate in Canada has been steadily increasing over recent years. And while the COVID-19 pandemic was credited with an almost 2% drop in the overall crime rate in 2020 (via Statistics Canada), the violent crime rate in Canada’s most dangerous cities continued to climb.

The Maclean’s list covers places big and little, but as has long been the case, smaller cities in western Canada — the Prairie provinces and British Columbia — dominated the most recent survey and claimed the top ten spots. Ironically, a majority of the most violent cities are situated in more remote areas, surrounded by breathtaking views and natural splendor. Like the fictional town of Twin Peaks, it appears that a gorgeous exterior can sometimes hide a treacherous core.

Timmins, Ontario — it's moving up, in more ways than one

According to Immigration Timmins, Timmins — located in east-central Ontario, on the Mattagami River — has been churning up gold for more than 100 years. In fact, there’s so much gold in Timmins (population 42,650) that its official slogan is “The City with a Heart of Gold.” It’s also known as country star Shania Twain’s hometown (per Britannica). But like a good country song, it’s seen its share of troubles, landing in the No. 10 spot on Maclean’s most dangerous places list.

In 2018, a Timmins Times reporter boasted that Timmins had moved up on MoneySense magazine’s list of desirable places to live in Canada. Out of 400 surveyed locations, Timmins ranked 155, which is 70 points higher than the previous year. Unfortunately, at the same time, Timmins saw notable increases in violent crimes, including four homicides. In a recent Change.org petition, one resident stated bluntly, “It has become apparent to many of us that the quality of the Timmins’ downtown core is on a downward trajectory … Overdoses, physical and sexual assaults, theft, vandalism, addiction, and other tragedies have become prevalent over the last few years.”

Although local police attempted to downplay the homicide statistic by pointing out that three of the four murders occurred in the same family, they offered no excuses for the higher number of other violent offenses, CTV News reports.

Williams Lake, British Columbia — stampeding its way up the list

Lovely Williams Lake, located in south-central British Columbia, lures tourists with its fishing, river rafting, skiing, and dog sledding, among other outdoor activities. According to British Columbia.com, it’s famous for its Williams Lake Stampede, one of North America’s biggest rodeo events. In addition to the standard rodeo fare, the four-day stampede features wild cow milking, team cattle penning, and pony chariot races. Sadly, along with the stampede, Williams Lake made a name for itself by ranking ninth on the Maclean’s top ten list of dangerous places.

But it’s not all bad news. Williams Lake was the only city on the list to see a decrease in its 2020 violent crime rate. With one homicide and 129 assaults, its annual violent crime rate actually went down by 217%. But based on a population of only 11,309, the overall violent crime rate — fueled by an uptick in sexual assaults — remains disproportionately high in relation to the rest of the country.

According to The Williams Lake Tribune, more than 1,400 people — approximately 12% of the city’s residents — were taken into custody in 2019, and 189 missing persons cases were filed. Per Statista, Canada has an overall per capita incarceration rate below 1%. Compared to the country as a whole, Williams Lake has far more criminal activity per capita.

Highway 16 is revisited in Terrace, British Columbia

The good news for Terrace, which came in eighth on the Maclean’s Crime Severity Index list, is that its overall assault rate dropped by over 1,500% in 2020. The bad news is that its sexual assault and homicide rates went up. 

Located in central British Columbia, Terrace (population 12,373) is the service and supply center for the region, according to Business View Magazine. A former lumber town, it has also reinvented itself as a recreational tourist attraction, offering skiing, hiking, fishing, and other activities. It’s also become a cultural tourist attraction, with excursions to nearby First Nations heritage sites and museums.

Terrace is also an exit on Canada’s infamous Yellowhead Highway 16, or the Highway of Tears, a 724 kilometer stretch of British Columbia known as the location of many mostly unsolved murders and disappearances. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, between 1969 and 2006, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified 18 cases of murdered and disappeared women — 10 of whom were Indigenous — occurring in the Highway 16 area. Some advocates contend the total number of Indigenous victims is actually much higher. Fittingly, Terrace’s one murder victim of 2020 was found in the woods a short distance from Highway 16, according to the Vancouver Sun.

Catfish and cocaine come together in Selkirk, Manitoba

In Selkirk, Manitoba, “where it all comes together,” both homicide and assault rates have been on the rise in recent years. With a population of 10,575, Selkirk — just east of Winnipeg — is a repeat top ten Crime Severity Index contender, rising from 11th to seventh on the Maclean’s list.

Tourism, steel production, and a psychiatric hospital are Selkirk’s main industries, according to Immigroup News. The City of Selkirk website describes the city — which is adjacent to the Red River — as chock full of riverfront and other water-themed attractions. One such attraction is Chuck the Channel Cat, an 11-meter tall sculpture representing the city’s catfish mascot.

But in addition to Chuck the Channel Cat and water activities, Selkirk is into drug use and trafficking. Narcotics, particularly cocaine, and the gangs that distribute them are the driving force behind Selkirk’s rising violent crime rate. According to CBC News, in just one five-day period, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigated three different drug operations in the Selkirk area.

According to the Winnipeg Free Press, the psychiatric hospital has also been the site of various violent crimes. In 2016, two support staffers at the Behavioural Health Foundation’s addictions and mental health facility were bound and brutally beaten by at least two young residents. And the facility’s most notorious resident, convicted killer Earl Joel Wiebe, attempted escape and had violent episodes, for which he was repeatedly jailed, as noted by the National Post.

The hills of peace are at war in Wetaskiwin, Alberta

According to its official website, the city of Wetaskiwin derives its name from a Cree word meaning “the hills of peace.” As described on Wetaskiwin.ca, the central Alberta city with a population of 12,895, is a “secure, connected and inclusive community,” far from the noise and grit of Edmonton — the nearest big city. Among Wetaskiwin’s attractions are the Reynolds-Alberta Car Museum and Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately for city officials, in 2020, Wetaskiwin also distinguished itself by placing sixth on the Maclean’s most dangerous places list. According to a 2018 Maclean’s article, between 2012 and 2017, the city had the fastest-growing Crime Severity Index in Canada. Gang activity, drugs, and a snowballing homeless population were behind much of the city’s crime. But as the Maclean’s article points out, how seriously residents were affected by the problem seemed to depend on which end of town they lived. One poorer local claimed that on his end, “when the sun goes down, the crazies come out.”

Wetaskiwin’s 2020 ranking actually marked a slight improvement from previous years, indicating that perhaps mitigation efforts by local authorities were having some success. But only time will tell if peace can be declared in all the hills of Wetaskiwin.

Quesnel, British Columbia, where 'it's in our nature' … to commit crime?

Taking the fifth spot on Maclean’s most dangerous places list is Quesnel, British Columbia. As reported by CBC News, the small city (population 10,283) is located in the Cariboo Regional District and underwent a rebranding effort in 2017, changing its slogan from “Gold Pan City” to “It’s in Our Nature.” Like Wetaskiwin, Quesnel pushed to market itself as a safe, fun, and affordable alternative to big city living.

Despite the image makeover, Quesnel’s Crime Severity Index rating has been on the high end for years. In 2017, the city’s crime rate was four times the national average and was ranked eighth in that year’s Maclean’s list, per Quesnel Cariboo Observer. And between 2019 and 2020, Maclean’s found that Quesnel saw a whopping 1,235% increase in general assaults and a nearly 146% increase in sexual assaults.

To tackle the increases, the city added to its police force. But as noted in a 2019 Quesnel Cariboo Observer article, officials also pushed back forcefully on the Maclean’s rating system, accusing it of being skewed and unfair. “The crime stats don’t show the rate that you’re actually closing cases or the rate that you’re actually catching perpetrators — they just show the aggregated crime statistics,” the Quesnel mayor stated.

Prince Albert, Saskatchewan is sitting pretty at No. 4

Prince Albert (population 37,578), formally named for Queen Victoria’s husband, is the third-largest city in Saskatchewan. As noted in Isolated Traveller, it was first called kistahpinanihk, which is Cree for “sitting pretty place.” Geographically, it sits between lush aspen parkland to the south and imposing boreal forests to the north. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, it was a pulp and paper mill town until 2006, when it transitioned to become the region’s key service center. It’s also known for its penal institutions (including a federal penitentiary), men’s and women’s correctional facilities, and a young offenders’ institution.

Perhaps fittingly, Prince Albert has placed in the Maclean’s top ten most dangerous places for years, and in the 2020 survey, it came in fourth. Murder rates are particularly high, with six recorded homicides in 2020, including two child victims. According to a Prince Albert Daily Herald article, in the first half of 2021, the city had already recorded six homicides.

As noted in a Global News report, the causes of the ongoing crime problem in Prince Albert are “addictions, mental health issues, gang activity, and poverty.” Gun possession has gone up, and with it, violent offenses. According to CBC News, a large proportion of the area’s gangs are made up of Indigenous youth who are dealing with “deep-rooted issues.” In other words, the painful legacy of British colonization lives on in Prince Albert.

It's always sunny and sometimes violent in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba

Located near Winnipeg in southern Manitoba, Portage la Prairie (population 13,936) is known for its river views, urban forest, and relatively warm, sunny weather (the sunniest in Canada, according to the city’s official website, Island on the Prairies). Former Canada Prime Minister Arthur Meighen hailed from here, and in 1976, Sasquatch was allegedly sighted at nearby Crescent Lake — an incident immortalized at the city’s Bigfoot Bingo parlor.

However, in 2020, Portage la Prairie came in a grim third in Maclean’s list of most dangerous places, up two points from the previous survey. As reported in The Portage Citizen, drug trafficking — particularly crystal meth distribution — is an ongoing problem in the city. And according to Discover Westman, fentanyl and cocaine were recently added to the mix. One local anti-crime organizer claimed that discarded drug needles could be found in any Portage la Prairie park.

In 2020, the small city was rocked by a particularly vicious homicide, as reported by CTV News. The body of the 27-year-old victim — a rehabilitated meth addict — was found buried under a bush in a homeowner’s garden, having been moved days before from a house that burned down in a suspected arson. Four Winnipeg residents were arrested for the murder, at least one of whom was a known meth user. So while the skies over Portage la Prairie may be blue, its meth problem remains crystal clear.

In the beginning, there was North Battleford, Saskatchewan

Coming in at No. 2 on the Maclean’s list and holding steady is North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Once home to Joni Mitchell, North Battleford (population 14,439) is situated on the eastern end of Highway 16. According to the City of North Battleford, the region offers residents an abundance of cheap housing, close proximity to scenic parks and lakes, and flexible business opportunities. Unmentioned in the city’s public relations campaign is North Battleford’s long-standing reputation for violent crime.

Back in 2016 and 2017, North Battleford was the most dangerous place in Canada, according to a Maclean’s article. The violent crime rate was two times that of the whole Saskatchewan province — itself rated the most violent in the country — thanks mostly to gang-infused cocaine trafficking. In 2019, arrests for sexual assault started increasing throughout Saskatchewan, a phenomenon Sasktoday attributes to the #MeToo movement.

Locals lamented the city’s distinction as the “crime capital of Canada.” In 2017, to combat their problem, officials initiated a neighborhood watch program called Eyes That Care, featuring crime-preventing environmental designs. Among the ideas tried were brightly colored murals, more and better lighting, and free motion-sensing lights distributed to residents. Given North Battleford’s longevity on the Maclean’s list, however, it would appear that Eyes That Care is more illusionary than visionary.

Thompson, Manitoba wins the dubious distinction award — again and again

Earning the top spot on the Maclean’s 2020 most dangerous places in Canada list is Thompson, Manitoba (population 14,146). For the fourth year in a row, Thompson had the highest rates of violent crime in Canada. In the most recent survey, its homicide rate showed a 21% increase, and its sexual assault rate an almost 340% increase.

According to Britannica, Thompson — located in the Mystery-Moak lakes area — was established in 1956 by the International Nickel Company of Canada and built as a planned community. The beauty and ruggedness of the north-central mining town were saluted in the 1998 song “Thompson Girl” by The Tragically Hip. But appropriately, the tune then became the theme song for the 2018 season of the CBC true-crime podcast “Someone Knows Something,” which investigated the 1986 unsolved murder of Thompson youth Kerrie Brown.

Homicides in Thompson continue, and as noted in a November 2019 Maclean’s article, the city struggles with stabbings, assaults, gun crimes, and other violent offenses. Unique to Thompson are the “machete kids” who roam the city’s wooded Spirit Way trail. According to one local property manager, the young transient offenders terrorize people walking the path, stabbing and cutting them across the face. And using improvised weapons, they often target the city’s homeless population, according to Maclean’s.

For years, Thompson residents have been calling for more crime-fighting resources and a coordinated commitment between local and federal agencies. As The Tragically Hip would say, “it’s time to end this siege together.”

Winnipeg and Thunder Bay are also-rans but still dangerous

Because the Maclean’s Crime Severity Index rating system considers the per capita rate of violent crime rather than the total number of violent offenses, bigger cities in Canada ended up farther down on its most dangerous places list. Of the cities with populations larger than 100,000, the capital city Winnipeg (population 753,674) was easily the most dangerous, coming in 13th on the list. With its various active gangs — including the Indian Posse, Mad Cowz, and Bloods  Winnipeg’s many homicides (22 in 2018) and other violent offenses were derived chiefly from drug trafficking, per CBC News. In fact, many drug-related arrests in Manitoba’s top ten cities had connections to Winnipeg gangs.

Thunder Bay and area (population 118,253) in west-central Ontario ranked 14th. Comprised of Thunder Bay, Port Arthur, and Fort William (per Britannica), the Thunder Bay area saw a 168% increase in its violent crime rate. And according to Statista, the region actually had the highest homicide rate in the country in 2019. Other large cities on Maclean’s 2020 list are Edmonton — with over a million residents— which came in 25th, and Regina and area (population 233,170). As noted by World Atlas, Regina was once known as the murder capital of Canada and is still considered one of the most dangerous cities in the country.

Fortunately for tourists, Maclean’s ranked popular destination cities Toronto, Vancouver, and Montréal 39th, 59th, and 63rd, respectively.

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