Canadians' perceptions of personal safety and crime, 2009

By Shannon Brennan

The effects of crime are vast and varied, and may result in many physical, financial, and emotional consequences for those directly involved. Moreover, the effects of crime can extend beyond victims (Jackson 2006, Gardner 2008). Previous research has shown that indirect exposure to crime can impact feelings of security within entire communities, and may create a fear of crime. Fear of crime refers to the fear, rather than the probability, of being a victim of crime, and may not be reflective of the actual prevalence of crime (Fitzgerald 2008).

Self-reported victimization data have shown that, in Canada, rates of victimization have remained stable over the past decade (Perreault and Brennan 2010). In the same vein, police-reported data has shown decreases in both the amount and severity of crime, with the crime rate reaching its lowest point since 1973 (Brennan and Dauvergne 2011). Despite these findings, crime continues to remain an issue of concern for many Canadians.

Using data from the 2009 General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization, this Juristat article examines the perceptions of personal safety and crime of Canadians 15 years and older living in the 10 provinces. More specifically, it looks at their overall level of satisfaction with their personal safety from crime over time at the national, provincial and census metropolitan area levels. In addition, this article examines Canadians' feelings of safety when performing various activities in their communities, and their use of crime prevention techniques in the previous 12 months. Finally, Canadians' perceptions of the prevalence of crime and social disorder in their neighbourhoods are explored.

Perceptions of personal safety from crime

Most Canadians satisfied with their personal safety from crime

Overall, most Canadians feel satisfied with their personal safety from crime. In 2009, over 9 in 10 Canadians (93%) said that they felt satisfied with their personal safety from crime, a proportion similar to 2004 (94%), the last time this information was collected. 

In general, Canadians living in the eastern part of the country expressed higher levels of satisfaction with their personal safety from crime compared to those in the west. For example, residents of Prince Edward Island reported one of the highest levels of satisfaction (97%), while those in British Columbia reported one of the lowest (89%) (Table 1). These differences in satisfaction may be partly influenced by variations in crime and victimization rates which, in general, tend to be higher in the western provinces.

Despite relatively high levels of satisfaction, many provinces reported slight decreases in satisfaction between 2004 and 2009. Among those reporting decreases were Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.

Similar to findings at the national and provincial levels, the majority of Canadians living in census metropolitan areas (CMAs) felt satisfied with their personal safety from crime. Mirroring the provincial results, the CMAs reporting among the highest levels of satisfaction were in the east, namely, Kingston, Moncton and Guelph, while the three CMAs reporting among the lowest levels of satisfaction were located in western Canada and included Vancouver, Winnipeg and Edmonton. These results mirror those of 2004, which also found residents of western CMAs to be among the least satisfied (Table 2).

Satisfaction with personal safety from crime highest among youth and young adults

As crime and victimization rates vary among different Canadians, so do perceptions of safety. Previous studies have shown that fear of crime is not experienced by all citizens uniformly, and may differ based on sex, age, and household income (Keown 2010, Scarborough et al. 2010). The 2009 GSS lends support to this research, as many of the socio-demographic characteristics collected by the survey were found to be associated with increased levels of satisfaction with personal safety from crime.1

Despite experiencing higher rates of victimization in 2009 (Perreault and Brennan 2010), younger Canadians were more likely than older Canadians to indicate that they felt satisfied with their personal safety from crime (Table 3). More specifically, 94% of those aged 15 to 24 said that they felt very or somewhat satisfied with their personal safety from crime, compared to 90% of those aged 65 and over.

Increased levels of satisfaction with safety were also seen among males, as well as those who had household incomes of $20,000 or above, were non-Aboriginal, and did not have an activity limitation, such as a physical or mental disability. The only socio-demographic characteristics measured by the GSS that were not found to be associated with levels of satisfaction were sexual orientation, visible minority status and immigrant status (Table 3).

Victims of crime report lower levels of satisfaction with personal safety

In addition to demographic characteristics, experiences of victimization have been shown to influence perceptions of safety, with those who have been victimized generally feeling less safe than those who have not (Keown 2010, Aucoin and Beauchamp 2007). This was found to be true among Canadians in 2009.

Overall, Canadians who reported being victimized in the previous 12 months were less likely to feel satisfied with their safety compared to those who had not been victimized. More specifically, 94% of Canadians who had not been victimized reported feeling satisfied, with this proportion decreasing to 87% for those who had been victimized two times or more (Chart 1).

Chart 1
Self-reported feelings of satisfaction with personal safety from crime, by frequency of victimization, 2009

Data table for chart 1

Chart 1 Self-reported feelings of satisfaction with personal safety from crime, by frequency of victimization, 2009

† reference category
* significantly different from reference category (p < 0.05)
Note: Data from Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2009.

While frequency of victimization was associated with feeling satisfied with one's safety, the type of victimization was not. In 2009, Canadians who self-reported being a victim of a violent crime were just as satisfied with their safety as Canadians who reported being the victim of a non-violent crime.

Most Canadians feel safe in their neighbourhoods after dark

The 2009 GSS asked Canadians about their feelings and perceptions of safety in their neighbourhood while performing certain activities, including being home alone at night, walking alone after dark, and waiting for or using public transportation at night. Studies have shown that fear of crime is often situational, and can vary depending on such factors as location and time of day (del Carmen et. al 2000). The findings from the 2009 GSS support this research.

Overall, most Canadians reported feeling safe regardless of the activity. For example, in 2009, more than 8 in 10 (83%) Canadians said that they were not at all worried when home alone in the evening, while 90% of those who walked alone in their neighbourhood at night felt safe doing so. Canadians appeared to feel less at ease, however, when using or waiting for public transportation at night. Of those Canadians who had access to and used public transportation in their communities, just under 6 in 10 (58%) said that they weren't at all worried when waiting for or using public transportation at night.

In general, feelings of safety did not vary greatly across the country, as the majority of residents in Canada's CMAs reported similar levels of worry when home alone, or when walking alone in their neighbourhood at night. That said, feelings of safety when using or waiting for public transportation varied significantly among cities (Table 4). Overall, residents of Winnipeg and Edmonton consistently expressed the lowest feelings of safety for all three activities, while residents of Moncton expressed among the highest for two—being home alone at night or using public transportation at night.

Across all activities, women were significantly less likely to report feeling safe compared to men (Chart 2). For example, 90% of men said that they did not feel worried while home alone compared to 76% of women. The discrepancy between men and women was even larger when asked about using public transportation and walking alone after dark. Over 7 in 10 (73%) Canadian men said that they weren't at all worried when using public transportation compared to just over 4 in 10 (42%) women. Further, while over 9 in 10 (95%) men said that they feel very or reasonably safe when walking alone in their neighbourhood after dark, the same was true for more than 8 in 10 (85%) women.

Chart 2
Self-reported feelings of safety while performing various activities, by sex, 2009

Data table for chart 2

Chart 2 Self-reported feelings of safety while performing various activities, by sex, 2009

† reference category
* significantly different from reference category (p < 0.05)
1. Includes only those who had access to public transportation in their communities.
Note: Data from Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2009.

Fear of crime can often act as a barrier in preventing people from participating in or performing certain activities (Woolnough 2009). Overall, just under 6 in 10 (59%) Canadians said that they would use public transportation alone after dark more often if they felt safer from crime; while close to 4 in 10 (39%) said that they would walk alone after dark more often. While fear of crime may present limitations to the lives of all Canadians, these barriers are often compounded for women (Woolnough 2009). The 2009 GSS found that women were more likely than men (41% versus 35%) to say that they would walk alone after dark more often if they felt safer from crime (Chart 3).

Chart 3
Canadians who would perform various activities if they felt safer from crime, by sex, 2009

Data table for chart 3

Chart 3 Canadians who would perform various activities if they felt safer from crime, by sex, 2009

† reference category
* significantly different from reference category (p < 0.05)
1. Includes only those who had access to public transportation in their communities.
Note: Data from Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2009.

Victims of crime more likely than non-victims to have used a crime prevention method in the previous 12 months

While the vast majority of Canadians reported being satisfied with their personal safety, many took precautions to protect themselves from becoming a victim of crime. For example, close to two-thirds of Canadians said that they had taken at least one form of precautionary measure in their lifetime to protect themselves from crime, with close to 4 in 10 (39%) having done so in the 12 months preceding the survey. Overall, Canadians were no more likely to have used a crime prevention method in 2009 than in 2004. The most common precautionary action taken by Canadians in the 12 months preceding the survey involved changing their routine, activities or avoiding certain people or places (27%). Other common precautions included installing new locks or security bars (13%), and installing burglar alarms or motion detector lights (10%).

Previous research has shown that the diminished feelings of safety produced by victimization often result in increased use of preventative measures (Aucoin and Beauchamp 2007). Overall, Canadians who had been victimized in the 12 months preceding the survey were more likely than those who had not been victimized to state that they had used at least one type of crime prevention method (57% versus 32%).

In the same vein, the use of crime prevention methods was more than one and a half times higher among people who said that they were dissatisfied with their personal safety compared to those who said they were satisfied (60% versus 37%). Furthermore, many of the same CMAs where higher levels of dissatisfaction with safety were reported, namely, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Edmonton, were also among those where residents reported higher use of crime prevention methods (Table 5).

Perceptions of crime and social disorder

Majority of Canadians believe levels of crime have remained the same over past 5 years

In addition to asking Canadians about their fear of crime, the 2009 GSS also asked about their perceptions of the prevalence of crime and social disorder in their neighbourhood.

Although studies have shown both the prevalence and severity of crime to be decreasing (Brennan and Dauvergne 2011), relatively few Canadians believed this to be the case in their neighbourhood. More specifically, when asked about the level of crime in their neighbourhood compared to 5 years earlier, many Canadians (62%) stated that it had remained the same, while over one-quarter believed that crime had increased (26%). Less than 1 in 10 (6%) believed that crime had decreased in their neighbourhood.

Residents of Abbotsford–Mission, Edmonton and St. John's were among the most likely to perceive an increase in crime in their neighbourhoods, while those living in Regina and Quebec were among the most likely to believe crime had decreased (Table 6).

Perceptions of the prevalence of crime in one's neighbourhood were also found to be associated with one's satisfaction with personal safety from crime. People who were dissatisfied with their personal safety from crime were more than twice as likely as those who said they were satisfied to perceive an increase in crime in their neighbourhood (55% and 24%). Women were more likely than men to perceive an increase in the amount of crime in their neighbourhood (28% versus 23%), a finding that may be partly related to their greater feelings of dissatisfaction. 

While few Canadians felt that crime in their neighbourhood was decreasing, many felt that crime was lower compared to other neighbourhoods in Canada. Overall, more than 6 in 10 (61%) Canadians said that crime was lower in their neighbourhood than in others; while close to 3 in 10 (29%) felt that their neighbourhood had comparable levels of crime. Fewer than 1 in 10 (8%) Canadians felt that crime was higher in their neighbourhood.

Residents of Abbotsford–Mission, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto were among the most likely to believe that crime was higher in their neighbourhoods (Table 7). For the most part, these perceptions correspond to trends in police-reported data, which show crime rates and severity in Abbotsford–Mission, Vancouver and Winnipeg to be higher than the national average. The one exception was Toronto, which in 2010 had the lowest crime rate of all census metropolitan areas (Brennan and Dauvergne 2011).

Majority of Canadians do not perceive issues of social disorder to a be a problem in their neighbourhood

While crime and victimization can contribute to feelings of insecurity, so too can signs of social disorder, such as graffiti, prostitution and homelessness (Wyant 2008). Overall, many Canadians did not feel that issues of social disorder were a large concern in their community. Just under one-quarter (24%) felt that issues such as vandalism, public intoxication, prostitution or drug use posed a very or fairly big problem in their neighbourhood. Among the issues of greatest concern were people using or dealing drugs in public places and vandalism, graffiti and other deliberate damage (Chart 4).

Chart 4
Canadians who feel that various measures of social disorder are a very or fairly big problem in their neighbourhood, 2009

Data table for chart 4

Chart 4 Canadians who feel that various measures of social disorder are a very or fairly big problem in their neighbourhood, 2009

Note: Data from Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2009.

At the CMA level, residents of Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Montréal were among the most likely to say that at least one issue of social disorder was a very or fairly big problem in their neighbourhood, a finding consistent with 2004 (Table 8). Conversely, residents of Oshawa, Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke were among the least likely to say that an issue of social disorder was a problem in their neighbourhood.

In addition to perceiving greater amounts of crime, those who felt less satisfied with their safety from crime were more likely to state that issues of social disorder were a problem in their neighbourhood. Overall, those who were less satisfied with their safety were almost twice as likely as those who were satisfied to say that at least one form of social disorder was a very or fairly big problem (45% versus 23%).

Summary

In 2009, the majority of Canadians felt satisfied with their personal safety from crime, both overall and while performing specific activities in their neighbourhoods. In general, Canadians living in the eastern part of the country reported some of the highest levels of satisfaction, while those in the west reported some of the lowest. Increased satisfaction with safety from crime was found to be associated with being young, male and having a household income of $20,000 or above. Although most Canadians reported feeling satisfied with their safety, many used crime prevention methods to protect themselves from victimization.

In addition to being satisfied with their personal safety from crime, many Canadians believed that crime levels have remained the same over the past 5 years. Further, many Canadians perceived their neighbourhoods to be safer compared to others, and most did not consider signs of social disorder, such as vandalism and prostitution, to be a very or fairly big problem in their community.

Detailed data tables

Table 1 Canadians' self-reported feelings of satisfaction with their personal safety from crime, by province, 2004 and 2009

Table 2 Canadians' self-reported feelings of satisfaction with their personal safety from crime, by census metropolitan area, 2004 and 2009

Table 3 Canadians' self-reported feelings of satisfaction with their personal safety from crime by selected demographic characteristics, 2009

Table 4 Canadians' feelings of safety while performing various activities, by census metropolitan area, 2009

Table 5 Canadians' use of crime prevention techniques in the past 12 months, by census metropolitan area, 2004 and 2009

Table 6 Canadians' perceptions of crime in their neighbourhood, by census metropolitan area, 2009

Table 7 Canadians' perceptions of the prevalence of crime in their neighbourhood compared to other neighbourhoods, by census metropolitan area, 2009

Table 8 Canadians who perceive at least one issue of social disorder to be a very or fairly big problem in their neighbourhood, by census metropolitan area, 2004 and 2009

References

Aucoin, Kathy and Diane Beauchamp. 2007. "Impacts and consequences of victimization, GSS 2004." Juristat.Vol. 27, no. 1. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 85-002-XIE. (accessed on September 23, 2011).

Brennan, Shannon and Mia Dauvergne. 2011. "Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2010." Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X. (accessed on September 23, 2011).

del Carmen, A., O. E. Polk, C. Segal and R. L. III Bing. 2000. "Fear of crime on campus: Examining fear variables of CRCJ majors and non majors in pre- and post-serious crime environments." Journal of Security Administration. No. 23, pages 21-36.

Fitzgerald, Robin. 2008. Fear of crime and the neighbourhood context in Canadian cities. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-561-M. Ottawa. Crime and Justice Research Paper Series, no.13. (accessed on September 23, 2011).

Gardner, D. 2008. Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. McClelland & Stewart. Toronto.

Jackson, Jonathan. 2006. "Introducing fear of crime to risk research." Risk Analysis. Vol. 26, no. 1, pages 253-264.

Keown, Leslie-Anne. 2010. "Precautions taken to avoid victimization: A gender perspective." Canadian Social Trends. No. 89. Summer 2010. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-008-X. (accessed on September 23, 2011).

Perreault, Samuel and Shannon Brennan. 2010. "Criminal victimization in Canada, 2009." Juristat.Vol. 30, no. 2. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X. (accessed on February 9, 2011).

Scarborough, Brittney K., Toya Z. Like-Haislip, Kenneth J. Novak, Wayne L. Lucas and Leanne F. Alarid. 2010. "Assessing the relationship between individual characteristics, neighborhood context, and fear of crime." Journal of Criminal Justice.Vol. 38, Issue 4, July-August 2010, pages 819-826.

Woolnough, A. D. 2009. "Fear of crime on campus: Gender differences in use of self-protective behaviours at an urban university." Security Journal. No. 22, pages 40-55.

Wyant, B. 2008. "Multilevel impacts of perceived incivilities and perceptions of crime risk on fear of crime isolating endogenous impacts." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. February 2008. Vol. 45, no. 1, pages 39-64.

Methodology for the General Social Survey on Victimization

In 2009, Statistics Canada conducted the victimization cycle of the General Social Survey for the fifth time. Previous cycles were conducted in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2004. The objectives of the survey are to provide estimates of Canadians' personal experiences of eight offence types, examine risk factors associated with victimization, examine reporting rates to police, measure the nature and extent of spousal violence, measure fear of crime and examine public perceptions of crime and the criminal justice system.

Sampling
The target population included all persons 15 years and older in the 10 Canadian provinces, excluding full-time residents of institutions. Households were selected by a telephone sampling method called Random Digit Dialling (RDD). Households without telephones or with only cellular phone service were excluded. Combined, these two groups represented approximately 9% of the target population (Residential Telephone Service Survey, (RTSS), December 2008). Thus, the coverage for 2009 was 91%.

Once a household was contacted, an individual 15 years or older was randomly selected to respond to the survey. The sample in 2009 was approximately 19,500 households, a smaller sample than in 2004 (24,000).

Data collection
Data collection took place from February to November 2009 inclusively. The sample was evenly distributed over the 10 months to represent seasonal variation in the information. A typical interview lasted 45 minutes. Prior to collection, all GSS questions went through qualitative and pilot testing.

Response rates
Of the 31,510 households that were selected for the GSS Cycle 23 sample, 19,422 usable responses were obtained, representing a response rate of 61.6%. Types of non-response included those who refused to participate, could not be reached, or could not speak English or French. Respondents in the sample were weighted so that their responses represent the non-institutionalized Canadian population aged 15 years or over, in the ten provinces. Each person who responded to the 2009 GSS represented roughly 1,400 people in the Canadian population aged 15 years and over.

Data limitations
As with any household survey, there are some data limitations. The results are based on a sample and are therefore subject to sampling error. Somewhat different results might have been obtained if the entire population had been surveyed. This Juristat uses the coefficient of variation (CV) as a measure of the sampling error. Any estimate that has a high CV (over 33.3%) has not been published because the estimate is too unreliable. In these cases, the symbol 'F' is used in place of an estimate in the figures and data tables. An estimate that has a CV between 16.6 and 33.3 should be used with caution and the symbol 'E' is referenced with the estimate. Where descriptive statistics and cross-tabular analysis were used, statistically significant differences were determined using 95% confidence intervals.

Using the 2009 GSS sample design and sample size, an estimate of a given proportion of the total population, expressed as a percentage is expected to be within 0.95 percentage points of the true proportion 19 times out of 20.

Note

1. Social, demographic and economic characteristics were examined individually. The results do not account for possible interactions between these characteristics.

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