Lorrie McClinton’s fear began she years ago, when she was attacked by an intruder at her sister’s home in Newton, in southwestern British Columbia. She was alone in the house when she answered a knock at the door. A man pushed the door open, grabbed McClinton by the neck and threw her against the wall where she lay stunned while he ransacked the house. The incident left an indelible mark on McClinton, now 27, a homemaker from Surrey, B.C., 40 km south of Vancouver. “I’m scared to death to stay by myself,” she said in a follow-up interview after taking part in the Maclean ’s/Decima poll. Now living with her boyfriend and their two-year-old son, she keeps a big dog, has double chains on the doors and fastens the windows shut with wooden struts. She leaves the lights on when she is sleeping alone, keeps
a phone and a knife nearby and has a baseball bat under the bed. Her boyfriend, she added, has taught her how to break someone’s neck.
McClinton was among the 62 per cent of respondents who said that they are taking more precautions to ensure their personal safety than they used to. Indeed, the poll discovered alarming levels of anxiety, especially among women—and even among the vast majority of respondents who have never been victims of crime. A quarter of all respondents—and 44 per cent of women—expressed concerns about walking the streets of their own communities at night. Almost half—and 56 per cent of women—said that they would be concerned if they saw a group of young people approaching them (questions 38 to 48 in the poll text, page 32). The results, said pollster Allan Gregg, president of Decima Research
Ltd., “suggest that the notion of Canada as a peaceable kingdom applies to history, but not to the chronicles of modern-day times.”
The poll also revealed signs of an increasing interest in handgun ownership. Six per cent of respondents said that they own such a weapon—still a relatively small figure but statistically significant, says Gregg, because it is double the percentage found in a poll published in the July 3,1989, issue, when Maclean’s and Decima asked the same question. Of the nonowners of handguns, 14 per cent—far more of them men than women—said that they would buy one if Canadian laws made their purchase easier.
The concern about personal safety is most evident in Canada’s cities. Six out of 10 residents from communities with a population of 100,000 or more—and eight out of 10 in Toronto—said that they keep their doors locked at all times, even when they are home. Conversely, six out of 10 respondents from smaller communities said that they do not always lock up.
Toronto in particular emerged as a focus for growing concerns about personal safety. Respondents all across Ontario were more likely than those in other provinces to be taking more safety precautions (68 per cent, compared with 55 per cent in Quebec and Atlantic Canada at the other extreme). But that figure reached its peak in Toronto, at 71 per cent. And after several years of persistent reports of youth crime and gang activities in Toronto’s news media, that city’s residents also registered the most negative assessment of young people. Two-thirds of Torontonians said that the behavior of youths had worsened in the past five years, compared with just under half of respondents nationwide.
According to the federal government’s Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, crimes of violence (which include homicide, attempted murder, sexual and other assaults, and robbery) rose to 248,992 in 1989 from 147,528 in 1979, an increase of 69 per cent, while the population went up by just eight per cent. The experts disagree over whether fear has grown out of proportion to the actual risk. Toronto police Staff Sgt. John Andrews noted that at least part of the statistical increase is due to the fact that victims report incidents much more readily now than they did a decade ago. Criminologist Paul Brantingham of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said that the situation in Canada does not warrant a fortress mentality. “There is a group of people that keeps saying we have a real, significant and growing crime problem like the United States,” said Brantingham. “But on the whole, we have a much lower crime rate. It’s important to keep that in perspective.”
Still, many officials of women’s groups say that they cannot allow women’s fears to be trivialized. “The reality is that 27 per cent of women in Canada can expect to be sexually assaulted in their lives,” said Connie Guberman, co-ordinator of urban safety initiatives at the Metro Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children in Toronto. “Violence against women is with us wherever we go,’’she added. And in fact,groups in many Canadian cities are already working on making the streets safer—especially for women— with better lighting and other measures.
But certainly, personal experience alone did not seem to justify some levels of concern registered in the poll. Eighty-two per cent of respondents had never had their homes broken into, and half that group had never even heard
of a break-in in their neighborhood. Asked if they had ever been mugged or physically assaulted, 90 per cent said no—a response that did not vary significantly between men and women or from country to city. Only four per cent of seniors reported that they had been physically assaulted, but fully 37 per cent of them said that they were afraid to be alone at night in the streets of their communities.
As for handguns, federal law mainly restricts their ownership to genuine gun collectors or people who can establish that they need them for protection, such as jewelry couriers or prospectors in remote areas. In a series of follow-up interviews, respondents who acknowledged that they owned handguns said that they had acquired them legitimately for collections. Lee Farris, 42, a retired clothing retailer from Saint John, N.B., owns three handguns as part of a collection, but said that he
would never consider using them for selfdefence. On the other hand, Luc Guillot, a 43year-old truck fleet dispatcher from Montreal who owns no handguns, said that he would buy one for personal protection if allowed. “If I needed it badly, I would use it,” added Guillot, who said that he had been mugged and had his house burgled in the past five years.
Clearly, experiences like that left their mark on Guillot and other respondents. Among the 10 per cent who reported having been mugged or physically assaulted, concern for personal safety was significantly higher. While 35 per cent of that group expressed fear of being alone in the streets at night, the number dropped to 24 per cent among those who had not been victimized.
In the poll’s two questions about the behavior of young people, community size played a significant role in the responses. While 43 per cent of rural residents said that young people were behaving worse than they used to, 54 per cent in the biggest cities expressed the same opinion. In rural areas, while four out of 10 respondents said that they would be concerned
if they saw a group of young people in their way, almost six out of 10 big-city residents expressed that fear. Toronto’s Staff Sgt. Andrews said that a rash of crime by younger people in cities such as Toronto is one indication that behavior in that group has changed. “Somewhere along the line, discipline got lost,” said Andrews. “We need to be able to sit down with our kids, to really take the time.” But he also noted that youths are much more likely to create problems for people in their own age-groups than for others.
Follow-up interviews with respondents illustrated a wide range of attitudes towards young people. Nurse Noreen Bowen, 26, who lives alone in a high-rise apartment building in the south end of Halifax, an area with high levels of drug abuse, rapes and muggings, said that young people have changed for the worse. “They’re rougher, they’re tougher kids,” says Bowen. If she were approaching a group of teenagers on the street, “I’d go the other way,” she declared. “I’d avoid them.” But 36-year-old Ellen Lehman expressed a different view. A part-time airport bus driver in Millet, Alta., a farming town of 1,700, 50 km south of Edmonton, Lehman is one of just four per cent of respondents who said that young people in their communities were getting much better. “They’re growing up a lot quicker today,” said Lehman. “A lot of people think society’s going down the drain. But as these kids grow up, they have to look after themselves. They’re taking more responsibility at a younger age.” Still, Lehman’s sunny outlook had few supporters. Indeed, nearly four out of 10 respondents were so alarmed by young people’s behavior that they said there should be security systems or guards on duty in public schools during the school day. Support for that suggestion reached a majority in Quebec (60 per cent) and in cities with populations of more than one million (53 per cent).
Taken along with other sections of the poll—on national unity, the political system, the economy—the questions on personal safety created a disquieting picture of a nation that sees its values slipping away. Said Decima’s Gregg: “There is a sense of losing everything you would count on, the old notion that Canada is the best country in the world.” If that is happening, it is despite experts’ insistence that many Canadians’ concerns about their personal safety are unfounded. Cautioned Simon Fraser’s Brantingham: “There’s a difference between prudence and panic.” The difficulty, for the many Canadians who find the world increasingly frightening, is to know where to draw the line between the two.
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