While crime has been a big political issue in the U.S. in the last thirty years, there is a sense that crime is becoming more important on Canada's political agenda. Public pressure for stricter gun laws, young offender laws and anti-gang laws shows that Canadians are .increasingly preoccupied with personal safety. Canada's crime situation is often assessed in comparison with the U.S. crime problem. However, the interpretation of the difference between the two countries depends heavily on the analytical design that is being used, on the indicators that are selected. This article examines the prevalence of four selected crimes between the two countries and introduces controls for regional variations and city size. Its aim is to provide a detailed interpretation of the difference between the two countries. In essence, no explanation of the difference in crime between Canada and the United Stares can be adequately tested if the problem itself is misspecified.
In the past three decades, a number of studies have compared the prevalence of crime between the United States and Canada. In most cases, it was found that crime was more frequent in the U.S., and non-specific explanations were offered (i.e., culture, laws, national character, among others). However, a review of studies shows that much emphasis has been given to homicide, which represents a very infrequent type of crime, and for which the U.S. situation can be explained by very specific or peculiar factors. Determinants of the homicide rate are quite different from those of burglary, car theft and robbery. In 1997 Zimring and Hawkins, two influential criminologists, published Crime Is Not the Problem, which shows that the major difference between the U. S. and Canada is the level of lethal violence. Using victimization surveys, they argue that the level of crime in the two countries is similar but that there are more homicides in the U.S. because guns are more prevalent.
Numerous international comparisons of crime have been conducted in the fields of criminology and sociology. However, they are confronted with a number of problems, especially as concerns the availability and validity of empirical data. Before undertaking an international comparison of the incidence of crime, we must first make sure that crime indicators are comparable. Homicide, robbery, burglary and car theft are the crimes most commonly used for comparison. These offences are better indicators of criminal activity than others (such as sexual or physical assault) since a large fraction of the crimes committed are known to police (Cusson, 1990) and because the differences in legal definitions across countries are less important than for other forms of crimes (such as fraud or drinking and driving).
The dark figure of crime (i.e., the proportion of crimes that are not reported to authorities) does not represent a major problem for comparison since it might be assumed that the rate of reportability is fairly constant across countries. Even if data on this subject for the U.S. and Canada are only scattered, there are no a priori reasons to think that differences in the two countries' residents in their propensity of reporting their victimization to the police would be a major factor in explaining differences in crime rates. Hindelang (1974) has shown that, in police data and victimization survey results, "the two sources of data lead to rather similar conclusions about areas of the country (Northeast, North Central, South or West) and places (urban, suburban, or rural). . ." (14). In a cross-national victimization survey, van Dijk, Mayhew and Killias (1990) report that there is little difference between Canadians and Americans on the percentage of victims reporting their crime to the police for burglary (respectively 80.6% vs. 78.9%) and robbery (56.5% vs. 59.5%). However, Americans were more likely to report car thefts than Canadians (97.6% vs. 82.4%).
Major Explanations of the Crime Gap between Canada and the U.S.
Early comparisons of crime rates in U. S. and Canada have shown that they were higher south of the border than north (Clark, 1976). Lipset (1990) showed how the way in which the countries developed their West had an impact on crime: in the U.S., settlers arrived before the police; settlers in Canada arrived after the Mounties. At this time in history, American settlers were populists and were not particularly inclined to submit to any form of central power. In contrast, Canadians wanted to follow British traditions and were anti-revolutionary. If those differences may have had something to do with crime in the 19th century, they are implausible explanations of differences between the two countries at the end of the 20th century (Baer, Grabb and Johnston, 1990).
Seymour Martin Lipset has analysed observable differences between the American and Canadian crime rates as part of a larger comparison of the two countries. In Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions in the United States and Canada (1990), the author explains why homicide, political protest and drug use are more frequent south of the border than north of it. Lipset argues that the greater prevalence of violence and deviance in the U. S. might be explained by the fact that Americans are more individualistic than Canadians. In consequence, Americans do not like to see the State in their personal business. Most Canadians, however, are willing to sacrifice part of their liberty for the good of the community. Therefore, Canadians generally favour stiff restrictions in matters of gun possession, agree with the prohibition of smoking in public places, and do not mind a strict drinking and driving enforcement.
In general, Lipset argues for a cultural explanation of the differences in crime rates between the two countries. However, if these cultural differences are real, and if values have anything to do with crime rates, one might ask why differences in crime rates vary from one form of crime to the other. Hagan (1991) addresses this problem by comparing a variety of data from the two countries. He notes that the more serious the crime, the greater the difference between the two countries. According to Hagan: "In sum, we (Canadians) seem individually and collectively more violent than some, but nonetheless more peaceful than most, and this is particularly apparent in comparison to the United States" (49). In explaining differences in the prevalence of the most serious forms of deviance between the two countries, Hagan argues that it has to do with "(1) the early tradition of strict legal control initiated in the development of Canada's northern and western frontier, and (2) the 'Imperial Connection' linking Canada to the elite-based tradition of Great Britain. Together with a more conservative set of national values, these factors are offered in explanation of Canadian-American differences in the incidence of the more serious forms of deviance" (223). Hagan contends that in the area of crime, Canadian policies and procedures have been more repressive than American ones. But there is more to the …