TORONTO - Police-reported hate crimes declined across the country for a second consecutive year, according to figures released by Statistics Canada on Thursday, but experts cautioned against taking the numbers at face value.
The data agency used information from police services collected in 2011 to track hate crimes — criminal acts motivated by hate which can be violent or non-violent.
In total, 1,332 hate crimes were reported or 3.9 hate crimes per 100,000 members of the population — a rate 5 per cent lower than in 2010.
Ontario accounted for just over half of all police-reported hate crimes in 2011, with three cities in the province's south holding the highest rates.
While some might wonder how the retirement haven of Peterborough, Ont., ranked highest, one observer said the figures might signal that the city's residents were among the best at reporting hate crimes.
"Clearly there's differences in the willingness of Canadians to report hate crimes. I think where we may need more research is along that dimension," said Vic Satzewich, a sociology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, a city that ranked second when it came to hate crime percentages.
"The high rate for Hamilton and Peterborough is not necessarily a bad news story, I think ironically it could be a good thing."
Satzewich, who has studied race, ethnicity and policing, said he was surprised cities like Thunder Bay, Ont., Edmonton and Regina didn't rank higher in terms of the frequency of hate crimes due to anecdotal evidence which has long suggested racism against First Nation populations in those communities.
"I actually think it's more of a bad news story for them...Those low numbers I don't think speak well, actually, of victims of hate crimes feeling like they can report these things to the authorities."
Meanwhile, in the cities that ranked higher in terms of hate crimes, Satzewich suggested residents in those communities might feel more comfortable going to police with their concerns.
"People feel like the city and the police care about these matters and take them seriously...so they're going to report them."
Indeed, Statistics Canada noted that its data on hate crimes was limited by what was reported to authorities, suggesting that the true number of such incidents could be higher.
"The number of incidents actually reported to police as hate crimes may be influenced by public awareness and concern, as well as special hate crime initiatives and policies among police services," the agency noted.
"This report looks only at police-reported hate crimes, which likely underestimate the true extent of hate crime of various types."
In 2011, three primary motivations — race or ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation — accounted for more than 95 per cent of hate crimes, with race or ethnicity representing more than half of the total.
Religious hate crimes comprised 25 per cent, while crimes motivated by sexual orientation made up 18 per cent of the total.
While crimes motivated by race or ethnicity continued to be the most common, the amount of them decreased slightly compared to 2010, as did those motivated by religion.
There was, however, a 10 per cent increase in crimes based on sexual orientation.
That increase could be related to the increasing visibility of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, suggested an observer.
"It could be incidents going up, as LGBT groups are becoming more visible. There could be smaller, more reactionary groups that feel threatened and act out," suggested Carissima Mathen, a criminal law professor at the University of Ottawa.
Overall, the majority of hate crimes reported by police involved non-violent offences; mischief — including vandalism, graffiti and other destruction of property — was the most commonly reported offence.
Youth and young adults comprised the majority of those accused of hate crimes and were also overrepresented among hate crime victims.
Analysing reports like the data released on Thursday should factor into a long-term approach to studying hate crimes in Canada, said Mathen, who warned against drawing quick conclusions from the figures.
"Our society is undergoing and continues to undergo quite profound changes. That kind of change reveals itself over a longer period of time, over decades," she said. "The byproduct of that is something that needs to be assessed in a longer term way."