Calgary mass stabbing, Regina mall attack not part of a trend toward knife violence: expert

Matthew Coutts
Calgary mass stabbing, Regina mall attack not part of a trend toward knife violence: expert

A series of violent public knife attacks highlighted by five fatalities at a Calgary house party have led to some question about whether Canada has a problem with knife violence, and whether it is time to crack down on the prevalence of blades.

But experts say nothing necessarily suggests an upward trend in knife violence and roundly dismiss the idea that 2014 could become "the year of the knife."

In Calgary, where five university-aged adults were stabbed to death at a northwestern neighbourhood house party on Tuesday, law officials have expressed concern over the severity of the attack, though not specifically the use of a knife itself.

"This is the worst mass murder in Calgary's history," police chief Rick Hanson said on Tuesday. "We have never seen five people killed by an individual at one scene. The scene was horrific."

Police say the suspect, 22-year-old Matthew de Grood, arrived at the house party with a "device" he had brought from work. But it was a knife found inside the home that he allegedly used to stalk five people "one by one" and stab them to death. He has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder.

Also on Tuesday, a Toronto-area high school was placed in lockdown after a student was stabbed during an apparent argument.

In Regina later the same day, a suspect began randomly stabbing people inside a downtown shopping centre, leaving four people with significant injuries. Regina police said on Wednesday that the incident was not gang-related, suggesting the attack was unpredictable and spontaneous.

The three high-profile attacks have left some wondering whether it was part of a trend. Canadian criminologists, however, appear unswayed by the recent examples.

Doug King, a professor in the Department of Justice Studies at Mount Royal University, told Yahoo Canada News that there has been no statistical increase in the frequency of knife-related murders over the past three decades. What there has been is an increased level of attention paid to such incidents.

"Has there been in the past five days heightened media awareness? Sure. Has there been a trend in homicides by knife? No. That's the statistical fact," King said on Wednesday.

“There haven’t been any significant changes in homicide rates by use of knife, stabbings, over the last 35 years or so. They are equivalent to the homicides by firearms, they are about of the same magnitude. Overall, there hasn’t been an increase in homicide rates and there hasn’t been an increase in knife violence rates … they bump up and down each year, but nothing you would say is a trend.”

[ Related: Who are Matthew de Grood and the five Calgary stabbing victims? ]

Indeed, statistics do not to support the idea that knife violence is on the rise, either in Canada generally or in Calgary specifically. In Calgary, knife-like violence has actually been decreasing in recent years.

According to Calgary police statistics, the number deaths and injuries caused by knife-like weapons declined significantly between 2008 and 2012.

  • In 2008, there were seven deaths, 90 major injuries and 159 minor injuries related to "edged weapons."

  • In 2009, there were seven deaths, 85 major injuries and 138 minor injuries.

  • In 2010, there were four deaths, 81 major injuries and 168 minor injuries.

  • In 2011, there were four deaths, 86 major injuries and 165 minor injuries.

  • In 2012, there were three deaths, 72 major injuries and 101 minor injuries.

The number of edged weapon injuries and deaths in 2012 (a combined 176) is a 31 per cent decrease from 2008, when 259 cases were reported.

Statistics Canada also reports a general decrease in the number of stabbing homicides across the country over the same years, though there have been some peaks.

After 201 people in Canada were stabbed to death in 2008, 210 were killed that way the following year. In 2010, only 165 people were stabbed to death, while the number jumped to 204 in 2011. In 2012, 164 people in Canada were stabbed to death.

Almost every year, death by stabbing was the most common form of homicide. Shooting was second in every year but 2012, when it became the most common.

[ Related: Matthew de Grood charged in "worst mass murder in Calgary's history ]

But while most of this appears to outline a decrease in knife attacks, it is unfortunately not so simple.

For one, there is the issue of definitions. Statistics Canada considers stabbings to include broken bottles or sharp tools such as scissors. The term "edged weapons" could also account for more than just knives.

Another issue is timing – all of these statistics are more than a year old.

So far this year, there have been six – the five people killed this week and Carlton Edlund, who was killed in the city's downtown on Feb. 14.

Regardless, the sudden perception of a problem can sometimes be enough to evoke calls for change. The issue has caused some hand-wringing in Canada previously.

In 2010, Saskatoon police pushed for a law that would allow officers to proactively seize openly-worn blades. Edmonton police mulled a similar law in 2011. Three years earlier, Mayor Stephen Mandel suggested banning the sale of dangerous knives, though he ultimately relented.

The Criminal Code already prohibits carrying concealed weapons, including blades, or carrying anything that you intend to use to cause harm. But large knives worn openly are technically legal.

Doug King, Mount Royal's criminal justice professor, says there is probably not a lot we can do about addressing the number of knives carried by Canadians.

“The availability of knives, where or not they are open bladed knives, cross-bladed knives, are prevalent anywhere. You can walk into Home Outfitters and pick up a set of steak knives. We won’t be able to do anything to regulate the availability of weapons, unlike guns and firearms,” King said.

He added that another solution that could be considered is making the punishment for knife violence more severe. Though studies have suggested increased punishments don't necessarily have a deterrent effect on those who would commit a crime.

"We really have to be cautious about trying to find solutions for violence in the criminal code,” King said. “When we talk about gun-related violence and knife-related violence, it isn’t the method we should be worried about. It is the violence itself. And those are larger social questions we have to come to grips with.

It should be noted that knives and blades are frequently used as legitimate tools, commonly carried by hunters and hobbyists and even occasionally worn as religious symbols. Those blades worn in the open may be the most legitimate of all, to say nothing of the innocence of fishing knives or multi-tools tossed into backpacks across Canada.

Not that this issue mattered much in the wake of the Calgary attack. The alleged murder weapon was a knife found at the home. No concealing, no carrying. Just found from where knives often are and alleged used with malice in mind.

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