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Gone for good: over 50 vehicles a day stolen in Ontario

The Trillium analysis of Ministry of Transportation data comes in advance of a national summit to tackle auto theft
A car is stolen in this surveillance video image from 2021.

Some 40,510 vehicles of all types were registered as stolen in Ontario between November of 2021 and January of 2024, data released by the Ministry of Transportation shows.

That comes to just over 50 a day. 

For a vehicle to be registered as stolen, it means the owner has given it up — it's gone for good, rather than taken for a joyride and recovered.

The growing problem has added $130 a year to the average Ontario driver's auto insurance, with extra surcharges for drivers who own cars and trucks that are sought-after by thieves. 

Overall, vehicle thefts fell in Ontario in the early 2000s, driven largely by the introduction of immobilizers, which, in theory, mean that a car can only be started with a key issued by the manufacturer.

But car theft is an arms race between thieves and manufacturers, and thieves in recent years got the upper hand again after they figured out how to copy the electronic information in a key fob.

(The graph below shows only passenger vehicles.)

The Trillium's analysis of stolen vehicles in the province comes in advance of a national summit on auto thefts this week that is expected to focus on the exporting of stolen vehicles.

The Feb. 8 summit is meant to bring together politicians and stakeholders including police services. The Ontario government is renewing its call to its federal counterparts for more inspections at ports and rail yards and a review of the Criminal Code to tackle violent vehicle theft.

"This problem has turned into a crisis, and all levels of government need to work together to get a handle on it," Ontario Solicitor General Michael Kerzner wrote in a Feb. 6 letter to federal Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc. 

Kerzner said the province has committed $51 million to working federal authorities to identify stolen vehicles before they're exported. He said national ports are "hot spots for organized crime," with stolen vehicles "slipping through them at an alarming rate."

"That is why we are asking for your government to invest in increasing outbound inspections at ports and rail yards. This is especially crucial at the Port of Montreal and the various rail yards in Ontario. The federal government should begin by deploying more border agents and officers at ports, investing in technology and equipment that can be used to scan shipping containers, and increasing the use of police pre-clearance of containers," Kerzner wrote. 

On Wednesday, the federal government announced $28 million over three years "to strengthen the Canada Border Services Agency’s (CBSA) capacity to conduct investigative and enforcement work at our borders" and to support the agency's work with law enforcement and other governments to "intercept stolen vehicles and identify criminal activity within the supply chain."

Part of the funding will go toward deploying more border services officers to search containers for stolen vehicles before they're exported and to expand the CBSA's capacity in the Greater Toronto Area "to examine rail shipments containing suspected stolen vehicles prior to their movement to a port of export such as Montreal."

Vehicles stolen in Ontario have recently been tracked to used-car lots in Ghana and Dubai

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Theft rates are higher in south-central Ontario than in the rest of the province:

Looked at in more detail, an area of Mississauga, Brampton and northwest Toronto is the province's car theft hot spot:

The Insurance Bureau of Canada suggests a number of policy fixes, including much more rigorous inspection of cars destined for export at ports. Under the IBC's system, cars slated for export would be inspected at least 72 hours before they are supposed to be loaded onto a ship. 

The IBC did not respond to repeated interview requests. 

In B.C., the provincial government has called for the return of a dedicated ports police service at the port of Vancouver. A national ports police service existed until 1997, when it was disbanded. Vancouver-area MPs and mayors have made similar comments

Kerzner also said the federal government should review the Criminal Code and ensure it treats vehicle theft as a serious crime. 

"It is time that the punishment matches the seriousness of these violent carjackings and that our justice system holds individuals accountable. In particular, Premier (Doug) Ford is calling for mandatory minimum penalties for violent car thefts. People who commit these serious crimes must be held accountable for their actions," he wrote.

Ford shared his frustration about the increase in violent vehicle thefts at a press conference on Jan. 31, where the federal government announced $121 million over five years to help Ontario prevent gun and gang violence, including auto theft. 

"I'm done with these guys, they're going to jail," said Ford, adding that he was going to use "every resource, every single tool" available to the province and has requested changes to the Criminal Code. 

"Why don't we put a mandatory sentence? You're breaking into someone's house with a weapon and threatening families, you should be going to jail. No matter what, minimum," said Ford. "And I'm not an expert at it, throw them in jail for 10 years, I don't care how long it is. I don't want 'em in our province. Get the heck out of our province, if you want to be that way." 

On Monday, federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre announced his party's plan to deal with the problem, which involves a stricter approach to sentencing and prosecution. 

While Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Arif Virani has indicated he's open to a review, his office noted there is already mandatory minimum penalties for vehicle thefts included in the Criminal Code, though just for repeat offences.  

Speaking at last week's event, Virani said he's learned from conversations with various police forces that addressing the issue requires different sectors to work together. 

"It's about the responsibility of the auto industry, it's about insurance pieces, it's about looking at the ports, about looking at the (Canada Border Services Agency), it's about yes looking at the Criminal Code for which I'm responsible and I'm very open to looking at the Criminal Code," he said. 

Section 333.1 of the Criminal Code on motor vehicle thefts lists penalties for a more severe offence as "imprisonment for a term of not more than 10 years, and to a minimum punishment of imprisonment for a term of six months in the case of a third or subsequent offence." For a less serious offence as "imprisonment for a term of not more than two years less a day."

Chantalle Aubertin, a spokesperson for federal Minister Virani, said mandatory minimum penalties "for auto theft already exists in the Criminal Code." She noted that federal Bill C-75, which received royal assent in 2019, increased the maximum penalty on summary conviction from 18 months previously. 

Minister Kerzner's office did not respond before publication to a question about how the provincial government specifically wants to see the Criminal Code changed. 

In his letter, the minister said he looks forward to discussing the province's requests and getting input from various parties and stakeholders.

"We should aim to come out of this summit with clear, tangible and actionable items that will immediately address this growing crisis," he said. 

The Toronto Police Service said in response to questions from The Trillium that more than 12,000 vehicles were stolen in Toronto in 2023, which amounts to about 34 each day.

"The Chief is particularly concerned about the escalation in violence related to auto crimes, including the number of carjackings and home invasions that are now associated with this type of criminal activity," the police service stated, noting that both Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw and Deputy Chief Rob Johnson will be attending the summit in Ottawa.

"The Chief will be speaking about these concerns at the conference, and the need to bring together law enforcement with all levels of government and private industries, to fight organized crime and keep communities safe."

Editor's Note: This article was updated after publication to include details about a funding announcement the federal government made on Feb. 7 about tackling auto theft. 

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