A recent Maclean’s investigation uncovered a long list of serious flaws in Canada’s three-year-old sex offender registry. Hundreds of rapists and pedophiles are missing. Hundreds more were never added to the system in the first place. In this web exclusive, macleans.ca provides a region-by-region breakdown of all the shocking problems—and all the warnings that the federal government continues to ignore. (Click here for a timeline of the registry and its embarrassing state.)
Canada’s national sex offender registry was created for one reason: to help police locate potential suspects. If a child goes missing, investigators can search the database for known pedophiles who live in the surrounding postal codes. If a stranger rapes a woman, police can input her attacker’s description and scan for matches. “What the registry does is eliminate the three months it used to take to find out what offenders live in the neighbourhood,” says Glenn Woods, a retired RCMP officer who helped build the system.
That’s true. The database has been searched hundreds of times, and although the registry has yet to solve a single crime, the Mounties believe it’s only a matter of time. At the very least, the registry is a starting point for detectives with no other leads.
Of course, a sex offender registry is only as effective as it is accurate—and Canada’s system is certainly not complete. For one thing, it was not designed to be retroactive. Thousands of known molesters and other loathsome criminals were never added to the system in the first place, and even today, barely half of all convicted offenders end up on the registry. Amazingly, inclusion isn’t mandatory. In fact, the RCMP can barely keep track of those offenders who are ordered to comply. According to the latest statistics, 16,295 names appear on the system. Of those, 1,270 (eight per cent) are considered non-compliant in some way. Some haven’t checked in every year, as required. Others have been missing for months. Compliance rates vary from coast to coast. Simply put, some provinces and territories are better than others when it comes to keeping tabs on registered sex offenders. But no jurisdiction is perfect. According to hundreds of pages of internal government documents, obtained by Maclean’s under the Access to Information Act, each region is struggling to make the system work.
Registered sex offenders: 8,229
Non-compliant offenders: 317 (4%)
Any discussion about the national sex offender registry must begin in Ontario, the home of Canada’s first-ever registry. Launched in 2001, the provincial database is an impressive piece of technology. Every convicted sex offender in Ontario is automatically added to the system, and investigators across the province can log on and see exactly how many people in their region are following the rules. Unlike the national version, which can’t track compliance, if an Ontario offender fails to check in on time, the system will issue an automatic red flag. In Toronto, for example, the city’s sex crimes unit includes a group of officers who do nothing else but monitor the whereabouts of registered sex offenders. “Because I’m obsessed with the number, the first thing I do every day is log onto the system and see where our number is at,” says Det.-Const. Brian James, a member of that unit (James has since transferred to another division).
When the Ontario system was unveiled, Premier Mike Harris was so impressed that he offered the software to the feds, free of charge. Jean Chrétien was prime minister at the time, but his Liberals weren’t interested. First they insisted that Canada doesn’t need a national sex offender registry. Then, under pressure in the House of Commons, they promised to upgrade CPIC, the central police computer that contains everyone’s criminal record. And then—when other provinces stepped in to accept Harris’s offer—Lawrence MacAulay, the federal Solicitor-General at the time, announced a complete reversal in policy. Ottawa, he said, is going to build its own registry. “Ontario pushed them into it,” says Terry Nicholls, a retired OPP staff sergeant who ran the provincial registry. “It was very clearly a knee-jerk reaction. So out of the blue, the feds announced they would build their own. There was no foresight. There was no database on the drawing board. Nothing.”
Instead of borrowing Ontario’s software. Ottawa designed its own distinct database—a trickle-down operation in which the bulk of the costs, and the work, actually falls on the provinces and territories. Each of the 13 regions houses a central registry office run by the RCMP, except in Ontario (the OPP is in charge) and Quebec (Sûreté du Québec). It is up to those offices to ensure the compliance of local sex offenders. In Ontario, however, taxpayers are now on the hook for two separate registries—all because the federal Liberals would not admit that a province, especially one run by a Conservative, had developed a superior system. Three years later, the result has been a long list of technical glitches and bad feelings. In October, when registry officials from every province and territory met for an annual meeting, nobody from Ontario showed up.