Criminal mischief associated with damaging and destroying property has increased in Ottawa by roughly nine per cent between 2019 and 2023, according to Capital Current’s analysis of the Ottawa Police Service’s online crime data. 

Though commonly characterized as silly or playful behaviour, mischief is a criminal offence. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, mischief is defined as the destruction or damage of property, which renders others’ enjoyment of property dangerous, unlawful or ineffective.

Common examples of criminal mischief includes graffiti, breaking windows and damaging property in attempts to break and enter.

Behind Toronto, Ottawa has the second highest rate of mischief offences in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada.

And as Ottawa Police Service data shows these instances are on the rise locally.

Between 2019 and 2020, a dip in cases can be seen in the visualization above a period which coincides with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Const. Sebastien Lemay says he also believes the high number of mischief crimes in Ottawa could be connected to frequent protests. 

“It is the capital of the country, so we certainly see different activities, you know, namely protests and things of that nature,” said Lemay. 

Jeffrey Bradley, a PhD candidate in legal studies at Carleton University, says the 'Freedom Convoy' protests in 2022 in particular could explain the increased mischief during that year.  

“The Ottawa Police were using mischief charges around the convoy […] because in a way they were occupying public property that’s supposed to be of use to everybody,” Bradley said.

In 2022, police released multiple warnings to protesters, saying they could be charged with mischief. Many were arrested. 

“The people of Ottawa are being denied the lawful use, enjoyment and operation of their property and you are causing businesses to close. That is mischief under the Criminal Code,” a Feb. 16 police press release stated.

Rideau-Vanier: the capital’s most mischievous ward

Based on Capital Current's analysis of Ottawa's crime data, Rideau-Vanier Ward experiences the most criminal mischief.

Just this year, according to Ottawa Police online crime data, Rideau-Vanier has the highest number of mischief cases compared to other wards. 

The top five wards in the city with the most mischief are Rideau-Vanier, Somerset, Rideau-Rockcliffe, Gloucester-Southgate and Bay. 

Inside Rideau-Vanier, Ottawa Police online crime data shows that Sandy Hill had the most reported cases of mischief.

There have been 101 mischief reports in Rideau-Vanier in 2024 so far, and 35 have been reported in Sandy Hill as of March 20, 2024.

As a community police officer working in the ByWard Market and Sandy Hill for seven years, Lemay says he knows the area he patrols well. Based on his review of Capital Current’s analysis of the Ottawa Police’s crime data, he believes mischief crimes in the ward are underreported. 

Lemay said a cause for mischief cannot be determined because police do not collect demographics on offenders.

Irvin Waller, a retired uOttawa Criminology professor, suggested the elevated mischief numbers in the Market and other neighbourhoods could indicate another issue.

“You are seeing an apparent rise in drug use, mentally ill people on the street and homeless people.”

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Stéphanie Plante said, however, that people are quick to blame homeless people for the rise in mischief crimes.

"There's this perception that homeless people cause all these problems and all this social disorder," Plante said. "I'm not necessarily sure that that is true, but if we're going to put a lot of services in this area, and especially in the downtown area, then we should be focused on housing people."

Plante said she believes mischief crimes are often a part of a larger cause.

"Mischief is usually a sign of some larger symptoms," she said. "So we absolutely need to work on things that reduce the symptoms."

But preventing criminal mischief is not easy.

“Unless you literally have a uniform or barred police presence on a given corridor where somebody's about to break a window, then obviously you don't think twice about breaking that window,” Lemay said. 

Waller said he believes that putting trained non-police ambassadors on the street would be more effective than an increased law enforcement presence. 

“If you think twice you would understand why the threat of an arrest is unlikely to solve those problems,” Waller said. “Policing is overkill.”

Engaging with the community and improving the housing crisis are strategies Plante thinks will help.

"If you're someone who's looking for answers and solutions, come down [to the Rideau-Vanier ward], spend some time here, talk to me, talk to other people with lived experience, and you will see that there are solutions," Plante said. "We just need a little bit of money, a little bit of political will, and we'll get there."

Jeffrey Bradley says there is no reason to sound the alarm about the rise in mischief charges in Ottawa. 

“I think the way [mischief charges] have been used and probably impacted the stats,” Bradley said. “It's not necessarily a new phenomenon or something we need to be panicking about.”

He says he believes criminal mischief is generally insignificant, so, he added, the response should be tailored to the severity.

“I don’t think criminalizing people for this is necessarily the answer,” Bradley said. “We need to find preventative approaches and alternatives.”