What is the Difference Between Theft and Robbery?

In everyday conversation, we occasionally use the words “theft” and “robbery” interchangeably. We may realize there is some difference between the two terms, but it may seem difficult to clearly distinguish what those differences are. In the Canadian criminal context, the definitions of theft and robbery differ substantially.


Section 322 of the Criminal Code of Canada (the “Code”) defines theft, while section 343 of the Code defines robbery. The nuances that distinguish these two offences are clarified here below.


In the Code, theft essentially means to take something from a person who has either a proprietary interest in, or ownership of, that thing. The property must be taken for the purpose of personal use, or for the purpose of allowing another person to make use of it. Lastly, and in simple terms, there must also be intent to do one of the following:

  • Deprive the owner of the property or interest, whether temporarily or permanently;
  • Use the property or interest as security;
  • Part with the property or interest without any guarantee as to its safe return, or
  • Deal with the property or item in such a way that it cannot be restored to its original condition or form.

In perhaps the majority of cases, the mental element involved in theft is simply the intent to deprive an owner of access to a piece of property, with the intent to use the property for one’s own enjoyment. However, as above, even where a thief does not intend to deprive the owner of the item, making personal use of another’s property without guaranteeing its safe return is also sufficient to constitute theft. That being said, from a common sense standpoint, dealing with another’s property for one’s own use will also usually include the intent to deprive the rightful owner of its use.

Often, the definition of theft can be more complicated than it appears; what it means to appropriate an item for one’s personal use is not entirely obvious. For example, in the 2016 Ontario decision R. v Wasilewicz, 2016 ONSC 6562 (CanLII), an accused was acquitted of theft despite having taken a cellphone that did not belong to him, depriving the owner of its use. The accused was acquitted on the basis that his intent was simply to prevent the owner from making a call, and not to make personal use of (or to provide another person with use of) the phone itself.


When thinking of robbery, the first image to come to mind might be an assailant in a black balaclava, holding up a bank at gunpoint. This stereotypical example is actually quite accurate, and speaks quite well to the difference to theft and robbery in the criminal context.

Before we explore the criminal definition of robbery, it should be noted that the definitions section of the Code neatly packages up the complex definition for theft, above, and uses it to define the action of “stealing” in other areas of the Code, including robbery. In other words, any act of theft = “to steal.”

In most cases, robbery is defined in section 343 of the Code as “stealing,” or theft, with the added requirement that the theft involve:

  • a threat of harm to persons or property;
  • actual harm to persons or property; or
  • the theft is committed by a person who is armed with an actual weapon or imitation weapon.

These are covered in s.343, subsections (a), (b) and (d) of the Code.

There is one type of situation where the elements of theft need not be made out for a robbery to have been committed: this is where a person attempts to steal from another person, and in the process of doing so commits assault, whether or not the person is successful in stealing (see subsection (c) under section 343 of the Criminal Code). In other words, robbery occurs where a person has, in the same instance, committed the combined acts of attempted theft and assault. In all other circumstances, a person accused of robbery must have committed theft, and in addition, must also have made a threat, been armed, or committed an act of violence.

As an example, in the 2013 Ontario decision R. v. Dawkins, 2013 ONSC 3218 (CanLII), the accused was convicted of robbery under subsection 343(c) even though the accused had not appropriated the cellphone of another person. There was sufficient evidence that the accused had formed a plan to take the victim’s cellphone from him and committed a violent assault in his attempt to appropriate the victim’s cellphone, despite being unsuccessful.

Put simply: the stark difference between theft and robbery is that robbery is defined as a violent crime, while theft is not.

Contact Jaki Freeman & Associates, Theft and Robbery Lawyer in Brampton

If you have been criminally charged of an offence, a Brampton criminal defence lawyer may be your best defence. Whether you are seeking legal representation, legal advice or information on the criminal justice process, Jaki Freeman has over 20 years of experience in criminal law. Located in Brampton, as a theft and robbery lawyer, Jaki Freeman is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Canadian Bar Association, the Ontario Bar Association, the Criminal Lawyers Association, and the Women’s Law Association of Ontario. Call 905-455-6000.

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