by Shannon Brennan
In Canada, numerous programs and policies have been developed to address violence against women (Johnson and Dawson 2010; Status of Women Canada 2002). Despite these efforts, previous studies have shown that violence against women in Canada continues to be a persistent and ongoing problem, one that is compounded for Aboriginal women (Brzozowski 2006). Given these findings, it is important to differentiate between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women’s experiences of victimization, to better understand the extent of violence against Aboriginal women and the context in which it occurs.
One source of information that can be used to measure violence against Aboriginal women in Canada is the General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization. By asking respondents aged 15 years or older to recount their experiences of victimization, the GSS captures detailed information on criminal incidents that may or may not have been brought to the attention of police.
Using GSS data from 2009, this article looks at the prevalence and nature of self-reported violence against Aboriginal women in the ten provinces.1, 2, 3 In addition, reporting of victimization to police, victims’ use of formal and informal support services, and the consequences of violent victimization are discussed. Finally, this report examines Aboriginal women’s perceptions of personal safety and their satisfaction with the criminal justice system.
In 2009, close to 67,000 or 13% of all Aboriginal women aged 15 and older living in the provinces stated that they had been violently victimized (Text Box 1). Overall, Aboriginal women reported experiencing close to 138,000E incidents of violence and were almost three times more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report having been a victim of a violent crime (Chart 1, Table 1). This was true regardless if the violence occurred between strangers or acquaintances, or within a spousal relationship (Table 2).
Self-reported violent victimization of females, by Aboriginal identity, Canada's provinces, 2009
† reference category
* significantly different from reference category (p < 0.05)
1. Spousal violence includes incidents of physical or sexual assault.
2. Rates are calculated per 1,000 females age 15 years and older.
Note: Data from the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded. Violent victimization includes sexual assault, robbery and physical assault. Includes female respondents age 15 years or older.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2009.
Some Aboriginal women reported having experienced multiple incidents of violence. Of the Aboriginal women who stated that they had been violently victimized in the previous 12 months, more than one-third (34%E) indicated that they were victimized two or more times. This proportion was not significantly different from that of non-Aboriginal women.
The GSS collects information on Canadians’ personal accounts of victimization for three violent crimes: sexual assault, robbery and physical assault.4 Given the small number of respondents, the analysis in this report is based on overall violent victimization of Aboriginal women and does not explore individual crime types.
|Type of violent victimization||Description|
|Sexual assault||Forced sexual activity, an attempt at forced sexual activity, or unwanted sexual touching, grabbing, kissing, or fondling.|
|Robbery||Theft or attempted theft in which the perpetrator had a weapon or there was violence or the threat of violence against the victim.|
|Physical assault||An attack (victim hit, slapped, grabbed, knocked down, or beaten), a face-to-face threat of physical harm, or an incident with a weapon present.|
In this Juristat article, the definition of Aboriginal women refers to those persons who self-reported their sex as female and who self-identified as belonging to at least one Aboriginal group, that is, North American Indian, Métis or Inuit. Because of low sample size, distinguishing between Aboriginal groups is not possible when using GSS data. In addition, the 2009 GSS results for the Aboriginal population should not be directly compared to those from previous years, as the question used to identify the Aboriginal population differed between cycles.
The results of the 2009 GSS show that many Aboriginal female victims of crime are relatively young (Table 3) and tend to be highly represented as victims of violence. More specifically, women aged 15 to 34 represented close to two-thirds (63%) of female Aboriginal victims while they accounted for just under half (47%) of the female Aboriginal population aged 15 or older living in the ten provinces.
Young females were also highly represented among non-Aboriginal victims, as those aged 15 to 34 comprised 54% of victims of violence, while accounting for just 31% of females aged 15 and older living in the 10 provinces.
In this Juristat article, the victim and incident characteristics of non-spousal violence, that is violence committed by someone other than a current or former spouse, and spousal violence are examined separately. While there is no legal distinction between these forms of violence, previous research has shown that non-spousal violence and spousal violence differ in both frequency and severity (NCVC 2010; Wathen and MacMillian, 2003). The information pertaining to non-spousal violence is based on violent incidents that occurred in the 12 months preceding the survey.
Previous research shows that in general, most violent crimes are perpetrated by males (Perreault and Brennan 2010). This is also true when looking specifically at violent incidents involving Aboriginal women as victims. In about 8 in 10 (79%) such incidents, Aboriginal women reported being victimized by a male perpetrator, the majority (85%) of whom acted on their own.
Most violent incidents against Aboriginal women that were committed outside of a spousal relationship in the 12 months preceding the survey did not involve the use of a weapon, and most did not cause injury. For example, in close to 9 in 10 violent incidents (89%), Aboriginal women reported that no weapons were present during the commission of the offence. Further, Aboriginal women also stated that they received no injury in 84% of violent incidents, a proportion similar to that reported by non-Aboriginal women (82%).
In general, results from the 2009 GSS indicate that most violent incidents are not brought to the attention of the police (Perreault and Brennan 2010). Findings pertaining to violence against Aboriginal women were similar.
Overall, many incidents of violence committed outside of spousal relationships were not reported to the police. Among non-spousal violent incidents involving Aboriginal women, over three-quarters (76%) were not reported to the police, a proportion similar to that of non-Aboriginal women (70%).
The use of formal victim services, among both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women, was limited. More specifically, 79% of violent incidents involving Aboriginal women (and 87% involving non-Aboriginal women) committed by someone other than the victim’s spouse were not brought to the attention of a formal victim service.
Although many Aboriginal women who experienced violence outside of a spousal relationship stated that they never discussed their victimization with the police or any other formal organization, almost all (98%) said that they told an informal source, such as a friend, family member, co-worker or neighbour about the incident. This is somewhat higher than the proportion of non-Aboriginal women who confided in an informal source (90%).
In recent years, it has come to light that many Aboriginal women in Canada have been murdered or have gone missing (Department of Justice 2010). For a number of reasons, these disappearances and homicides have been difficult to quantify through official statistics.
As the GSS data are limited to three violent crimes (sexual assault, robbery, physical assault), homicides are not captured by this source. That said, information on homicides is collected from Canadian police services by Statistics Canada’s Homicide Survey. Neither of these sources collects data on disappearances.
The Homicide Survey collects information on many socio-demographic characteristics of homicide victims, including Aboriginal identity when known. It is important to note that in about half of all homicides the Aboriginal identity of the victim is reported by police as unknown. For example, between 2005 and 2009, police reported 726 homicides where the victim was a woman aged 15 or older. Of these, the victim was identified as Aboriginal in 54 homicides, as non-Aboriginal in 292 homicides, and as Aboriginal identity unknown in 380 homicides.
Given that the Aboriginal identity of many homicide victims is unknown, it is likely that data from the Homicide Survey undercount the true extent of the homicide of Aboriginal people. Other research stemming from the Sisters in Spirit initiative has suggested that the number of Aboriginal women in Canada who have been murdered or have gone missing in the past 20 years may be in the hundreds (NWAC 2010).In recognition of this issue, many provinces and territories have developed initiatives to address the issue (PPCMP 2007; CCSO 2010). In addition, in 2010, the Government of Canada pledged to improve the responses of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in missing persons cases.
In addition to looking at incidents of non-spousal violence, the GSS also collects detailed information on violent incidents committed by spouses. This information is based on incidents of physical and sexual assault committed by a current or former legal or common-law partner that occurred within the 5 years preceding the survey.5
Previous research has shown that incidents of spousal violence tend to be more severe in nature, and tend to result in more injuries to the victim compared to violent incidents committed by someone other than the victim’s spouse (Wathen and MacMillian 2003). The findings from the 2009 GSS support this research.
Similar to non-spousal violence, Aboriginal women were more likely than non-Aboriginal women to state that they had been the victim of spousal violence. For example, of the Aboriginal women who had a current or former spouse, 15%E reported being a victim of spousal violence in the five years preceding the survey, compared with 6% of non-Aboriginal women.
Further, Aboriginal female victims of spousal violence were more likely than non-Aboriginal female victims to indicate that they had been injured as a result of their victimization. Overall, close to 6 in 10 (59%) Aboriginal women who experienced spousal violence in the 5 years preceding the survey said that they had been injured compared to about 4 in 10 (41%) non-Aboriginal victims.
The higher incidence of injury self-reported by Aboriginal female victims may be partly related to the type of violence Aboriginal women experience in spousal relationships. More specifically, of the Aboriginal women who experienced violence by a current or former partner, close to half (48%E) reported the most severe forms of violence, such as being sexually assaulted, beaten, choked, or threatened with a gun or a knife.6
In addition to experiencing more injury, Aboriginal female victims of spousal violence were more likely than non-Aboriginal female victims to state that they feared for their lives as a result of the violence. Over half (52%E) of Aboriginal women who were victimized by a current or former partner stated that they feared for their lives, compared to 31% of non-Aboriginal women. Again, this may be related to the higher incidence of severe spousal violence reported by Aboriginal female victims.
Similar to the trend seen among incidents of non-spousal violence, many victims of spousal violence did not report the incident to the police. For example, among incidents of spousal violence involving Aboriginal women that occurred within the previous five-year period, close to 7 in 10 (69%) victims said they did not report the incident to police. This proportion was virtually no different than that for non-Aboriginal women (76%). The most common reasons cited by Aboriginal women for not reporting the incident to the police included feeling that the incident was a personal matter, not wanting to involve the police, and dealing with the situation in another way. Non-Aboriginal female spousal violence victims cited similar reasons for not reporting to police.
In addition to asking victims whether or not they reported the spousal violence to the police, the 2009 GSS also asked victims if they chose to contact or use a formal victim service, such as a woman’s shelter, counsellor or victim services program. In Canada, there are a number of shelters and victim services that offer culturally sensitive programs for Aboriginal women. In 2007/2008 there were 334 shelters for women across Canada that offered such programs to their residents (Burns and Taylor-Butts 2009). Overall, the 2009 GSS found that 32%E of Aboriginal female spousal violence victims (and 39% of non-Aboriginal female spousal violence victims) contacted some type of formal victim service.
Not only were Aboriginal women more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report experiences of violence and injury in spousal relationships, they were also more likely to report other forms of abuse by their spouse. For example, over one-third (34%) of Aboriginal women said that a current or former partner had been emotionally or financially abusive towards them in the 5 years preceding the survey, a proportion that was close to double that of non-Aboriginal women (17%).
Similar to victims of spousal violence in general (Brennan 2011), most Aboriginal women who experienced physical violence by their spouse in the previous 5 years stated that their partner was emotionally or financially abusive. Of the Aboriginal women who said that they had been physically or sexually assaulted by a current or former partner, 9 in 10 said that they had also experienced emotional or financial abuse.
The most common form of spousal-related emotional abuse reported by Aboriginal women was being put down or called names by their partner to make them feel bad (61%). This was also the most common form reported by non-Aboriginal women (65%). Other relatively common forms of emotional abuse reported by Aboriginal women included: having their partner demand to know where they were at all times (60%); having their partner not wanting them to talk to other men or women (56%); having their partner try to limit their contact with family and friends (45%); and having their partner damage or destroy their possessions or property (30%E). The most common form of spousal-related financial abuse reported by Aboriginal women involved being prevented from having knowledge about or access to the family income (15%E).
In general, the effects and consequences of violent victimization are vast and varied (Perreault and Brennan 2010).7 A person’s health is one aspect that can be affected as a result of victimization. The GSS asks respondents to rate their personal health in the areas of physical and mental health as well as everyday stress. While other research has shown that victims of violent crime often experience health problems and increased levels of stress as a result of having been victimized (Alasker et al. 2006), this was not reflected in the responses given by Aboriginal women to the 2009 GSS.
Overall, close to three-quarters (72%) of all Aboriginal women who had been violently victimized in the previous 12 months rated their physical health as excellent, very good or good, while 9 in 10 provided a similar rating of their mental health (Table 4). These ratings were comparable to those provided by non-Aboriginal female victims, and those provided by Aboriginal women who had not been victimized.In addition to asking about mental and physical health, the GSS also asked women about their levels of everyday stress. Overall, Aboriginal women and non-Aboriginal women reported similar levels of stress. However, when looking only at those women who reported having been victimized, Aboriginal women were less likely to indicate feeling stressed compared to non-Aboriginal women. For example, close to 4 in 10 Aboriginal women (37%E) who had been violently victimized stated that their everyday lives were not at all stressful, more than double the proportion of non-Aboriginal female victims (15%). Moreover, Aboriginal women who had been violently victimized were less likely to say that they found their days quite a bit or extremely stressful compared to non-Aboriginal female victims of violence (29%E versus 44%) (Table 4).
Despite having higher rates of victimization, Aboriginal women reported feeling just as satisfied with their personal safety from crime as non-Aboriginal women (Table 5). This was true for both victims and non-victims of violent crime. In 2009, over 4 in 10 Aboriginal women (42%) said that they were very satisfied with their personal safety from crime while an additional 4 in 10 (45%) said that they were somewhat satisfied. These proportions are similar to those reported by non-Aboriginal women (43% and 49%).
When asked about feelings of personal security in specific situations, Aboriginal women generally reported feeling safe regardless of the circumstance. For example, close to two-thirds (62%) of Aboriginal women stated that they felt safe when walking in their neighbourhood alone at night and close to half (47%E) said that they weren’t at all worried when taking or waiting for public transportation alone at night. While Aboriginal women were less likely than non-Aboriginal women to report feeling safe when walking alone, a similar proportion felt safe using public transportation (Table 5).
Although Aboriginal women were generally satisfied with their personal safety from crime, many said that that they had taken specific measures to protect themselves from crime in the 12 months preceding the survey. In 2009, over half (54%) of Aboriginal women (and 42% of non-Aboriginal women) said that they had taken extra safety precautions in the previous 12 months. These precautions included, among others, installing burglar alarms, installing new locks, obtaining a dog or taking a self-defence class. Overall, Aboriginal women who had been violently victimized in the previous 12 months were no more likely than those who had not been victimized to have implemented new precautions.
Having previous contact with the criminal justice system is a factor that can influence a person’s perceptions of the functioning of that system. In 2009, close to 4 in 10 Aboriginal women (39%) said that they had come into contact with the police in the 12 months preceding the survey. Aboriginal women were no more likely than non-Aboriginal women to state that they had some form of contact with police in the previous 12 months.
When asked about the performance of their local police service, Aboriginal women’s ratings of the police were very similar to those provided by non-Aboriginal women, with two exceptions. Aboriginal women were less likely than non-Aboriginal women to state that the police were doing a good job of “enforcing the laws” and “treating people fairly”. Among all other measures of police performance, there was no difference between the proportions of women who said police were doing a good job (Chart 2).
Female perceptions of police doing a good job, by Aboriginal identity, Canada's provinces, 2009
† reference category
* significantly different from reference category (p < 0.05)
Note: Data from the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded. Includes female respondents age 15 years or older.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2009.
Aboriginal women also shared similar views with non-Aboriginal women on the performance of Canada’s courts (Chart 3). For example, 39% of Aboriginal women and 41% of non-Aboriginal women felt that Canadian courts did a good job of ensuring a fair trial for those accused of a crime, while 28% of Aboriginal women and 26% of non-Aboriginal women said that courts did a good job of determining whether or not the accused person is guilty.
Female perceptions of the criminal courts doing a good job, by Aboriginal identity, Canada's provinces, 2009
† reference category
* significantly different from reference category (p < 0.05)
Note: Data from the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut were collected using a different methodology and are therefore excluded. Don't know and not stated are included in the total but not shown. Totals will not add to 100% due to multiple responses. Includes female respondents age 15 years or older.
Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2009.
In 2009, Aboriginal women were almost three times as likely as non-Aboriginal women to self-report being the victim of a violent crime. The majority of violent incidents against Aboriginal women were perpetrated by males who were acting alone. In addition, most violent incidents did not include the use of weapons or result in injury. The exception to this was incidents of spousal violence, where about half of Aboriginal female victims reported being injured.
In 2009, most violent incidents against Aboriginal women were not brought to the attention of police or any other formal victim service, similar to victimizations in general. Instead, most Aboriginal women chose to confide in an informal source, such as a friend or family member.
Alasker, Kjersti, Bente E. Moen, Monica W. Nortvedt, Valborg Baste. 2006. “Low health-related quality of life among abused women.” Quality of Life Research. Vol. 15. p. 959-965.
Brennan, Shannon. 2011. “Self-reported spousal violence, 2009”. Family violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2009. Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Catalogue no. 85-224-X. (accessed on February 9, 2011)
Brzozowski, Jodi-Anne, Andrea Taylor-Butts and Sara Johnson. 2006. “Victimization and offending among the Aboriginal population in Canada”. Juristat. Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Catalogue no. 85-002-X, vol. 26, no. 3. (accessed on February 9, 2011)
Brzozowski, Jodi-Anne. and Karen Mihorean. 2002. Technical Report on the Analysis of Small Groups in the 1999 General Social Survey. Statistics Canada catalogue no. 85F0036XIE. (accessed on February 9, 2011)
Burns, Mike and Andrea Taylor-Butts. 2009. “A Profile of Canada’s shelters for abused women”. Family violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2009. Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Catalogue no. 85-224-X. (accessed on February 9, 2011)
Coordinating Committee of Senior Officials (CCSO) Missing Women Working Group established by the FPT Deputy Ministers Responsible for Justice. (2010). “Issues related to the high number of murdered and missing women in Canada”. (accessed on February 9, 2011)
Department of Justice Canada. 2010. “Government of Canada takes concrete action regarding missing and murdered Aboriginal women”. News release. Ottawa, Canada. (accessed February 9, 2011)
Johnson, Holly and Myrna Dawson. 2010. “Violence against women in Canada: Research and Policy perspectives”. Oxford University Press.
National center for victims of crime (NCVC). 2010. (accessed on February 9, 2010).
Perreault, Samuel and Shannon Brennan. 2010. “Criminal victimization in Canada, 2009”. Juristat. Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Catalogue no. 85-002-X, vol. 30, no. 2. (accessed on February 9, 2011)
Provincial Partnership Committee on Missing Persons (PPCMP). 2007. “Final Report of the Provincial Partnership Committee on Missing Persons”. (accessed on April 4, 2011).
Status of Women. 2002. “Assessing violence against women: A statistical profile”. Ottawa, Canada.
Wathen, Cathy and Heather MacMillian. 2003. “Interventions for violence against women”. Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 289. No. 5.
In 2009, Statistics Canada conducted the victimization cycle of the General Social Survey for the fifth time. Previous cycles were conducted in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2004. The objectives of the survey are to provide estimates of Canadians’ personal experiences of eight offence types, examine risk factors associated with victimization, examine reporting rates to police, measure the nature and extent of spousal violence, measure fear of crime and examine public perceptions of crime and the criminal justice system.
The target population included all persons 15 years and older in the 10 Canadian provinces, excluding full-time residents of institutions. The survey was also conducted in the three Canadian territories using a different sampling design and its results will be available in a separate report to be released in 2011. Households were selected by a telephone sampling method called Random Digit Dialling (RDD). Households without telephones or with only cellular phone service were excluded. These two groups combined represented approximately 9% of the target population (Residential Telephone Service Survey, (RTSS), December 2008). The coverage, therefore, for 2009 was 91%.
Once a household was contacted, an individual 15 years or older was randomly selected to respond to the survey. The sample in 2009 was approximately 19,500 households, a smaller sample than in 2004 (24,000).
Data collection took place from February to November 2009 inclusively. The sample was evenly distributed over the 10 months to represent seasonal variation in the information. A standard questionnaire was administered by telephone using computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI). A typical interview lasted 45 minutes. Prior to collection, all GSS questions went through qualitative and pilot testing.
Of the 31,510 households that were selected for the GSS Cycle 23 sample, 19,422 usable responses were obtained. This represents a response rate of 61.6%. Types of non-response included respondents who refused to participate, could not be reached, or could not speak English or French. Respondents in the sample were weighted so that their responses represent the non-institutionalized Canadian population aged 15 years or over, in the ten provinces. Each person who responded to the 2009 GSS represented roughly 1,400 people in the Canadian population aged 15 years and over.
As with any household survey, there are some data limitations. The results are based on a sample and are therefore subject to sampling error. Somewhat different results might have been obtained if the entire population had been surveyed. This Juristat uses the coefficient of variation (CV) as a measure of the sampling error. Any estimate that has a high CV (over 33.3%) has not been published because the estimate is too unreliable. In these cases, the symbol ‘F’ is used in place of an estimate in the figures and data tables. An estimate that has a CV between 16.6 and 33.3 should be used with caution and the symbol ‘E’ is referenced with the estimate. Where descriptive statistics and cross-tabular analysis were used, statistically significant differences were determined using 95% confidence intervals.
Using the 2009 GSS sample design and sample size, an estimate of a given proportion of the total population, expressed as a percentage is expected to be within 0.95 percentage points of the true proportion 19 times out of 20.
E use with caution