Section 1: Overview of family violence

by Andrea Taylor-Butts

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Over an individual’s lifetime, significant life-events often centre around the family unit: for example, celebrations such as marriages, the birth of children, graduations and important holidays; as well as more difficult occasions, such as the end of a union or death of a loved one. While many familial experiences can have positive impacts on the individual, other experiences, such as family violence, can have serious negative short- and long-term consequences both for the victim as well as family members who may have been exposed to the violence (Department of Justice Canada n.d.a.; World Health Organization 2002; Holt et al. 2008; Widom, Czaja and Dutton 2008; Violence Prevention Alliance, 2012).

For victims of family violence, many aspects of their lives can be affected by the violence they experience. For adults, spousal violence has been linked to a heightened risk of chronic illness later in life, higher stress levels, an increased dependence on alcohol or drugs, increased absenteeism and risk of job loss and economic vulnerability (Family Violence Initiative 2010; Violence Prevention Alliance, 2012). For children, being the victim of family violence or exposure to such violence can have a negative association with their development and health, as well as their academic performance and social integration (Jaffe et al. 2006; Holt et al., 2008; Wathen 2012). Over the longer term, experiencing family violence during childhood can increase the risk of delinquent behaviour in later years and has been shown to be linked to problems related to drug and alcohol consumption and mental health issues in adolescence and adulthood (Fergusson et al. 2008; National Clearinghouse on Family Violence 2009; Centre de recherche interdisciplinaire sur la violence familiale et la violence faite aux femmes 2009; Wathen 2012).

Beyond the physical and emotional consequences for the individuals directly affected, family violence also has broader societal implications including impacts on the medical, social and criminal justice systems (Department of Justice Canada n.d.a.; Family Violence Initiative 2010; Violence Prevention Alliance, 2012). Acts of family violence are considered to be serious crimes, and family violence is recognised as an important public health issue by federal and provincial governments, as well as other public and community service organisations (Department of Justice Canada n.d.a.; Family Violence Initiative 2010).

Since 1988, the Government of Canada’s main strategy for family violence prevention, intervention and elimination has been the Family Violence Initiative. The Family Violence Initiative is a horizontal collaboration involving the efforts of 15 federal departments, agencies and Crown corporations, with a mandate to promote public awareness of the risk factors associated with family violence; strengthen the capacity of social systems to prevent and respond to family violence; and to enhance data collection, research, analysis and evaluation efforts to better inform policies and programs aimed at family violence intervention and prevention.Note 1

As part of this initiative, Statistics Canada has released annual statistics on family violence since 1998. By examining the nature and extent of family violence in Canada, this report helps inform family violence policy and program development.

Defining family violence in Canada

While there is no universally accepted definition of family violence, the definition developed by the federal Family Violence Initiative describes family violence  as : “...a range of abusive behaviours that occur within relationships based on kinship, intimacy, dependency or trust” (Family Violence Initiative 2010, p. 1). These abusive behaviours include physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and financial victimization, as well as neglect. This definition of family violence, as with the majority of definitions in this area, encompasses two key elements: 1) the type of family relationship, and 2) the form of violence.

For the purposes of the present report, the term ‘family’ refers to relationships defined through blood, marriage, co-habitation (in the case of common-law partners), foster care, or adoption. While previous studies have shown similarities between violence against dating partners and spousal violence,Note 2, Note 3 dating relationships are not, strictly speaking, included in the definition of ‘family’ for this report. However, violence in dating relationships is examined alongside spousal violence in the context of intimate partner violence in section 2.

With respect to the forms of family violence examined, the present report considers violent criminal offences that come to the attention of police, where the accused perpetrator is a family member. Therefore, the analysis of family violence in the present study is based on definitions that correspond to those found in the Criminal Code. The Criminal Code does not identify a specific family violence offence but intimate partner violence and abusive behaviours can be considered violent criminal incidents. Police-reported incidents of family violence typically involve criminal offences, such as assault, criminal harassment, sexual offences or homicide. Therefore, incidents of family violence are identified by examining the relationship between the accused person and the victim in incidents of violent crime. 

Measuring family violence in Canada

The primary Statistics Canada data sources for this report are the police-reported Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey and the Homicide Survey. Every year, both the UCR Survey and the Homicide Survey collect data on all Criminal Code offences reported to, and substantiated by Canadian police services. These surveys provide information to measure trends in police-reported family violence at both the national and provincial/territorial levels, as well as information on the characteristics of victims, accused and incidents. This report presents data from the 2013 UCR and Homicide Surveys, including information on victims and accused. Data from previous years are also used for historical comparisons.

Because this report is based on police-substantiated incidents of family violence, the true extent of family violence may be underestimated, as not all crime, including cases of family violence, come to the attention of police. Findings from the most recent General Social Survey (GSS), for which data are currently available (2009),Note 4 indicate that fewer than three in ten (29%) incidents of violent victimization are reported to police (Perreault and Brennan 2010); the percentage of spousal violenceNote 5 incidents reported is even smaller, at 22% (Brennan 2011). In addition, incidents that are not Criminal Code offences, such as emotional or psychological abuse, and non-violent crimes such as theft and fraud are not included in this report.

Although not used for the present study, the GSS on victimization is an additional key source of information for one type of family violence, spousal violence.Note 6 Every five years, Statistics Canada conducts the GSS on victimization, a sample survey of Canadians aged 15 and over. The GSS provides self-reported data on criminal victimization and also offers some information on violence in spousal relationships and children witnessing spousal violence. Victimization data from the GSS have the advantage of providing information on crimes that come to the attention of police, as well as crimes that may go unreported and thus, are not likely captured in official police statistics.

While the GSS measures the extent and nature of spousal violence by collecting information on physical and sexual violence, as defined by the Criminal Code, and incidents of emotional and financial abuse in spousal relationships, it does not capture information on other types of family violence (i.e., violence by a parent, child, sibling or extended family member). Moreover, the GSS does not gather information from certain segments of the population, such as children under the age of 15 and individuals living in institutions (e.g., long-term care facilities). Data from these groups, however, would be included in official police-reported statistics. Police-reported data sources (i.e., the UCR and Homicide Surveys) and the self-reported GSS yield different but complementary types of information on violent victimization, in particular, spousal violence.

This report presents an overview of family violence in Canada in 2013 and a profile of three forms of violence: intimate partner violence, family violence against children and youth, and family violence against seniors aged 65 years and older.

Family violence in Canada: An overview

In 2013, 26% of violent crime victims were victimized by a family member, according to police-reported data (Table 1.1).Note 7  Overall, there were 87,820 victims of police-reported family violence in 2013, or 252.9 victims for every 100,000 individuals in the population. The rate for other forms of violent victimization that were not family-related was nearly 3 times higher (712.8 victims per 100,000 population) than the rate for family-related violence. 

Ontario and Prince Edward Island recorded the lowest rates of family violence among the provinces

Among the provinces, Ontario (166.9 per 100,000 population), Prince Edward Island (196.3), British Columbia (231.2) and Nova Scotia (235.4) recorded the lowest rates of police-reported family violence. In contrast, Saskatchewan (489.4 per 100,000 population) and Manitoba (375.8) recorded the highest rates (Chart 1.1).

Mirroring trends for police-reported violent crime rates in general, rates of family violence tend to be higher in the territories than in the provinces. In 2013, the rates in the Northwest Territories and in Nunavut were 2,020.2 and 2,768.7 per 100,000 population respectively, while Yukon recorded a rate of 903.9 per 100,000 population. In comparison, the national rate of family violence stood at 252.9 per 100,000 population.

Description for chart 1.1

Among census metropolitan areas (CMAs)Note 8 the Quebec part of the Ottawa–Gatineau CMA recorded the highest rate of police-reported family violence in 2013, followed by Saguenay, Québec, Montréal and Trois-Rivières. The lowest rates of family violence were reported by the Ontario CMAs of Ottawa, Guelph, St. Catharines–Niagara, and London, findings not unlike those from previous years (Table 1.2).

Rates of assaults committed by family members declined in most provinces

Across the provinces and territories, the rates of police-reported physicalNote 9 and sexual assaultsNote 10 committed against a family member generally declined between 2012 and 2013 (Table 1.3).Note 11 Nationally, police-reported family-related physical assaults were down 6% and sexual assaults declined 9% over the previous year. These drops correspond with an overall decline in police-reported violent crime across Canada (-9%) from 2012 to 2013, during which time rates of violent offences decreased in every province and territory, with the exception of Yukon (+2%).

Rates of family-related physical assault declined in every province and territory, except Yukon, where they rose 20% between 2012 and 2013. The largest drop in police-reported physical assaults against family members occurred in Prince Edward Island, declining 31% in 2013 compared to the previous year.

With regard to sexual assaults committed by family members, annual rates can fluctuate considerably, given the small numbers of such offences recorded. That being said, year-over-year rates of police-reported family-related sexual assault dropped in every province, with the exception of Saskatchewan (+6%).

More than one-third of family violence victims were victimized by a current spouse

Among victims of family violence in 2013, just under half (48%) were victimized by a current or former spouse. More specifically, 34% were victimized by a current spouse (married or common-law) and another 14% by a former spouse. For nearly two in ten victims of police-reported family violence, the accused was a parent (17%), while for about one in ten the accused was an extended family member (14%), sibling (11%) or his or her own child (10%).

A majority of family violence victims were female

The majority of police-reported family violence victims are female. In 2013, there were 59,725 female victims of family violence, representing 68% of all police-reported family violence victims. In comparison, females represented 46% of victims for violent crimes that were not family-related. The over-representation of female victims is most apparent in spousal violence incidents. Among police-reported incidents of violence by a current spouse, nearly 8 in 10 victims were female, as were a similar proportion of those victimized by a former spouse (79%). The majority of victims were also female in incidents where the perpetrator was the victim’s child (62%), parent (57%), extended family member (57%) or sibling (56%).

Rates of family violence highest among females aged 30 to 34 and males aged 15 to 19

In general, rates of family violence are highest for adults in their 30s and lowest among seniors aged 65 and over (Chart 1.2). In 2013, the rate of police-reported family violence climbed from 130.6 per 100,000 population for children from birth to 4 years of age, to 220.3 per 100,000 population for 5- to 9- year olds; police-reported rates of family violence then rose for each subsequent age group, peaking among adults in their 30s. Adults aged 30 to 34 experienced the highest rate of police-reported family violence at 401.0 per 100,000 population, followed closely by those aged 35 to 39 with a similar rate of 400.7 per 100,000 population. After the peak in police-reported family violence among those in their 30s, rates consistently declined for each subsequent age group, with individuals aged 75 to 89 experiencing the lowest rate (41.6 per 100,000 population).

Description for chart 1.2

The age-related risk of family violence is not, however, the same for men and women (Chart 1.3). While police-reported rates of family violence were highest for women aged 30 to 34 (603.1 per 100,000), men’s rates were highest among those between the ages of 15 and 19 (233.4 per 100,000).

Description for chart 1.3

The gap between male and female rates of family violence was narrowest for the youngest and oldest age groups

Overall, the rate of family violence against female victims was 342.1 per 100,000 population, double the rate for males (162.6 per 100,000). For each age group, the rate of police-reported family violence for females was significantly higher than the rate for males. However, the gap between the two sexes was less marked for the youngest (i.e., 9 years and under) and oldest (i.e., 60 years and over) age groups. Family violence rates for girls aged 9 and under were approximately 20% or 1.2 times greater than rates for similarly aged boys. This gender gap widened with age, peaking among those aged 25 to 34, when women were more than 3 times as likely as men to be the victim of violence by a family member. The gap between male and female rates of family violence narrowed in the older age groups, starting particularly with the 50- to 54-year-old group, and continuing up to the senior ages.

Physical assault most common form of police-reported family violence

In 2013, police reported that there were 63,287 victims of family-related physical assault (levels 1, 2, and 3),Note 12 representing nearly three-quarters (72%) of all family violence victims. More specifically, over half (58%) of all family violence victims experienced a common assault (level 1) and 14% suffered a major assault (level 2 or 3). Police also identified 7,177 victims of sexual offences by a family member, accounting for 8% of all family violence victims (Table 1.4).Note 13 

About one in six (17%) victims of police-reported family violence had been the target of an intimidation offence, such as criminal harassment, indecent telephone calls or uttering threats; a proportion similar to that found among victims of violence where the accused was not a family member (22%). Uttering threats, experienced by 12% of family violence victims, was the most prevalent of these intimidation offences.

Over half of family violence victims did not sustain physical injuries

While police-reported data do not measure emotional or psychological consequences, the physical consequences of family violence recorded can range from no physical injury to the death of the victim. Over half (55%) of family violence victims did not suffer any physical injury while just under half (44%) of family violence victims sustained minor physical injuries that either did not require professional medical treatment or needed first aid. A small percentage of all victims (1.5%) received more serious injuries that required treatment by a medical professional either at the scene or at a medical facility and there were 141 family violence victims (0.2%) who died as a result of their injuries.

When a physical injury was sustained, the accused had most often used their own physical force, such as choking, punching or kicking the victim (84%), while 16% used a weapon. This varied somewhat by the gender of the victim, with male victims (25%) more likely to be injured with a weapon than female victims (12%).

Taking into consideration the type of familial relationship between the accused and the victim, physical injuries occurred most frequently among victims of police-reported violence perpetrated by a current spouse (Chart 1.4). In 2013, more than half (59%) of individuals violently victimized by a current spouse sustained physical injuries. When family violence was committed by an extended family member, 43% of victims suffered injuries, as did similar proportions of those victimized by siblings (41%), parents (40%), and their children (39%).Note 14 At 27%, the proportion of victims sustaining injury was lowest among individuals who had been victimized by an ex-spouse.

Description for chart 1.4

More than half of police-reported family violence results in charges

Once the police respond to an incident of family violence, there are three possible outcomes: 1) police may charge an accused; 2) police can clear the incident in another way,Note 15 such as through departmental discretionNote 16; or 3) police do not clear the incident because of insufficient evidence.Note 17 In 2013, police laid charges in 56% of violent incidents involving family members. In comparison, charges were laid in 46% of violent incidents that were not family-related. Charges were more commonly laid in incidents where the victim of family violence was female (61%) than in those involving a male victim (46%).

Overall, 28% of family violence incidents were cleared otherwise, most often because the complainant declined to support the laying of charges (15%), followed by departmental discretion (6%) and reasons beyond the control of the department (6%). By comparison, 23% of non-family violence incidents were cleared otherwise. The reasons most often cited were similar to those indicated for incidents of family violence.

Rates of police-reported family violence generally declining

Trend dataNote 18 indicate that police-reported incidents of family violence have been decreasing in recent years. For instance, attempted murders by family members dropped 7% between 2009 and 2013 (Table 1.5). Rates have declined for more common forms of family violence, as well. From 2009 to 2013, physical assaults,Note 19 the most prevalent of the family violence offences, dropped 14% overall, declining 17% for spousal victimization and falling 10% for incidents involving other family members.

Rates of sexual assaultNote 20 against family members have also declined, though more modestly. The total rate for family-related sexual assaults was down 12% in 2013, compared to the rate recorded five years earlier. This overall decline in family-related sexual assaults is attributable to a decrease in non-spousal incidents of sexual victimization. Non-spousal sexual victimization accounted for approximately 85% of all family-related sexual assaults from 2009 to 2013. While the rate of non-spousal family-related sexual assaults dropped 15% during this five year period, the rate of spousal sexual assaults actually rose 3% during the same time frame.

The rate of family homicides continues to fall

Although homicide remains a relatively rare event in Canada, since it is not subject to under-reporting to the police to the same extent as other violent crime may be, it is considered to be a fairly reliable barometer of violence in society (Nivette 2011; United Nations 2011). Police-reported data indicate that in 2013 there were 126 victims of familial homicide, representing one-quarter of all homicides that year, or 4 homicides for every million individuals in the population.

Homicides committed by family members have been declining for several years. In 2013, the rate of family homicides per million population was less than half the rate recorded in 1983, a decline of 59% over that time period. (Chart 1.5). While the trend in family-related homicide rates was downward for both male and female victims, females were more likely than males to be killed by a family member, The family-related homicide rate in 2013 was 4 per million population for female victims compared to 3 per million population for male victims. This finding stands in notable contrast to the pattern for male and female rates of non-family related homicides, where the reverse was true. The rate of non-family related homicides for men was 11.7 per million population in 2013, about four times higher than the rate for female victims (3.0 per million).

Description for chart 1.5


Police-reported family violence incidents continued to account for about one-quarter of violent incidents coming to the attention of police in Canada in 2013. Reflecting the pattern for police-reported violent crime in general, the territories recorded higher rates of family violence than the provinces. In 2013, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories had the highest rates of police-reported family violence, overall, while among the provinces, police-reported family violence rates were highest in Saskatchewan and lowest in Ontario.

Spousal victimization is the most common form of police-reported family violence, accounting for nearly half of all such incidents in 2013. Police-reported data also indicate that family violence disproportionately affects women, particularly those in their 30s. More than two-thirds of police-reported family violence victims were female and women aged 30 to 34 experienced higher rates of police-reported family violence than any other age group, male or female. Among male victims, rates of police-reported family violence were highest for 15- to 19-year olds. The lowest rates of police-reported family violence victimization were recorded among seniors.

As in previous years, a majority of police-reported incidents of family violence involved physical assault. Still, more than half of police-reported victims of family violence did not sustain any physical injury. Among victims who were injured, the vast majority suffered minor injuries that required first aid or did not require medical attention. Physical injuries occurred most often in incidents of police-reported family violence involving a current spouse. Charges were laid or recommended in the majority of family violence incidents reported to police.

Trend data point to a decline in police-reported family violence. In recent years for instance, rates for the most frequent form of police-reported family violence, physical assault, have fallen, dropping 14% between 2009 and 2013. Homicides committed by family members, though rare, have also been on a downward trajectory for several years, declining 59% from 1983 to 2013.

Detailed data tables


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