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Section 5: Fact sheet — Family homicides

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The following fact sheet examines spousal homicides, homicides committed by family members against children and youth and against older adults (aged 65 years and over).

The primary data source used throughout this section was the annual Homicide Survey administered by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS). The Homicide Survey collects detailed police-reported information on all homicides that occur in Canada. The term ‘homicide’ refers to the Criminal Code offences of first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter and infanticide.

Spousal homicides

Spousal homicide rate at its lowest in over 30 years

Rates of spousal homicide 1  for both male and female victims have been declining over the past three decades. This trend continued in 2007, with a rate of 4 spousal homicides per million spouses—this rate was the lowest over the 30-year period from 1978 to 2007 (Chart 5.1).

Homicides are relatively rare in Canada, and in 2007, made up less than 1% of all violent crime. Spousal homicides accounted for 16% of all solved 2  homicides in Canada in 2007, and as in previous years, represented nearly half (47%) of all the homicides committed by family members that year.

Women continued to be more likely than men to be victims of spousal homicide (Table 5.1). Of the 65 spousal homicides reported in 2007, almost 4 times as many women (51) were killed by a current or former spouse as men (14) (Table 5.2).

Spousal homicide involved common-law partners more often than married spouses

In the most recent decade, between 1998 and 2007, 41% of spousal homicides involved victims living in common-law relationships (including same-sex couples), about one-third (35%) involved legally married persons, followed by partners who were separated (22%) or divorced (2%) (Table 5.3).

However, differences were found when examining the marital relationship of female victims of spousal homicide compared to male victims. Female victims were almost equally likely to be killed by a husband to whom they were legally married (38%) as by a common-law partner (35%). In contrast, most male victims (66%) were killed by their common-law partner.

In addition, the proportion of victims killed by a partner they were separated from was more than 2 times greater for female victims (25%) compared to male victims (11%). Research has suggested that marital separation, either actual or pending, is a factor that may increase the risk of spousal homicide, particularly for women (Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, 2005; Hotton, 2001).

Young adults at greatest risk of spousal homicide

Rates of spousal homicide were highest among youth and young adults in the 15 to 24 year-old age group, particularly female spouses. 3  Between 1998 and 2007, the rate of female spouses aged 15 to 24 killed by their partner (21 per million female spouses) was 3 times higher than the rate for all female victims of spousal homicide (7 per million female spouses). Similarly, the rate of male spouses aged 15 to 24 killed by their partner (8 per million male spouses) was more than 4 times that of all male spouses (2 per million male spouses) (Chart 5.2).

Male victims of spousal homicide most often killed by stabbing, female victims by physical force

Methods used to kill spouses differed for male and female victims. Between 1998 and 2007, the most common method used to kill male spouses was stabbing (71%). In comparison, less than one-third of female victims were stabbed (30%), and were nearly equally as likely to be shot (28%) (Table 5.4).

However, compared to males (12%), a substantially larger proportion of female victims of spousal homicide (38%) were killed as a result of physical force such as beating, strangulation, suffocation or drowning.

Over the past decade, the rate of firearm-related spousal homicide decreased three-fold, declining from 1.7 per million spouses in 1996 to 0.5 per million spouses in 2007. In 1996, there were 27 firearm-related spousal homicides compared to 9 in 2007 (Chart 5.3).

Family homicides against children and youth

In 2007, there were 56 homicides committed against children and youth 4  under the age of 18 across Canada, representing 9% of all homicides. The largest proportion of child and youth homicides were committed by family members (41%), another 27% were committed by non-family (including acquaintances and friends) and 20% by strangers. The remaining 13% of child and youth homicides were unsolved.

With few exceptions, the rate of child and youth homicides perpetrated by family members has been consistently higher than the rate committed by non-family members (Chart 5.4). However, in 2005 and again in 2007, the family rate dropped below that of the non-family rate to just over 3 homicides per million children, the lowest rates in over 30 years.

Parents responsible for most family-related homicides against children and youth

The majority of family-perpetrated homicides against children under 18 years of age were committed by parents. Over the past three decades, from 1978 to 2007, 86% of family-related homicide victims under the age of 18 were killed by a parent. 5 

Looking at the most recent 10-year period, fathers were generally more likely than mothers to be the perpetrators (Chart 5.5). Between 1998 and 2007, 54% of children killed by a family member were killed by their father, 34% by their mother, and the remaining 12% by other family members including siblings, grandparents, cousins or other extended family. 6 

Infants had the highest rates of homicide by a family member

Between 1998 and 2007, nearly one-third (30%) of children and youth killed by a family member were infants under the age of 1 year—this age group had the highest rate of family-perpetrated homicide among children and youth (Chart 5.5). Unlike in family homicides of older children where fathers were the most likely perpetrators, in family homicides of infants, half of victims (51%) were killed by their mother and 47% by their father.

The homicide rate for infants was 3 times higher than rates for children aged 1 to 3—the age group with the second highest homicide rate among children and youth (Chart 5.6). Infant boys under the age of 1 year tended to be at somewhat greater risk than infant girls. Over the 10-year period from 1998 to 2007, the rate of baby boys killed by a family member averaged 35 per million male infants, compared to 27 per million female infants.

The methods used in family-related homicides against children and youth varied depending on the age of the victim (Table 5.5). Family members who killed young children 6 and under most often used physical force (e.g. strangulation, beating or Shaken Baby Syndrome). Older children and youth 7 to 17 years of age were most often killed by a weapon (e.g., knife or firearm).

Family homicides against older adults

Police data have consistently shown that older Canadians, aged 65 years and over, are the least likely age group to be victimized. Similarly, the homicide rate is lower among seniors compared to those under the age of 65. In 2007, the homicide rate for seniors was 9 per million population compared to 23 per million population for persons under 65 years of age. However, rates of family-perpetrated homicide for seniors (3.8 per million population) and non-seniors (4.5 per million population) were comparable.

A total of 38 homicides were committed against seniors in 2007 (22 males and 16 females). About half of the homicides against seniors were committed by a family member, 21% by an acquaintance, and 11% by a stranger. The remaining senior homicides were unsolved.

Over the past three decades, with few exceptions, rates of family-related homicide against seniors have been lower than rates of homicide perpetrated by non-family members. However in 2007, the rate of family-related homicide rose above that of the non-family rate (Chart 5.7).

Family-related homicides against seniors most often committed by a spouse or an adult son

Family-related homicides against senior women were most commonly committed by the victim’s spouse (40%) or adult son (36%). In comparison, for two-thirds (66%) of family homicides perpetrated against senior men, the victim was killed by his adult son (Chart 5.8).

While the apparent reason for homicides against seniors by non-family members was most commonly financial gain (34%), for those committed by family members it was primarily frustration, anger or despair (35%); an argument was the apparent motivation in about one-quarter of family-perpetrated homicides of seniors. In comparison, the apparent reason for killing non-senior adults (aged 18-64) was most often the escalation of an argument (43% by family members and 41% by non-family members) (Table 5.6).