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Violence against Aboriginal women

Family violence has been identified as one of the most important issues facing Aboriginal people in Canada (Lane et al. 2003; LaRocque 1994). In the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples (RCAP 1996), a number of factors that are linked to violence in Aboriginal communities were identified. These factors include systemic discrimination against Aboriginal peoples, economic and social deprivation, alcohol and substance abuse, and the intergenerational cycle of violence. According to RCAP hearings, other factors contributing to the high levels of violence in Aboriginal communities include the breakdown of healthy family life resulting from residential school upbringing, racism against Aboriginal peoples, the impact of colonialism on traditional values and culture, and overcrowded, substandard housing.

Aboriginal people in Canada have lower socio-economic standing than non-Aboriginal people. According to the 2001 Census, the average income for Aboriginal women was $16,600, compared with $22,100 for Aboriginal men, $23,100 for non-Aboriginal women, and $37,300 for non-Aboriginal men. Aboriginal people also have lower educational attainment, higher unemployment rates, and are more likely to live in crowded housing conditions. Aboriginal children are more likely to live in lone-parent families headed by women.

Prevalence and severity of violence against Aboriginal women

Statistical methods developed by Statistics Canada for measuring violence against women were not designed specifically to take account of cultural differences among minority groups, including Aboriginal women. For example, the General Social Survey GSS was conducted by telephone and only in English and French; Aboriginal women who live in remote communities without telephones or who do not speak English or French fluently will not be able to participate. Aboriginal women may also face additional barriers to disclosing violence to an interviewer that relate to cultural differences. The GSS is therefore likely to underestimate the true incidence of violence against Aboriginal women.

Spousal violence

In the 1999 GSS, Aboriginal women reported spousal assault at a rate that was twice as high as Aboriginal men and three times higher than non-Aboriginal women and men.1 In 2004, the gap between Aboriginal women and men narrowed somewhat, but the rates for Aboriginal women remain more than three times higher than for non-Aboriginal women or men (Figure 46). Overall, 21% of Aboriginal people reported being victims of spousal violence in 2004, three times higher than for non-Aboriginal people (7%).

Figure 46 Rates of spousal violence, by Aboriginal origin, 1999 and 2004. Opens a new browser window.

Figure 46 Rates of spousal violence, by Aboriginal origin, 1999 and 2004

Not only did Aboriginal women report higher rates of spousal violence in 2004, they were also significantly more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report the most severe and potentially life-threatening forms of violence, including being beaten or choked, having had a gun or knife used against them, or being sexually assaulted (54% of Aboriginal women compared with 37% of non-Aboriginal women) (Figure 47). These percentages for Aboriginal women remained unchanged since 1999; however, for non-Aboriginal women, the percentage who experienced the most serious forms of violence declined from 43% in 1999 to 37% in 2004.

Figure 47 Seriousness of spousal assaults on women, by Aboriginal status, 1999 and 2004. Opens a new browser window.

Figure 47 Seriousness of spousal assaults on women, by Aboriginal status, 1999 and 2004

As a result of the more serious types of violence suffered by Aboriginal women, the consequences of spousal violence are also more severe. Aboriginal women were more likely than their non-Aboriginal counterparts to have suffered physical injury, received medical attention, taken time off daily activities as a consequence of the assaults, experienced 10 or more separate episodes of violence from the same perpetrator, and were more likely to fear their lives were in danger (Figure 48).

Figure 48 Consequences of spousal violence for women, by Aboriginal status, 2004. Opens a new browser window.

Figure 48 Consequences of spousal violence for women, by Aboriginal status, 2004

Research using the 1999 GSS has shown that part of the explanation for higher rates of spousal violence against Aboriginal women may be the higher occurrence of risk factors for violence among the Aboriginal population (Brownridge 2003). These include lower socio-economic status, and the fact that the Aboriginal population is younger than the general population, more likely to live in common-law relationships, and have higher levels of alcohol abuse. However, when controlling for these risk factors, they account for some but not all of the difference in rates between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women.

Figure 49 illustrates that one of the most important predictors of spousal violence—emotional abuse—is more commonly reported by Aboriginal women, which may also help explain the higher rates among Aboriginal women.

Figure 49 Rates of psychological abuse by spousal partners, by type of abuse and Aboriginal status, 2004. Opens a new browser window.

Figure 49 Rates of psychological abuse by spousal partners, by type of abuse and Aboriginal status, 2004

It has been suggested that other factors that are more difficult to measure, such as experiences of colonization, feelings of devaluation among Aboriginal people, destruction of traditional ways of life, and a history of abuse in residential schools, may contribute to male Aboriginals’ use of violence against their partners (Brownridge 2003). The experience of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in residential schools meant that large numbers of Aboriginal people suffered long-lasting effects of abuse and were denied the opportunity to be exposed to examples of positive parenting (RCAP 1996). This may contribute to higher rates of violence in Aboriginal communities across generations.

Criminal harassment

Aboriginal people reported rates of stalking that were twice the level for non-Aboriginal people (17% compared with 9%). Rates were highest for Aboriginal women, almost twice as high as for non-Aboriginal women (21% compared with 11%).

Spousal homicide

Overall homicide rates are higher among Aboriginal people (Figure 50). With respect to spousal homicide, the rate for Aboriginal women was eight times the rate for non-Aboriginal women. For Aboriginal men, the spousal homicide rate was 38 times higher than the rate for non-Aboriginal men. These figures undercount the number of Aboriginal people who were victims of homicide as in some cases, this information was not known to police at the time the data were reported. In addition, in accordance with internal policy, some police services do not report the Aboriginal status of victims and accused persons to the Homicide Survey.

Figure 50 Rates of spousal homicide, by sex of victim and Aboriginal status, 1997 to 2000. Opens a new browser window.

Figure 50 Rates of spousal homicide, by sex of victim and Aboriginal status, 1997 to 2000

Homicide occurs in a somewhat different context for Aboriginal women and men compared with non-Aboriginal people. As a percentage of all homicide victims, spouses, parents and other family members make up a smaller percentage of those accused of killing female Aboriginal victims compared with their non-Aboriginal counterparts (Table 10). Family members made up 45% of those accused of homicide against Aboriginal women and 68% of those accused of homicide against non-Aboriginal women.

Table 10 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal victims of homicide in Canada, by sex and accused-victim relationship, 1997 to 2004. Opens a new browser window.

Table 10 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal victims of homicide in Canada, by sex and accused-victim relationship, 1997 to 2004

Non-spousal violence

The 2004 GSS shows that Aboriginal people have higher rates of non-spousal violence and are threatened with violence in and around their homes to a greater extent than non-Aboriginal people. With respect to violence involving offenders other than spouses, Aboriginal people are twice as likely to report that the violence occurred in and around the victim’s home. This is partly due to the fact that Aboriginal people are more likely to be living in rural areas, where there are fewer other high-risk locations, such as commercial establishments (Brzozowski et al. 2006).

Sample counts on the GSS are too low to produce statistically reliable estimates of sexual assault against Aboriginal women. However, police statistics comparing crime on and off reserves show that sexual assault and other violent crimes are more likely to occur on reserves. Rates of violent crime were 7,108 per 100,000 population on reserves and 953 off reserves; rates of sexual assault and other sexual offences were 564 and 83, respectively (Brzozowski et al. 2006).

Specialized services for Aboriginal people

Among the 473 shelters for abused women that responded to the Transition Home Survey in 2004, 31% (148) served populations living on reserves and 7% (31) were located on reserves. In addition, two-thirds of shelters across Canada reported that they offer some form of culturally sensitive services to Aboriginal women.  These include support services that recognize traditional healing methods, the use of spiritual elders and access to resource materials in Aboriginal languages.

Among the 484 victim service agencies that responded to the Victim Services Survey, one-quarter (121) provided specific programs for Aboriginal people and one-quarter were able to provide services in an Aboriginal language. Thirty percent of all agencies operated programs designed to address the specific forms of abuse suffered by Aboriginal people in residential schools.

Use of services by Aboriginal women

Between April 1, 2003 and March 31, 2004, a total of 1,847 women and 1,672 children were admitted to shelters located on reserves (Taylor-Butts 2005). Among almost 5,000 women and children residing in shelters on April 14, 2004, 173 were in shelters on reserves.

According to the 2004 GSS, Aboriginal women who were victims of spousal violence were more likely than non-Aboriginal women to report to the police and more likely to use social services (Figure 51). This is in keeping with the more serious nature of the violence perpetrated against them.

Figure 51 Percentage of Aboriginal women who used social services and reported spousal violence to the police, 2004. Opens a new browser window.

Figure 51 Percentage of Aboriginal women who used social services and reported spousal violence to the police, 2004

Summary of violence against Aboriginal women

Rates of spousal violence are higher among Aboriginal women than Aboriginal men or non-Aboriginal people.  Many risk factors associated with violence for Aboriginal people have been cited, including lower educational achievement, higher unemployment rates, alcohol abuse, experiences of colonization, feelings of devaluation among Aboriginal people, and a history of abuse in residential schools.  Although data on sexual assault are limited, police statistics show that rates of sexual assault and other types of violence are many times higher on reserves than in non-reserve areas. Spousal violence experienced by Aboriginal women is more severe, including a higher risk of homicide.

More detailed data captured through a refinement of research tools are needed to more fully explore and understand the nature, prevalence, risk factors and impacts of violence against Aboriginal women.


Note

1. This report uses the Aboriginal identity concept as the definition for the Aboriginal population. A total of 976,305 people identified with one or more Aboriginal groups (North American Indian, Métis or Inuit) in the 2001 Census. Assumptions about the Aboriginal identity of perpetrators of spousal violence should not be made based on the identity of victims.


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