Men who kill female family members tend to be treated more leniently by the courts if they are white, rather than non-white males perceived to have committed a so-called honour killing, a study suggests.

University of Ottawa law professor Pascale Fournier and two researchers analyzed 54 cases where men were convicted of killing their wives or close female family members.

At trial, the men all argued the killings had been committed in the heat of passion after they were provoked and lost control.

Under the Criminal Code, this "defence of provocation" can reduce a murder charge to one of manslaughter.

Fournier said that when the men in the study were divided according to ethnicity, the courts differed in how often the defence of provocation was accepted. "It was more likely that it would be accepted by judges, by the courts, when the individual was a Western white male," she said.

Fournier found that one-quarter of the accused white men convinced the courts that they had been provoked, versus 11 per cent of men of other ethnicities.

Us versus them

Regarding high-profile trials such as that of Mohammad Shafia, who was convicted of killing his three daughters and first wife, Fournier noted the emphasis given to cultural explanations for the motive.

"We do not see the Shafias in Canadian society. We believe these individuals — they have to belong to another race, they have to belong to another social group, so I'm interested in that kind of shift."

Shahrzad Mojab, who testified on behalf of the Crown in the Shafia murder trial, said she took on the job in the hopes of acting as a cultural interpreter and to open up debate about all violent crimes against women.  

Instead, Mojab said, she feels the trial stigmatized Canada's entire Afghan community.

"It sort of divides the nation on us-them, civilized-barbaric, civilized-uncivilized, which is not a useful and helpful way to go."

Fournier's findings will be published in the next edition of the Canadian Criminal Law Review.

With files from CBC's Alison Crawford