Focus on 'family violence' in cases of missing, murdered aboriginal women misguided

RCMP and policy makers are focusing on family violence when discussing murdered aboriginal women. But a closer look at the numbers reveals a more complex picture.

Closer look at RCMP report that put the onus on families, aboriginal communities reveals more complex picture

A woman holds a sign as hundreds of people march through the Downtown Eastside during the 25th annual Women's Memorial March in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday February 14, 2015. The march is held to honour missing and murdered women and girls from the community with stops along the way to commemorate where women were last seen or found. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Last month, RCMP delivered an update on missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, a report that led many to put the onus for reform on aboriginal families and communities.  

"Our 2015 update confirms the unmistakable connection between homicide and family violence," said RCMP deputy-commissioner Janice Armstrong, speaking to the media after the report.

The RCMP report noted that victims "knew their killers" in 100 per cent of the solved homicide cases of aboriginal women in 2013 and 2014.

And at the news conference, police shared their efforts to raise awareness about family violence within aboriginal communities, including a public service campaign featuring country singer Shania Twain.

But while there is undoubtedly a link between family violence and missing and murdered women of all backgrounds, a closer look at the statistics and terminology suggest that policy makers and the news media might want to be more careful how they frame this important debate.

For example, the RCMP report says 32 aboriginal women were victims of homicide in 2013 and 2014, and victims knew their killer in 100 per cent of the solved cases.

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That "100 per cent," however, leaves out at least six unsolved cases the Mounties cited in that period for which it is impossible to know at this point the relationship of the victim to her killer.

It also leaves out victims in cities and regions policed by forces other than the RCMP, such as the Toronto and Vancouver police departments. Had those areas been included, it would lead to a larger base that would likely skew the 100 per cent assessment.

More to the point, the police classification that these murdered women "knew their killer" does not mean that these women knew their killer well or intimately.

In fact, when you look into the categories more closely, the odds of family being involved actually decrease if the victim is aboriginal.

RCMP definition of 'knew their killer'

Between 1980 and 2012, 30 per cent of aboriginal female homicides involved what RCMP characterize as "acquaintances," which is defined as "close friends, neighbours, authority figures, business relationships, criminal relationships and casual acquaintances. (i.e. a person known to the victim that does not fit in the other acquaintance categories)."

In other words, a broad group of people that includes neighbours you might see taking out the trash, a grocery store clerk you might see on a weekly basis and, as was pointed out during the news conference, sex workers who "know" their johns.

In that sense, Natasha Montgomery and Cynthia Maas "knew" Cody Legebokoff, a serial killer who preyed on their vulnerable positions as sex trade workers in order to get drugs, before violently murdering them and disposing of their bodies.

Loretta Saunders also knew Blake Legette, a man who was subletting an apartment from her. Short on the money for rent, Legette opted to suffocate Saunders with a plastic bag and hit her head on the floor until she stopped moving.

Family violence greater factor in non-aboriginal homicides

After acquaintances, aboriginal women are most likely to be killed by spouses (past and present), family members, or what the RCMP calls "other intimates," so it does make sense for police to want to reduce violence in these categories.

However, it should not be implied that family violence is somehow unique to aboriginal communities as the numbers show it is more prevalent in non-aboriginal ones.

Figure 8 – Offender-to-victim relationship, female homicides, 1980-2012: From Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview (RCMP )

As the chart shows, between 1980 and 2012, 62 per cent of aboriginal women murders involved a spouse, family member, or "other intimates."

But that number increases to 74 per cent in the case of non-aboriginal female homicides.

Why this matters

Last year, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt told the Ottawa Citizen that aboriginal communities have to take a greater responsibility for missing and murder indigenous women in Canada.

"Obviously, there's a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves," he said. "So, you know, if the guys grow up believing that women have no rights, that's how they are treated."

These comments were made against the backdrop of calls for a national inquiry into the number of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, something the federal government says it isn't interested in.

They can probably also be seen in the context of the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission report into residential schools.

It paints a portrait of intergenerational violence and trauma affecting aboriginal people across this country in myriad ways, and calls for a greater depth of understanding of the challenges involved.

The bigger picture

Aboriginal women are four times more likely to be killed than non-aboriginal women in this country.

Despite accounting for only four per cent of the population, they make up nearly 25 per cent of the female homicide victims in Canada.

Family violence is indeed part of that, but so, too, are killings by acquaintances and complete strangers.

All occur at rates far higher than what is faced by non-aboriginal women.

But when we frame the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada as a problem for individual communities and families alone, we may be in danger of missing the wider picture.


Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at You can also send encrypted messages using Signal or iMessage to 250.552.2058.