A Review of Research on Criminal Victimization and First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples 1990 to 2001

Part I: Literature Review (continued)

6. Victimization of Aboriginal Women and Youth

We review some of the major issues regarding victimization of Aboriginal women and youth in this section. In particular, we examine the serious problem of domestic violence from the perspective of Aboriginal women and children. In addition, we address youth victimization more broadly by examining the link between youth victimization in the family and subsequent anti-social behaviour. In particular, we address the issue of victimization in the sex trade and in gangs by Aboriginal youth.

6.1 Women

Domestic violence by men, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, against Aboriginal women is examined in this section. Although all women experience abuse by intimates because of gendered power imbalances and male privilege, the disproportionately high rate of domestic violence against Aboriginal women in particular requires further examination beyond the mainstream feminist critic. In Part 9 we examine the various theories that attempt to explain this disproportionate rate. In particular, we examine the impact of colonization once again and how Aboriginal men's "internalization of colonization" may account for, at least to some extent, such high rates of domestic violence.

A number of reports have attempted to document the rates of family violence in Aboriginal communities. Timpson (1994) summarizes the research as follows:

The incidence of wife assault in the Canadian population is said to be one in 10. The Indian and Inuit Nurses Association of Canada consider the national figures "grossly under-estimated" for Aboriginal women. The organization cites studies indicating 70 to 100 percent victimization in Nova Scotia; 75 to 90 percent in Northwestern Ontario; and 71 and 48 percent in an urban and reserve setting in Southern Ontario. The Ontario Native Womens' Association estimates an 80 percent victimization rate. The Manitoba Justice Enquiry found that two thirds of Aboriginal women were abused. A British Columbia study estimated that 86 percent of Aboriginal women had personally experience family violence. The regional studies do not have consistent definitions of abuse rendering comparisons difficult. What is evident is the desire for these organizations to bring attention to the problem.

The Canadian Council on Social Development (1984) report also made a number of recommendations to address Aboriginal victimization issues that continue to have relevance today. In particular, one recommendation called for the establishment of "family support services" to support victims within the community. According to the literature, there is considerable merit in such a proposal because of two reasons described below.

Firstly, there are circumstances within Aboriginal communities that contribute to the "normalization" of domestic violence (Stewart, Huntly, & Blaney, 2001). Some researchers have noted that the prevalence of violence, particularly in smaller remote communities, has essentially become an accepted part of life (Evans, Hann, & Nuffeld, 1998). The following report prepared by David (1993) based on a community workshop explains this problem in these words:

Participants spoke about establishing more shelters for battered women, more counselling for children victimized by violence, and counselling for men as victimizers. But delegates spoke about violence as a way of life, as a means of venting frustration and a signal of despair. They also spoke about years of being ordered to keep silent about the violence, both as victims and as victimizers.

After I gave a talk about family violence and abuse, a nun stood up and objected for making her feel sad and said those things never happened. The Church is afraid to say anything.

Child, sexual, and elder abuse is common, but not talked about. Communities won't admit there is a problem, even when the information is gathered and shows it's a big problem. One issue never talked about is child sexual abuse, it's a taboo to talk about such a thing. In most communities, everyone says ‘shhh!, don't talk about it.' (p. 24)

Moreover, a woman's ability to leave an abusive relationship in smaller remote communities is often much more difficult than elsewhere due to the lack of community support for abused women or the lack of victim support services (Levan, 2001; Bryce, Dungey, & Hirshman, 1992). Leadership within communities may also exacerbate victims' feelings of helplessness as one community member from Easkasoni recently stated:

Corruption in high places is a major obstacle to healing, and really is part of what needs to be healed. When this sort of systematic undermining of the community's will and intention happens, people get discouraged about their own ability to make a difference or to bring about change. They are less and less willing to get involved in anything controversial, more passive and more inclined to wait for and depend upon others to solve community problems. The reality is that many people feel helpless and powerless to change an environment that they know is slowly grinding them down. There's lots of discontent, but also a strong fear to speak up. We are afraid those in power will come down on us somehow, like when we need something fixed, or when we need a house for one of our children. They control our access to services and programs that may be our "right" to have, but they still control everything. So many of us remain silent. We are ruled by our own fear. (Lane et al., 2002, pp. 40-41)

Some possible explanations for such heightened and accepted victimization are reviewed in Part 9.

6.2 Youth Victimization

There is considerable literature that examines the issue of “family violence”, focusing on wife and child abuse, often however, without making much of a distinction between the experiences of women and children. This section examines the issue of child victimization within the domestic context. We recognize, however, that outside of this domestic framework, little attention has been paid to the victimization of Aboriginal youth and children generally. We have attempted to summarize what literature does exist in this area. In doing so, we separately discuss the victimization of Aboriginal youth in commercial sexual exploitation and gang involvement.

The literature is lacking a comprehensive survey of Aboriginal youth victimization in Canada (Dion, 1999). The literature tends to be comprised of qualitative studies of experiences encountered by youth or recollections of experiences by adults of their childhood. There is also some literature that focuses on identifying service and resource needs of youth generally and the needs of children and youth who are victims of violence specifically.

6.2.1 Youth Victimization in the Domestic Context

A significant amount of the literature draws the conclusion that child abuse in Aboriginal communities is staggering (RCAP, 1996d). A review by the Simon Fraser University National Crime Victimization Project provides a comprehensive summary of the studies that have examined family violence (Cohen, 2002). The review identifies a number of studies that document high levels of family violence in Aboriginal communities. Recent studies continue to support the conclusions of older studies that domestic violence is epidemic in Aboriginal communities (Thomlinson, et. al., 2000; Trocmé et al., 2001). For example, La Prairie’s study (1995b) of Aboriginal victimization and family violence in a number of urban centres in Canada showed disturbingly high rates of domestic violence. Findings from interviews with 621 informants revealed that 74% of the respondents experienced family violence and 49% experienced child sexual abuse.

One of the key conclusions made in the La Prairie study was that child abuse and sexual abuse were more likely to occur in non-biological or extended family contact situations. This conclusion was supported by the study of Kingsley and Mark (2000) who consulted 150 Aboriginal youth and children from 22 communities across Canada. They state that “many of the Aboriginal youth consulted shared stories of trauma at the hands of family friends, neighbours, and/or peers” (p. 15) indicating that abusers come from a wide circle of people other than immediate family members.

Perhaps one of the most important findings that La Prairie makes, for the purposes of this review, is that the experience of family victimization is linked to subsequent victimization and criminal activity in later life. The more severe the child abuse, the more likely the child will become involved in juvenile delinquency, particularly for males. Moreover, such male children are at a significantly higher risk to repeat the cycle of violence with their future spouses (McGillivray & Comaskey, 1996). The link between child abuse and future delinquency has been documented elsewhere (see Fattah, 1991).

There are indications that age at victimization as well as gender are factors in victims’ subsequent responses. Widom (1989) found that abuse of children under the age of eleven increased their likelihood of adult criminality and violent behaviour and that this was particularly the case for female victims (77%). In contrast, the Kingsley and Mark (2000) study of commercial sexual exploitation of Aboriginal youth and children found that for females there were links between childhood abuse and self-destructive “criminal” behaviour of sex trade involvement, but not violent crimes towards others. The impact on future behaviour is unclear in the existing literature. Thus, more research is needed to understand the impact of various types of abuse in childhood and whether there are important gender differences.

The link between childhood victimization and the perpetuation of a cycle of violence became painfully obvious in the work of Absolon and Winchester (1994) for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The authors also discuss how Aboriginal identity can be a factor in exacerbating the ability to cope with victimization. They identified various themes and issues from urban learning circles. In particular many of the participants talked about their “survival” of the residential schools and the child welfare system. They reported that:

Although not all people who went through foster care or adoption had terrible experiences, in most cases their Aboriginal identity suffered because the majority of them were placed in non-Aboriginal homes where their identity was either overtly humiliated, consciously denied or simply overlooked through ignorance. Only one woman, from the Saskatoon circle, told about how her adoptive parents always acknowledged her Aboriginal identity, always told her to be proud, and admitted their own ignorance and inability to tell her more about it, though they supported her efforts to learn. At the other end of the spectrum were stories about multiple foster homes, shaming of anything Aboriginal and all forms of abuse. The men in the inmates circle were testimony to this pattern as most were the children of residential school students and were graduates of the child welfare system. These men expressed the anger and rage of their victimization with great frankness.

Thus, there are unique issues resulting from society’s negative attitudes about Aboriginal identity that may contribute towards increased pathological responses including the perpetuation of violence as learned behaviour fuelled by frustration due to identity conflicts and turmoil.

6.2.2 Exposure and Impact of Domestic Victimization in Childhood

The study by McGillivray and Comaskey (1999) supports the relationship between victimization in childhood and victimization in adulthood. Their study of 26 Aboriginal women who were victims of wife abuse disclosed that all but one of the respondents witnessed abuse of others as they were growing up, including the abuse of their mothers. In addition, all but one reported being a victim of abuse in their childhood. This study provides further evidence of a clear connection between childhood abuse and abuse of women in later life. McGillivray and Comaskey (1999) make an important observation about the focus for further research:

Connections between intimate violence in adulthood and that experienced in childhood, whether it be experienced or only witnessed, are well established. One dimension usually omitted in the study of wife-battering generally and in indigenous communities in particular is childhood experiences. If we are to explain the heightened rate of intimate violence in Aboriginal communities in terms of intergenerational patterns of violence, violence as learned behaviour, and the normalization and internalization of violence, then the investigation of childhood is central to understanding partner violence. (p. 57)

Exposure to violence also victimizes and traumatizes Aboriginal youth as if they were the direct targets themselves (Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada, 2001). The damage wrought by these eye-witness experiences of a father beating a mother is manifest in many ways. Walker (1979, 1984) states that female children who witness spousal assault may learn that such violence is a part of life and that they cannot do anything about it. This may predispose them to becoming victims themselves in adulthood and to the normalization of such abuse. This theory is controversial, however, and requires further research to determine its accuracy.

According to reports reviewed by the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada (ANAC), children exposed to violence are 10-17 times more likely to have serious "emotional and behavioural problems when compared to children who are raised in a non-violent home environment" (p. 11). McGillivray and Comaskey (1999) also report that children exposed to such victimization can lead them to perpetuate violent behaviour in later life. "Where the witness to the violence is a child unable to oppose the abuse, it begins the process of brutalisation and violent coaching that may lead to a trans-generational cycle of intimate violence and to offending outside the family setting" (p. 72).

ANAC (2001) identifies a number of psychological and behaviour problems throughout childhood developmental stages up to 18 years of age that are associated with children who are exposed to violence in the home. Social, education and justice personnel would benefit from understanding these symptoms so that early detection and intervention can be facilitated. According to McGillivray and Comaskey, early and effective "childhood intervention that is culturally sensitive and balances needs for protection with the need for cultural and family connections is central to breaking the intergenerational cycle of intimate violence" (1999, p. 137).[19] In terms of social policy, these studies strongly suggest that there should be funding for a pro-active approach to addressing domestic violence.

Thus, what research has been completed in this area reveals that there is a high correlation between childhood domestic victimization and subsequent victimization and criminal activity in later life.[20] Colonization and its negative psycho/social effects may be a strong mediating factor between a low and a high correlation of future inter-personal violence. However, there is still very little empirical evidence to support this hypothesis and further research is necessary. In its Volume 3 report, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples provides other possibilities:

Family violence is perceived to be widespread in Aboriginal communities, but there are few national statistics demonstrating the incidence of violence or whether the situation is improving as a result of greater public awareness and programs to combat the problem. Studies reporting on the incidence of violence are often initiated by groups providing services, raising the possibility that the study group includes a high representation of persons with service needs. (RCAP, Vol 3, 1996c, p. 57)

As discussed above in Section 5.2, there are a few small scale studies that support the conclusion that Aboriginal family violence is overwhelming. However, there is no longitudinal or extensive empirical research on regional or national lines. Furthermore, the studies that do exist do not necessarily categorize their findings along the various Aboriginal sub-groups of Indian, Métis and Inuit peoples. The studies that do exist provide only tentative correlations between child abuse and future violence. There is very little information about the extent to which the type of abuse, the duration, or the age at which it occurs is related to later outcomes. We know little about whether sexual abuse as opposed to physical abuse affects children differently. There is some evidence in the literature that abuse affects males and females differently but nothing that is empirically definitive. Widom posed these research questions in 1989 and they continue to be relevant in 2002 in respect of knowledge that we need to obtain in regards to Aboriginal people's victimization in Canada.

6.2.3 Sexual Exploitation of Aboriginal Youth

The Kingsley and Mark (2000)[21] study is one of the only available works which specifically targets Aboriginal children and youth involved in the sex trade. It is a model study of direct youth participation in research.[22] It supports the conclusions of other research that Aboriginal children and youth represent a disproportionate percentage of commercially sexually exploited youth in Canada and that in some western cities, Aboriginal youth are an overwhelming majority of those involved in the sex trade. As Kingsley and Mark write:

In some communities, the visible sex trade is 90 per cent Aboriginal… While Aboriginal peoples make up only two to three per cent of Canada's population, in many places they form the majority of sex trade workers. In Winnipeg, for example, virtually all street–involved youth are Aboriginal. (Kingsley & Mark, 2000, pp. 8, 12)[23]

These findings are consistent with a case study by Elliot (1997) who examined the sex trade in the small urban setting of Kamloops. The focus on a rural setting makes this study unique since most research to date focuses on prostitution in urban centres. Elliot interviewed 51 sex trade workers, 37 of whom were non-Aboriginal females and 14 of whom were Aboriginal females. Kingsley and Mark (2000) noted that 75-80% of those involved in commercial sex exploitation are female. Elliot (1997) begins by looking at the sex trade in general in Kamloops and then moves on to examine issues of violence against sex trade workers, concerns with health and social support, and finally, legal issues. This report provides a number of recommendations in response to the problems identified. There are separate, although brief, sections dealing with First Nations sex trade workers and child prostitutes. One of the issues identified for Aboriginal women is the concern about lack of access to various support services because of a lack of culturally relevant services.[24]

The Federal/Provincial/Territorial Working Group on Prostitution (1998) also looked cursorily at Aboriginal involvement in the sex trade and the specific problems they face. The report looks at all facets of youth prostitution from why and how they enter the trade, to the types of harms experienced in the trade. This research is sound, but its failure to address Aboriginal-specific concerns is a research limitation in an otherwise very important study. This gap points to a cultural bias that minimizes its usefulness. Given that this study is relatively recent and given the high proportion of Aboriginal participation in the Canadian sex trade, the study missed a research opportunity by failing to be sensitive to the existence of culturally relevant solutions and barriers to escaping the sex trade for Aboriginal peoples.

In terms of "solutions", Kingsley and Mark (2000) found that the youth regarded cultural connection as important in any healing strategy. They state:

The theme of finding strength and power from their Aboriginal heritage was of fundamental importance to almost all youth who participated in the consultation…. Cultural connection for these youth can take a variety of forms, including sweat lodges, pow wows, fasting, artwork and oral traditions. The vast majority of the youth expressed interest in having access to a Native center which would both help them exit the sex trade and guide them on their healing path. (pp. 65-67)

Kingsley and Mark (2000) identified several factors that contribute to an Aboriginal youth entering the sex trade and simultaneously create barriers to their exit. Aboriginal specific barriers included the high risk of Aboriginal youth to escape dysfunctional families and having no visible support or place to turn for help. They speak of a lack of role models and Elders and of racism and how it contributes to low self-esteem which was one of the largest influencing factors in their lives. Kingsley and Mark explain how racism is one of the barriers to escaping the sex trade:

Mainstream society's expectation for Aboriginal peoples to walk a ‘negative path' had led to a pervasive invalidation of Native cultures and history. This common stereotyping leaves Aboriginal children and youth feeling worthless and undeserving of help. Being told all your life that you are inferior because of the colour of your skin shapes your thoughts, your actions, and your sense of self-worth. (p. 24)

The Federal/Provincial/Territorial Working Group on Prostitution (1998) does recommend that issues specific to Aboriginal youth need to be considered. The report found that many of the Aboriginal youth who eventually joined the sex trade had left their rural home communities for urban areas. Because of the culture shock of moving from reserve communities, these youth were often homeless and had feelings of cultural alienation. Therefore, they were alienated from the society in which they found themselves (Kingsley and Mark, 2000). This can make them particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation by pimps and sex trade users.

One of the most significant risk factors identified in the literature is the correlation between child abuse and entrance into the sex trade. Kingsley and Mark (2000) identified no less than eight independent studies that address sex trade workers: all of which have similar findings that support these conclusions for the general Canadian population.[25] In their study, Kingsley and Mark (2000) found that a full 80% of the Aboriginal youth in their study reported being a victim of sexual abuse.

Other than references to two additional articles in the popular Aboriginal press (Larose, 2001; Needham, 2000) we found very little that specifically addresses Aboriginal youth victimization in the sex trade. In both articles, prior child abuse was regarded as a major factor in Aboriginal youth becoming involved in sexual exploitation. Kingsley and Mark (2000) express such lack of attention to this area as a "crucial oversight in the literature" (p. 42). They explain the need in these words:

Extensive reviews reveal that there has never been any work done specifically with Aboriginal children and youth in the sex trade. Considering the serious overrepresentation of Aboriginals experiencing abuse and exploitation in Canada, this deficiency is shocking. (p. 42)

The Kingsley and Mark report also documents, as did the Elliot (1997) study, that historical, cultural and economic factors experienced by Aboriginal children and youth are different and unique and "that these factors limit the application of non-Aboriginal research, programs, and policy to Aboriginal youth-at-risk" (p. 42).

It may be argued that the factors that lead Aboriginal youth, especially young Aboriginal women to become involved in the sex trade are also factors that lead Aboriginal youth to get involved in gangs. Barnsley (2000) argues that gangs recruit insecure, disassociated teens and exploit their naivety for personal gain. Barnsley suggests that poverty and "ghetto-like" living conditions also contribute to gang membership. Indeed, Larose (2001) makes the link between Aboriginal street gangs and the sex trade of young Aboriginal girls. In this sense, while Aboriginal youth often become engaged in criminality, their involvement is often as a component of their continued victimization. This is an area that is deserving of further study.

6.3 Problematic Data and Gaps in Research

The quality and quantity of reliable data dealing with Aboriginal domestic violence has been questioned. For example, ANAC and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) recently conducted a review of the literature on family violence in Aboriginal communities and concluded that

"[e]xisting data are primarily from a few often-quoted sources, and the research presented in this publication identified a pattern of referencing the same studies and authorities repeatedly. That is to say, not a lot of new, original research has been done, just new reports that cite the same existing reports" (ANAC & Royal Canadian Mounted Police [RCMP], 2001, p. 32).

This is a theme that seems to repeat itself. In an earlier literature review on Aboriginal victims of crime, Van der Put (1990) made the observation that many of the studies refer to data in vague terms and draw the conclusion that there is a substantial gap in useful available data. More recently, in the context of sexual abuse victimization, Hylton (2002) found that there is a lack of knowledge and research.

Despite the substantial and sustained efforts of a few Aboriginal organizations that have attempted to focus attention on the issue of sexual abuse, surprisingly little is known about victimization and offending patterns in Aboriginal communities, and about how Aboriginal offenders are dealt with by the criminal justice system, or about Aboriginal community perspectives on the extent of the problems and what should be done about them. (Hyton, 2002, pp. 77-78)

There is also a general lack of Aboriginal specific data on child victimization. This is evident in the important study by McGillivray and Comaskey (1996). In their review of the literature on child abuse, there were no Aboriginal specific references, but rather references were made of general studies of child and family violence. Their study does confirm that child victimization may indeed be pervasive. Of the 26 Aboriginal women interviewed, 24 had experienced some form of child abuse (McGillivray & Comaskey, 1996). The small scale of this study does not allow statistical conclusions to be drawn. However, if this study is even remotely representative of the Aboriginal population there is truly a crisis in family violence within Aboriginal communities. However, more research needs to be undertaken to substantiate such conclusions and to identify any differences within Aboriginal communities and why. There is also a need to reconcile general statistics and national studies with these more specific Aboriginal statistics and studies. For example, the 1999 GSS study states that 11% of Aboriginal women were victims of family violence by a current spouse, whereas the ONWA study found that 90% of Aboriginal women were victims of family violence. These types of discrepancies need to be examined. In addition, as discussed above is the issue of how exposure to abuse by children in the family contributes to future abusive behaviour or victimization.


  • [19] Later in our review, we complete an in depth examination of Aboriginal healing processes that may partially address this criteria for intervention.
  • [20] Caution is needed here before making conclusions too quickly that child abuse is the major link or cause of subsequent delinquency and victimization later in life. Widom (1989) undertook a critical evaluation of the "violence breeds violence" hypothesis by examining a number of studies which examined this hypothesis. Widom’s conclusion was that there was little convincing empirical evidence that the cycle of violence is a sufficient or key determinant. Of parents who were abused, about one fifth continue the pattern of abusive behaviour against their own children. Of special note here, Widom’s analysis did not review any Aboriginal specific research. It may be that the impact of colonization is a crucial difference between the Aboriginal community and mainstream society.
  • [21] This study is found on the web at https://secure.savethechildren.ca/en/publicat.html
  • [22] Aboriginal youth were directly involved in consultations and focus groups from 22 communities across the country. Their input dictated the direction of the study as their combined voices resulted in 6 themes that became the framework of the study and the focus of recommendations.
  • [23] The conclusion that virtually all street-involved youth are Aboriginal is questionable. Further research is needed to verify such statements.
  • [24] We address the issue of victims services in more detail in Part 10.
  • [25] The studies cited include:
    • Bamly, L., Tubman, M., & Summit Rapporteurs. (1998). International summit of sexually exploited youth: Final report. Vancouver, BC: Save the Children Canada.
    • Calgary Police Commission. (1997). Children involved in prostitution. Calgary, AB: Author.
    • Capital Regional District. (1997). Report of the Sexually Exploited Youth Committee of the Capital Regional District. Victoria, BC: Author.
    • Jesson, J. (1993). Understanding adolescent female prostitution: A literature review. British Journal of Social Work, 23, pp. 517-530.
    • Jiwani, Y., & Brown, S. (1999). Trafficking and sexual exploitation of girls and young women: A review of select literature and initiatives. Vancouver, BC: FREDA Centre for Research on Violence Against Women and Children.
    • Manitoba Child and Youth Secretariate. (1996). Report of the Working Group on Juvenile Prostitution. Winnipeg, MB: Author.
    • McIntyre, S. (1994). The youngest profession: The oldest oppression. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Law, University of Sheffield, United Kindgom.
    • Rich, A., & Michaud, M. (1995). Juvenile prostitutes – A profile. Ottawa: Solicitor General of Canada.
Date modified: