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

Part I: Literature Review (continued)

9. Explanations for Aboriginal Victimization

This section examines the explanations offered in the literature for the high rate of Aboriginal criminality and how they may relate to Aboriginal victimization. In addition, explanations for the extraordinarily high rates of domestic victimization are explored. Convergence seems to be forming around versions of a cross-cultural or trauma theory of victimization that is rooted in the overall effects of colonization. In addition, we examine, in particular, the impact of racism on Aboriginal victimization in this part of the report.

9.1 Victimization and the Impact of Colonization

There is virtually no literature or research that explains the high rate of Aboriginal victimization on a general level. There are a few theories that attempt to explain the high prevalence of family violence in Aboriginal communities (ANAC & RCMP, 2001). We examine in greater detail the discussion of why family violence is so prevalent later in this section.

There is, however, no shortage of research and literature that attempts to explain the over-representation of Aboriginal offenders in penal institutions. There is no general consensus in this literature as to the sources and causes of Aboriginal crime, although the majority of theories offered support a colonization theory to explain such over-representation. Although not directly dealing with victimization, we examine some of the literature that examines Aboriginal crime and violence below. This literature is relevant because the high rates of violence and crime in Aboriginal societies is a mirror image of Aboriginal victimization rates since studies show that most Aboriginal crime is committed against Aboriginal victims in Aboriginal communities.

Smandych, Lincoln, and Wilson (1993)provide a very useful study that summarizes the various theories for explaining Aboriginal criminal behaviour. They examine various explanations of Aboriginal over-representation such as racial bias, visibility, cultural factors, legal factors, extralegal factors, over-policing, and other explanations. The goal of their work is to identify a "cross-cultural" theory of Aboriginal crime that would be broad enough to explain all aspects of Aboriginal criminal behaviour. Although the authors note that additional work needs to be done in this area, they point to the research of two authors that they "feel should be the direction taken by theory and research on aboriginal criminal justice issues" (p. 18). They refer to La Prairie (1992) and Marenin (1992). For example, they summarize La Prairie as follows:

[M]any of the research findings that have been reported show ‘disproportionate levels of crime and violence, both on and off-reserve' and suggest that these are the result of ‘a serious rupture of traditional control mechanisms in contemporary aboriginal communities.' She implies in her discussion that the processes of colonization … and modernization… have both contributed to creating the social and economic conditions faced by indigenous peoples and that these conditions have in turn led to serious disruption in, and sometimes even the total disintegration of, more traditional ‘communitarian' Aboriginal methods of dispute settlement and social control. (Smandych et al., 1993, pp. 18-19)

This "cross-cultural" theory (i.e. colonization and modernization) is not only valuable and relevant to explaining Aboriginal criminal behaviour, but also Aboriginal victimization. It is similar to the "trauma theory" offered by the ANAC and RCMP study as the predominate explanation of the high rates of Aboriginal family violence.

The joint review by ANAC and the RCMP (2001) provides a useful summary of the various theories that attempt to explain the prevalence of high domestic violence rates in society.[30] The majority of theories summarized are culturally neutral except for the "trauma theory" which attempts to explain disproportionate rates of victimization and crime based on the effects of colonization.[31] These other theories, however, have not gained general acceptance. Currently, the "trauma theory" has also been the main explanation adopted by majority of researchers including the many Aboriginal justice inquiries (Manitoba in 1990, Alberta in 1991, Saskatchewan in 1992). It is the preferred theory in many of the studies that examine family violence in Aboriginal communities (Ursel, 2001). Ross (1996) provides an insightful summation of the impact of colonization and its connection to domestic violence. He states:

[R]esidential schools were not the solitary cause of social breakdown amongst Aboriginal people. Rather, they were the closing punctuation mark in a loud, long declaration saying that nothing Aboriginal could possibly be of value to anyone. That message had been delivered in almost every way imaginable, and it touched every aspect of traditional social organization. Nothing was exempt, whether it was spiritual beliefs and practices, child-raising techniques, pharmacology, psychology, dispute resolution, decision-making, clan organization or community governance…. And what happens when you are told, from every direction and in every way, that you and all your people have no value to anyone, no purpose to your lives, no positive impact on the world around you? No one can stand believing those things of themselves…. At some point people brought to this position stand up and demand to be noticed, to be recognized as being alive, as having influence and power. And the easiest way to assert power, to prove that you exist, is to demonstrate power over people who are weaker still, primarily by making them do things they don't want to do. The more those things shame and diminish the weaker person, the more the abuser feels, within the twisted logic of victimization, that they have been empowered and restored themselves. [italics in original] (pp. 46, 48)

The following discussion in the RCAP report is also worth quoting at length, particularly in regards to the inter-generational impact of violence.

[M]any factors contribute to weakening the fabric of a society and loosening the bonds of relationships and self-regulated behaviour: social change that is rapid or beyond the control of a society; family breakdown, which interferes with the nurturing and socialization of children; poverty and economic marginalization, which restrict opportunities for youth and contribute to a loss of hope; loss of respect for the wisdom of Aboriginal people's culture; and learned patterns of self-defeating or self-destructive behaviour passed on from one generation to another.

We pointed out in Choosing Life that these depressing conditions afflict Aboriginal people more frequently than others in Canada, and this is no accident. Aboriginal people were not simply caught in an onslaught of development. In fact, they were subjected persistently and systematically to interventions that sought to eliminate or replace Aboriginal institutions with the allegedly better institutions of colonial society. In Volume 1 of our report, particularly chapters 8 to 13, we documented the historical policies that had a devastating effect on the culture and cohesion of Aboriginal nations and communities and lasting intergenerational consequences in the lives of families and individuals.

In our hearings and commissioned research we found further evidence that assaults on Aboriginal identity, culture and community institutions continue today. Aboriginal people recounted racially motivated incidents experienced in their daily lives. The stereotyping and devaluing of Aboriginal women, a combination of racism and sexism, are among the most damaging of attitudes that find expression in Canadian society. These attitudes are not held exclusively by non-Aboriginal people either. Indeed … members of powerless groups who are subjected to demeaning treatment tend to internalize negative attitudes toward their own group. They then act on those attitudes in ways that confirm the original negative judgement. (RCAP, 1996d, pp. 62-63)

The negative impact of colonization on identity and the subsequent social pathology that results has been an offered as an explanation for some time (Robbins, 1974). However, the links and the relationships between colonization and subsequent pathology, identity and victimization needs to be clarified by further research. There are few recent studies that have examined identity and its relevance to Aboriginal victimization. There has been some related work in terms of examining the relationship between cultural preservation and suicide rates in Aboriginal communities. Chandler and Lalonde (1998) have found that those communities that have taken active steps to preserve and to maintain their Aboriginal cultures and collective identities have dramatically lower suicide rates. If one of the negative effects of colonization is its impact on self-identity and cultural connection then we should examine the relationship between victimization and the strength of individual and community self-identity and cultural connection.

Although there is considerable research on Aboriginal family violence against women, much of this research is of a "snap-shot" variety.[32] Consequently, it is not surprising that a review of literature on Aboriginal women's policy issues made the recommendation that "priority be given to the development and implementation of longitudinal studies" to track key indicators pertaining to Aboriginal women's victimization over time (Dion Stout & Kipling, 1998). We agree that this is a research gap. We suggest, however, that this need for more longitudinal studies should be conducted on Aboriginal victimization with communities including women, men and youth. As discussed earlier, the normalization of violence in Aboriginal communities is of serious concern and there is a need to learn more about this socialization process where crime and victimization become accepted everyday realities (Stewart et al., 2001).

The predominant theory of colonization or "trauma theory" (ANAC & RCMP, 2001) to explain Aboriginal domestic violence has obvious implications for supporting a broader theory of Aboriginal victimization generally and can be applied by analogy to explain why there is such a disproportionate rate of Aboriginal victimization generally.

Racism has been identified as a separate explanation for Aboriginal victimization. It too can be explained as a symptom of the impact of colonization. However, it is thought that its importance as a factor in Aboriginal victimization is worth discussing in a separate section. The following section examines the impact of racism on Aboriginal victimization in greater detail.

9.2 Racism

This part examines briefly the issue of systemic discrimination of Aboriginal peoples by the Canadian justice system. An in-depth review of this issue is beyond the scope of this review. Although it is true that systemic discrimination of the justice system can be viewed as victimizing Aboriginal peoples, it is not directly about criminal victimization. It can, however, exacerbate and contribute to high victimization in the Aboriginal community and this will be briefly addressed. We also examine direct racism by non-Aboriginal individuals in this part because of its link to criminal victimization.

9.2.1 Systemic Discrimination of the Justice System

Aboriginal peoples experience systemic discrimination every time they come into contact with the justice system. Systemic discrimination is the norm and effects offenders and victims indiscriminately. It is pervasive and endemic. Various Aboriginal justice inquires have studied the issue of systemic discrimination of the criminal justice system, particularly as it affects offenders.[33] Less attention has been focused on the victims. Nonetheless, the literature in dealing with systemic discrimination and racism in the justice system is extensive.[34]

The most comprehensive review of the issues of systemic discrimination in this area continues to be the Manitoba Justice Inquiry report (Hamilton & Sinclair, 1991b). Other inquiries have added little original content or recommendations since this inquiry (RCAP, 1996b). The RCAP Bridging the Cultural Divide report (1996a) provides an excellent summary of the major inquiries. Despite the recommendations of these reports very little has changed. For example, racism and systemic discrimination continue to exist in Saskatchewan. The recent allegations that the Saskatoon police have a practice of dropping Aboriginal "troublemakers" off at the edge of town where one such troublemaker was later found to have frozen to death has prompted the formation of a public inquiry (currently being chaired by William Littlechild). The existence of such a practice reinforces the conclusion that notwithstanding previous inquiries in that province conducted in 1992 which set out numerous recommendations to address systemic discrimination and racism by justice personnel very little seems to have changed. This sentiment was recently stated with regard to circumstances in Manitoba as well. In 1999, Judge Sinclair, one of the Co-Chairs of the Manitoba Inquiry made a presentation to the First Nation Shelter Director's Meeting. In his remarks, he expressed considerable disappointment that "not a lot of change has happened" (Sinclair, 1999).

Most recently, the province of Manitoba has conducted a 10-year review of the status of the Manitoba Inquiry (Chartrand & Whitecloud, 2001). The report is informative for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the acknowledgment that not much has been done in the past 10 years with regard to the implementation of the recommendations of the Manitoba Inquiry. The Review Commission asks that the province make an institutional commitment and recommends setting up a permanent commission and hold a round table. The report is also informative in the change in emphasis on reform from that of setting up an Aboriginal controlled justice system (which has been criticized as primarily replacing brown faces with white faces) advocated by the Manitoba Inquiry to reforms that emphasize more restorative alternative and community prevention approaches.

It has been argued that systemic discrimination contributes to Aboriginal victimization because the existing system does not address, and is inherently incapable of addressing, the underlying causes of Aboriginal criminality (RCAP, 1996a). Sending offenders to jail only makes them better criminals and more bitter and angry when they return back to the community (Hollow Water First Nation Community Holistic Circle Healing, 1994). Aboriginal alternative to the existing justice system have, in part, been motivated by this failure of the existing system to "heal" offenders.

9.2.2 Hate Crime and Victimization

Direct personal racism also contributes to continued victimization of Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal people who target Aboriginal victims simply because they are "different". Many of the major justice inquires concerning the impact of the criminal justice system on Aboriginal peoples arose out of individual accounts of Aboriginal victimization fuelled by racist attitudes by non-Aboriginal people (for examples, the Manitoba Justice Inquiry of 1990 and the Osnaburgh/Windigo Justice Inquiry of 1990).

The form of violence against Aboriginal women is violence by Euro-Canadian men against Aboriginal women outside the home, in which non-Aboriginal men exercise their gendered racial privilege by victimizing Aboriginal women (Razack, 2002). This form of violence against Aboriginal women is unique to this group and arises as a result of gendered racism. For example, gendered racism is often manifested in the violence targeted at Aboriginal women sex trade workers by non-Aboriginal men.

The case study of Pamela George by Sherene Razack (2002) explains in a revealing and powerful way how racism and gender contributed to her death by two white men. Two middle-class university athletes raped and murdered Pamela George who was working as a prostitute in Regina. Race, despite the court's interpretation of the events in which racism was deemed to be irrelevant, was a factor in her victimization. Razack explains:

Two white men who buy the services of an Aboriginal woman in prostitution, and who then beat her to death, are enacting a quite specific violence perpetrated on Aboriginal bodies throughout Canada's history, a colonial violence that has not only enabled white settlers to secure the land but to come to know themselves as entitled to it. In the men's encounter with Pamela George, these material (theft of the land) and symbolic (who is entitled to it) processes shaped both what brought Pamela George to the Stroll and what white men from middle-class homes thought they were doing in a downtown area of prostitution on the night of the murder. (Razack, 2002, p. 128)

For a recent review of material documenting gendered racism and its connection to violence and victimization see McKay (2001). The intersection of gender and race increase the risk of Aboriginal women experiencing violence (National Association of Women and the Law, 1993). McKay also asserts that Canada's continued failure to ameliorate the gendered racism that Aboriginal women face in terms of increased rates of violence and rape is a violation of Article 2.2 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Thus, Aboriginal women are at increased risk of victimization due to racism and sexism, embodied in stereotypes of Aboriginal women within Canadian society. Crimes motivated by racism are arguably hate crimes and should be pursued by Crown prosecutors as such. A recent incident arising from Saskatchewan involved demands from the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations that the death of a native woman, Cynthia Sanderson, in Prince Albert should also involve the laying of hate crime charges. In this case, the CBC reported that witnesses alleged that the driver of the truck shouted racial slurs at Sanderson before running her over.[35]

Considerable attention and research has been devoted to addressing systemic discrimination in the justice system against Aboriginal peoples, but little attention has been directed at identify the motivating factors of personal racial violence against Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal people. What factors motivate white-middle class men to react violently against Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal women?

The Simon Fraser review (Cohen, 2002) briefly discusses how racism and stereotypes of Aboriginal women exacerbate and aggravate the risk of victimization including increasing the risk of victimization from Aboriginal men. "Internalized colonialism" is manifested in Aboriginal men victimizing Aboriginal women and children because of the reinforced belief in the devalued nature of their own people because of gendered racism within society at large (Cohen, 2002, LaRocque, 1994).

9.3 Summary

There is no debate about the prevalence of Aboriginal family violence and victimization in Canadian society. It is a serious social issue. There is also no longer any real debate about the explanations for such prevalence of victimization. Factors such as alcohol abuse and poverty are increasingly being recognized as the symptoms they are of a broader explanation based on the impact of colonization. What remains an issue for debate in the literature at the present time is the question of what to do about it. How should the offenders, the majority of whom are Aboriginal, be dealt with?

Unfortunately, as Johnston (1997) argues, society's response to dealing with the trauma experienced by abused Aboriginal individuals and consequential effects has often been to institutionalize the affected individuals in prisons and other institutions. Often, Aboriginal victims in need of therapeutic help or culturally relevant healing methods fall through the social safety net and do not receive any assistance. In these circumstances, Aboriginal victims often become victimizers themselves. Both the Sugar and Fox (1990) and the La Prairie (1996) studies note that most of the female inmates in prison were victims of violence themselves. Sugar and Fox movingly capture the tragedy of many Aboriginal women's involvement in prison in these words:

As our stories show, aboriginal women who are in prison grow up in prison, though the prisons they grow up in are not the ones to which they are sentenced under law. (p. 3)

As explained by McIvor (1992), many of the Aboriginal women in prison are there for violent crimes because they were "pushed to the wall and responded in violence". They were victims of incest, sexual assault and physical abuse as children.

How Aboriginal offenders are to be treated given that their life stories reveal that they are as much victims as offenders in many cases has given rise to considerable debate. Should they benefit from alternative Aboriginal justice processes that emphasis healing and reconciliation or should they be punished and isolated from the rest of society for the protection of others?

Opinion on this issue can be categorized in two different directions. Ursel (2001) summarizes this debate:

[F]rom a historic stand point it is difficult to separate the victims and the abusers because of the profound history of abuse of Aboriginal people. From the stand point of Aboriginal offenders (who may well have been abused as children) the question arises; do they merit a different consequence because of their history? (p. 3)

In a national study of Aboriginal offenders, Johnston (1997) found that during their childhood, Aboriginal offenders suffered a number of socio-economic disadvantages, including the following:

It was found that early drug (60.4 %) and alcohol abuse (57.9 %) were commonplace, as were behavioural problems (57.1 %). Other frequently-noted occurrences were both physical (45.2%) and sexual abuse (21.2 %), as well as severe poverty (35.3 %), and parental absence or neglect (41.1 %). Suicide was attempted by 20.5 percent of these offenders (Johnston, 1997).

In light of the above, Ursel (2001) goes on to identify the issues that need to be addressed:

From the stand point of Aboriginal victims the weight of history and the urgency of immediate risk seem to pull in different directions. Do Aboriginal victims merit greater police intervention because of their greater risk, or less police intervention because of their assailants history of abuse? How is protection best provided? Much of the debate seems to revolve around the question of whether we privilege past or present victims? (p. 3)

In the following section on the impact of the justice system and alternatives to the existing criminal justice system, we explore these and other tensions in greater detail.


  • [30] The theories examined are Characterological or Personality, Psychological Processes, Interactional explanations, Homeostatic or Functional Mechanisms, Dysfunctional interactions, Developmental theories, socio-cultural, feminist and Socio-political, Biological-genetic origins and Trauma theory.
  • [31] For example some researchers argued that Aboriginal criminality was a function of social and economic status which is a variable that transcends race and culture. Satzewich and Wotherspoon, (1993) argued that the explanation for such rates of crime and victimization are attributable to differences in socio-economic status and not to Aboriginality. Such explanations, however, deny the historical context of Aboriginal victimization and the corresponding unique barriers faced by Aboriginal peoples as colonized societies. In any event, other studies refute such limited explanations of Aboriginal victimization (La Prairie, 1990). Cattarinich (1996) decided to also study this debate regarding the relevance of Aboriginality as a relevant factor in criminality. Cattrainich (1996) proposed the hypothesis that class (economic circumstances and age) were more responsible for Aboriginal criminality than race. In testing this hypothesis, he found that he was wrong and that there was more to Aboriginal over-representation than simply class status.
  • [32] See research referenced in Sections 4 to 6 of our review.
  • [33] See Appendix A for a List of Inquiries and Commissions.
  • [34] This issue of systemic discrimination is beyond the scope of this paper, although as Ross (1996) and others have argued, its existence can and does exacerbate an Aboriginal victim’s alienation and marginalization of the justice system to the point of re-victimization. For a relevant bibliography on racism in the criminal justice system, including references to Aboriginal peoples, see Mathews and Lewis (1995).
  • [35] Information obtained from a CBC New Online report at http://cbc.ca/news
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