Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 3

Aboriginal Victimization in Canada: A Summary of the Literature

By Katie Scrim, Research Officer in the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice Canada

This article is derived from the forthcoming report “A Review of Research on Criminal Victimization and First Nations, Métis and  Inuit Peoples 1990 to 2008,” which is an update of the original report entitled A Review of Research on Criminal Victimization and First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples 1990 to 2001 (Chartrand and McKay 2006).


According to data from the 2004 General Social Survey on Victimization (GSS), 40% of AboriginalFootnote 1 Canadians reported having been a victim of crime in the year leading up to the survey compared to 28% of non-Aboriginal Canadians. With respect to violent crime,Footnote 2 Aboriginal people were three times more likely to have been victimized compared to non-Aboriginal people (319 incidents versus 101 incidents per 1,000 population) (Brzozowski et al. 2006).

These statistics confirm that Aboriginal people are disproportionately represented as victims of crime in Canada. Perpetrators of violence against Aboriginal people are most often other members of the Aboriginal community such as spouses, relatives, or friends of the victim, and as such, victimization among Aboriginal people in Canada is often regarded as a mirror image of Aboriginal offending.

A review of criminal justice studies on Aboriginal representation in the criminal justice system reveals that the literature is largely offender focused. While significant attention is spent addressing questions such as how to make the criminal justice system more relevant for Aboriginal offenders, less attention has been focused on Aboriginal victims of crime.

This article summarizes the findings of a recent literature review on the criminal victimization of Aboriginal people in Canada. This review paid specific attention to demographic and social trends that have been regarded as factors possibly influencing high victimization rates. It also investigated the under-reporting of victimization among Aboriginal people and the particularly high victimization rates among Aboriginal women, youth, and persons with physical and mental health issues. Finally, explanations for the high rate of victimization of Aboriginal people were proposed, and future research areas were identified.

Criminogenic FactorsFootnote 3

Research has identified a connection between certain demographic and social factors and an elevated risk of offending and/or victimization. These factors include being young (Lochner 2004), living in a lone-parent family situation (Stevenson et al. 1998), living common-law (Mihorean 2005), high levels of unemployment (Raphael and Winter-Ebmer 2001), and the consumption of alcohol (Vanderburg et al. 1995). All of these risk factors are highly apparent in the demographic and social conditions of the Aboriginal population in Canada.

The Aboriginal population in Canada is much younger on average than other Canadians, with a mean age of just 27 compared to 40 for the rest of Canada. Accentuating this further, almost half (48%) of the Aboriginal population is under the age of 25 (Statistics Canada 2008a).

In terms of family composition, Aboriginal children are more likely than non-Aboriginal children to live in lone-parent households, and in 1996, Aboriginal women headed 86 % of these households (Statistics Canada 2001).

Although Aboriginal Canadians have been making important gains in educational achievement, they are still significantly underrepresented in educational attainment. While 81% of the non-Aboriginal population aged 20 years or older holds at least a high school diploma, just 62% of the Aboriginal population in that age group does (Statistics Canada 2008c).

The Aboriginal population is also an economically disadvantaged population. The unemployment rate is more than double that of the non-Aboriginal population in Canada (15% compared to 6%) (Statistics Canada 2008b). As a correlate, Aboriginal people make 33% less income per annum on average than non-Aboriginal people (Statistics Canada 2008d).

Results from the 2004 GSS show that alcohol or drug use was a factor in six out of ten criminal incidents committed against Aboriginal victims. However, this figure was not statistically different from those incidents involving non-Aboriginal victims (Brzozowski et al. 2006).

The disproportionately high rates of violent victimization experienced by Aboriginal people can only be partially explained by the social and demographic characteristics of that population. The findings of one study show that while being young is the single greatest predictor of violent victimization for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, simply being an Aboriginal person significantly increases the likelihood of experiencing a violent victimization (Brzozowski et al. 2006). All other factors held constant, the odds of being the victim of a violent crime is approximately three times higher among Aboriginal people (Brzozowski et al. 2006).

Under-Reporting of Victimization

The under-reporting of victimization, particularly for domesticFootnote 4  violence, is a serious concern in Canada. It is argued that in many Aboriginal communities the problem is far more acute  (LaPrairie 1995; McKay 2001). LaPrairie (1995) reported in her study of Aboriginal victimization in urban centres that 74% of respondents who experienced family violence did not report their victimization.

Case Outcomes

Some studies have found that even when incidents of violence are reported by Aboriginal victims and charges are laid, there is a higher rate of dismissed charges or not guilty outcomes. For example, the dismissal and discharge rate of Aboriginal people accused of domestic violence was 60%, compared to 44% of non-Aboriginal accused, mainly due to a significant reluctance on the part of victims to attend court and testify (Ursel 2001). Hence, even when incidents of domestic violence are reported to police, these charges are often dropped more often for Aboriginal accused than for non-Aboriginal accused.         

Victimization of Aboriginal Women

Research reveals that Aboriginal women experience dramatically higher rates of violent victimization than non-Aboriginal women do (Proulx and Perrault 2000; Hylton 2002; Brzozowski et al. 2006). Violence within the domestic context is the most pervasive form of victimization experienced by Aboriginal women. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of Aboriginal women in Canada reported having been assaulted by a current or former spouse, compared to 7% of non-Aboriginal women (Brzozowski et al. 2006). Results from other studies suggest that this figure may be as high as 90% in some Aboriginal communities (Ontario Native Women’s Association 2007).

The literature shows that Aboriginal women consistently report a rate of partner violence much higher than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, even after controlling for relevant social variables. For instance, while living common law is associated with a 13 percent greater risk of victimization for non-Aboriginal women, the associated risk for Aboriginal women is 217 percent higher (Brownridge 2008).

Sexual assault against women is particularly prevalent in Northern Canada where there is a much higher proportion of Aboriginal people in each of the territories than in the provinces. In 2002, the rate of sexual assault in Nunavut was 96.1 for every 10,000 people compared to the overall rate in Canada of 7.8 in every 10,000 people (Levan 2001). Aboriginal women have also been found to be greatly over-represented as sex trade workers compared to non-Aboriginal women (Oxman-Martinez et al. 2005; Royal Canadian Mounted Police 2006). In one study of the Vancouver sex trade, 52 of 101 women interviewed were Aboriginal (Farley et al. 2005). The overwhelming majority of these women reported both a history of childhood sexual abuse by multiple perpetrators and a history of rape and other assaults while working as prostitutes.

Victimization of Aboriginal Youth

Much of the literature on Aboriginal victimization is examined within the framework of family violence given the high prevalence of Aboriginal victimization in this context. The victimization of Aboriginal children and youth is not often evaluated independently of spousal violence. There is some evidence suggesting that the victimization of Aboriginal youth is a serious problem in some communities (Kingsley and Mark 2000). Research in this area reveals that there is a high correlation between childhood domestic victimization and subsequent victimization and criminal activity later in life (LaPrairie 1995).

Research shows that violent incidents are two and a half times more likely to be committed against Aboriginal Canadians aged 15 to 34 than against those aged 35 years and older (Brzozowski et al. 2006). Sexual abuse against Aboriginal children was also found to be quite prevalent. Studies show that on average 25% to 50% of Aboriginal women were victims of sexual abuse as children compared to a 20% to 25% average rate within the non-Aboriginal population (Collin-Vézina et al 2009). Among the Aboriginal population, this abuse is often committed by someone in the victim’s immediate or extended family (Bopp and Bopp 1997). However, sexual violence is not only intra-familial. Two separate studies found that sexual abusers come from a wide circle of people outside the family, such as friends, neighbours, and peers (Kingsley and Mark 2000; LaPrairie 1995).

As previously noted, the experience of intra-familial victimization is linked to subsequent victimization and criminal activity later in life. One study showed that children exposed to violence were 10 to 17 times more likely to have serious “emotional and behavioural problems when compared to children who were raised in a non-violent home environment” (Dumont-Smith 2001, 11). The more severe the child abuse, the more likely the child will become involved in juvenile delinquency, particularly among males (Dumont-Smith 2001). Moreover, males who had experienced abuse as children were found to be at a significantly high risk to repeat the cycle of violence with their future spouses (McGillivray and Comaskey 1996).

Entrance into the sex trade can also make youth more susceptible to victimization. In fact, one study found that approximately 30 percent of youth employed in the Canadian sex trade were Aboriginal (Koshan 2003).

Victimization of Aboriginal People with Physical and Mental Health Issues

Victimization of Aboriginal people with disabilities is increasingly recognized as a concern (Federal Task Force on Disability Issues 1996), yet little research is available on the topic. One study indicates that Aboriginal people have a disability rate that is double the national rate for adults and three times the national rate for people aged 15 to 34 (Human Resources and Development Canada 2002).

One area that has been the subject of increased attention is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). According to the research, individuals with FASD are at an increased likelihood to be involved in the criminal justice system (Streissguth et al 1996). The social and behavioural symptomology of individuals with FASD is very similar to the effects of child exposure to violence in the family, as identified by many health and social services and referred to in a report by the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada (Dumont-Smith 2001).

Aboriginal people living with HIV/AIDS are frequently victims of discrimination from their own communities as well as from the non-Aboriginal community (Matiation 1995). Between 1993 and early 2002, the percentage of all reported AIDS cases attributed to Aboriginal people increased from 2% to 14% (Matiation 1999). The increasing prevalence of HIV/AIDS in federal institutions is also of concern to Aboriginal people, given that they are overrepresented in Canadian prisons (Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network 1999).

Studies have also pointed out the increased risk of HIV/AIDS among Aboriginal youth, particularly those that are involved in intravenous drug use and prostitution as well as those exposed to sexual and physical abuse. Connections between HIV and sexual violence among Aboriginal women, particularly through rape, abuse, and incest, have also been identified (Neron and Roffey 2000).

Understanding High Rates of Victimization

The “trauma theory” has been the main explanation adopted by researchers for the high rates of Aboriginal victimization. The theory posits that the relatively recent victimization of Aboriginal peoples has occurred not only to Aboriginal people as individuals but to Aboriginal people as a society, as a result of the colonization process which saw communities losing control over family and culture. It is the preferred theory in many studies examining family violence in Aboriginal communities, but it can easily be applied to a broader theory of Aboriginal victimization (Ursel 2001). Its effects are often explained as the root causes of social disorder in Aboriginal societies where alcohol, suicide, abuse, and victims of violence are symptoms of this underlying traumatization.

The impacts of forced removal of children from their families and communities and the abuse many endured in residential schools have been passed down generationally. Ontario Assistant Crown Attorney Rupert Ross (in Brant Castellano et al. 2008) describes how the residential school experienceset in motion an intergenerational transfer of trauma that continues to cause significant downstream damage to Aboriginal families, their children, and their grandchildren.”  Survivors of residential schools and their descendents alike report difficulty forming trusting relationships with their spouses and family members. Children growing up without such trusting relationships often develop an inability to respond to stress without resorting to external stimuli such as destructive addictions (Chansonneuve 2007).

The Cycle of Victimization

Many studies highlight that acts of violence are often committed by individuals for whom violence has become normalized, having themselves been victimized, particularly in childhood (Jacobs and Gill 2002; Rojas and Gretton 2007; Van der Woerd et al. 2006). Increased victim support services may be a step towards breaking the cycle of violence. Levan (2003) describes significant gaps in the availability of victim services in the territories, particularly outside of urban centers, as well as the inadequate supports for volunteers and paid staff working in the few existing victim service organizations. There have been improvements in services in the past several years in many parts of the country, particularly in the Yukon where there may be a possible link between the improvement in services and lower reported rates of spousal assault, sexual assault, and child abuse (Levan 2003). However, many challenges remain in providing accessible and culturally relevant services for all Aboriginal people who have experienced victimization.

Conclusion and Further Research

The majority of the literature available discussing Aboriginal involvement in the criminal justice system is offender-focused. What literature is available suggests that the victimization of Aboriginal people is both complicated and extensive, and may be a direct reflection of Aboriginal offending given that violent victimizations among Aboriginal people are often carried out by other Aboriginal people.

There are significant gaps in the research, and these gaps may lead to a lack of awareness, understanding, and action towards the correction of these circumstances. Incomplete statistical information may underestimate the full extent of Aboriginal victimization or distort our understanding of the causes and contexts of this violence. Such a state may hamper the delivery of appropriate policy responses (Amnesty International 2004; Kong and Beattie 2005). If the cycle of violence is to be broken, Aboriginal involvement in the criminal justice system must be understood from both an offender and victim perspective.