JustResearch Issue 15

Research in Profile (cont'd)

Research in Profile (cont'd)

Understanding Family Violence and Sexual Assault and First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples in the Territories [10]

Anna Paletta, Principal Researcher, Research and Statistics Division


Findings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People and subsequent reports on violence and First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples assert that family violence and abuse, and First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples are rooted in the effects of the colonization process, including the Indian Residential School processes, and subsequent intergenerational legacies of violence. In the research undertaken here, data were gathered to enable an analysis of the relationship between family violence and sexual assault offences, and the accused’s personal history of violence.


A significant finding of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP, 1996) was the high level of violence in First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. The 1996 report of the Commission noted that:

In the midst of devastating revelations of the violence suffered daily by Aboriginal people, frequently at the hands of the men in their families, we were urged to recognize that men are victims too. …Revelations of the extent of sexual abuse of both boys and girls in residential schools, the fact that victims of abuse often become abusers, and the shame that leads men in particular to hide these experiences are all coming to the fore. Aboriginal people in the health care field now believe that Aboriginal men have suffered more sexual abuse as children than previously believed, and they are, in all probability, as devastated by these experiences as women have been (p. 57).[11]

Research undertaken following the RCAP reports, such as, Lane Jr, Bopp and Bopp (2003), Brant Castellano (2006), and Chartrand and McKay (2006), among others,[12]  have further investigated this link between personal and collective histories of violence and First Nation, Métis and Inuit Peoples as victims and offenders. Chartrand and McKay (2006) in their work on victimization and First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples concluded that:

Explanations for such high rates of victimization are varied but the predominate view links high victimization to the overall impact of colonization and the resultant collective and individual “trauma” and its impacts that flows from cultural disruption. Furthermore, the need to break the cycle of family violence that has become internalized is identified throughout the literature as a critical step in reducing criminal victimization (p.v).

Lane Jr. et. al (2003), in their undertaking to develop a comprehensive theoretical framework in which to understand the dynamics of this violence, write that “this body of research, theories and models all point to the same general conclusion - family violence and abuse in Aboriginal communities has its roots, at least in part, in historical trauma and in the social realities created by those historical processes” (p.22).   They argue that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) is the effect of these processes on individuals.[13] Based on this they develop a theoretical framework within which PTSD is a key component. They write:

Domestic violence and abuse are almost always linked to trauma in several ways. Certainly, abuse causes trauma in victims, as well as in children witnessing violence. But, domestic abuse is also and most often the result of intergenerational trauma. So, trauma is both one of the primary causes and principle outcomes of domestic violence and abuse (p.10).

The research undertaken here further investigates this link. It focuses specifically on territorial data because of the high rates of crimes of violence there. In 2005, the police reported sexual assault rate in Canada overall was 7.2 per 10,000 population; in the territories rates ranged from a high of 79.7 per 10,000 in Nunavut, to 40.7 in NWT, and 18.1 in the Yukon (Gannon, 2006). The objective of the  research conducted here is to further the understanding of the specifics of the current dynamics of violent offences ultimately in order to better understand how best to mitigate them.

Research was undertaken using Crown Prosecutor files across the three territories as  these files include information on the offences, the accused, and the victims. Working within the framework above, data were gathered on reported personal histories of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or psychological abuse of the accused. In addition, data were also gathered on substance abuse as this is increasingly being recognized as self-medication in response to physical or sexual trauma (Chansonneuve, 2007). It should be noted that history of accused’s early victimization may be under-reported in these files as the purpose of prosecution is to establish current wrongdoing of perpetrators, and not their past victimizations. The relationship between the offender and his or her own personal history of abuse, therefore, is likely higher than the findings in this research.

There is another significant caveat. Family violence offences and sexual assault offences are proposed here as individual outcomes of ongoing personal, historic and social realities. As RCAP noted in their report on family violence:

While family violence experienced by Aboriginal People shares many features with violence in mainstream society, it also has a distinctive face that is important to recognize as we search for understanding of causes and identify solutions. First, Aboriginal family violence is distinct in that it has invaded whole communities and cannot be considered a problem of a particular couple or an individual household. Second, the failure in family functioning can be traced in many cases to interventions of the state ( RCAP, p.54)[14]


There were a total of 7,175 Crown Prosecutor files on family violence cases (4,985) and sexual assault cases (2,190) across the territories between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2004. A sample total of 1,474 files was drawn using a stratified random sample. This sample includes 918 files of family violence offences, and 556 files of sexual assault offences.

Relationship between personal history of abuse, and sexual assault and family violence offences

The findings indicate a strong relationship between violent offences and offender’s history of abuse. A majority, i.e., 66%, of those accused of  a sexual assault offence had at least one form of abuse in their personal history, as did 77% of those accused of a family violence offence. Therefore, using these data, there is evidence that a personal history of victimization is a factor in the dynamics of family violence and sexual assault offences. These data underscore Lane et. al (2003)’s discussion of trauma as both one of the primary causes and principle outcomes of domestic violence and abuse in Aboriginal communities.

A cycle of violence is further evidenced in the rate of repeat offending. The majority of the accused had at least one prior conviction for a violent offence. This includes 69% of those accused of a sexual assault and 79% of those accused of a family violence offence. Table 1 provides the data for most relevant prior convictions.

Table 1: Prior convictions of accused
Prior convictions: Sexual assault accused Family violence accused
Sexual assault 24% 9%
Family violence 14% 37%
Assault 44% 58%

Among the 69% of the sexual assault accused who had a prior conviction, on average, the accused had 11 prior convictions in both Nunavut and NWT. The average number in the Yukon was higher at 15. The median number of priors was 7 for both Nunavut and NWT, and 10 for the Yukon.

Among the 79% of those accused of a family violence offence who had a prior conviction, the average number of prior convictions were very similar to those accused of sexual assault: 11 for both Nunavut and NWT, and 14 for Yukon, and medians similar at 6, 9 and 10 respectively.

Such a high number of prior convictions can be seen as somewhat of a “revolving door” in and out of the criminal justice system which raises questions of the efficacy of the system response. Of relevance here is HisHonour Chief Judge Barry Stuart’s discussion at sentencing M.N.J., a young, Aboriginal, violent, sex offender (Yukon Territory Court, 2002). Judge Stuart writes:

[29]  The sentencing guidelines emanating from the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Gladue [1999] 1 S.C.R. 668 and R. v. Wells [1998] 2 S.C.R. 514 call upon the court to consider the dysfunctional backgrounds of offenders in developing an appropriate sentence. To gain a better comprehension of M.N.J.’s personal history, all court records were gathered and made available to the counsel and to the court.

[30]  While all of these accounts do not tell the full story, the story they do tell reflects the kind of dysfunctional background that fostered concerns raised in  R. v. Gladue, supra.…

[31]  Mr. M.N.J. was born … 1980…. His mother … was 18 years old, and his father… was 19 years old. Before he was seven months old, his parents left him to be cared for by his maternal grandparents…

[32]  Within the first year in the home of his maternal grandparents, Family and Social Services became involved. Once, M.N.J. was discovered in the home unattended by any adult. Twice he was admitted to the pediatric  ward for ailments that reflected possible neglect ….

[35]  Over the course of the next five years, M.N.J. principally lived with D.J. and L.S.. During this period, he is repeatedly taken into, or voluntarily placed in, the care of the department. D.J. and L.S.’s home, the only family home M.N.J. knew, was not just chaotic due to the number of other children, but in his home he was severely victimized by his family. The information before the court indicates M.N.J. was sexually and physically abused by uncles living in the home. Often neglected, emotionally and physically, when he became too difficult or simply too much to look after, he was given to, or taken by the department. When D.J. was “broke and overwhelmed”, M.N.J. was dropped off at the department for months at a time.

[36]  The records are full of references to circumstances in the home that indicates extensive and continued neglect of M.N.J.’s basic needs. Nothing in the evidence suggests this home provided, or could provide, a nurturing home for any child, but especially for a child abandoned and brutalized by his natural parents. Since 1981, doctors, public health nurses, teachers, foster parents and people in the community have reported to the department various concerns about the abuse and the neglect M.N.J. suffered.

In his Initial Comments, Chief Judge Barry Stuart writes:

[1]  M.N.J., 21 years old, raised as a ward of the state until 18, will spend up to eight years in jail for a horrible crime.

[2]  His sentence  sets a precedent for the next case. There will be a next case. There have been many other similar cases. There are right now, within our communities, within our institutions, children, young boys, young men, with stories similar to M.N.J.. Unless we change what we do – we as families, communities, professionals – there will be many more “next cases”. How many M.N.J. do we need before we appreciate that if we always do what we have always done, we will always face what we always face – the next case to sentence, the next victim to heal.

[3]  The next case, like so many before, will leave in its wake the broken lives of victims; shattered families; angry, fearful and frustrated communities; burned out, despairing professionals, and young men sitting in jails growing more disconnected, more hopeless and ultimately more dangerous.

This sense of frustration has been echoed by a number of Crown Prosecutors in the North. Rupert Ross, Assistant Crown Attorney with primary responsibility for conducting prosecutions in some 20 remote fly-in Aboriginal communities in north-western Ontario, writes[15] that the:

first line of social response to these symptoms of community, family and individual traumatisation is, unfortunately, the criminal justice system, and it is my growing conviction that it is substantially incapable of responding productively in this context of unique and deep-seated traumatisation, for a wide variety of reasons (pp. 4 to 5).

…domestic violence has reached frightening levels in some communities, but prosecution is almost impossible. For one thing, poverty, derelict housing and large families impose hardships on abused women that they can seldom endure on their own. The majority of abused women who see their husbands taken out to jail find themselves incapable of hauling wood and water on their own, as well as feeding and clothing children – and keeping the drunks at a safe distance at night. On a routine basis they are forced to conclude that his abuse is preferable to his absence, and they refuse to  support a prosecution that will result in his removal (p. 5, emphasis in the original).

Speaking of a specific case, he writes:

In January of this year [2006], I went into one community to do four trials, only to find that police had never interviewed essential witnesses, despite written requests. When I asked why, [I was informed that]  five teenagers … had hanged themselves; four had died and the fifth was on life-support (p. 4).

This is the socio-legal context within which a majority of these crimes occur.

Given the relationship between history of abuse and violent offending, one would expect the same link between offence and offender’s history of abuse among non-Aboriginal offenders as well. In the file review conducted here, the relationship does hold for the non-Aboriginal territorial offenders. Where 70%  of First Nations and Métis and Inuit sexual assault offenders in the territories had a personal history of violence, so did 69% of non-Aboriginal sexual assault offenders. For family violence offenders, where 77%  of Aboriginal family violence offenders had a history of abuse, 73% of non-Aboriginal family violence offenders did as well.

These findings are in keeping with the findings of previous research. Bonta, LaPrairie, and Wallace-Capretta’s  (1997) assessment of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal risk and needs in the prediction of recidivism write that their most important finding was that a risk/needs classification instrument originally developed on a sample of non-Aboriginal offenders demonstrated predictive validity among Aboriginal offenders, which implies that risk factors are similar for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal offenders. 

While personal history of abuse is not the only factor related to violent behaviour, the research completed here indicates that it may be one of the stronger predictors.