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

Part I: Literature Review (continued)

8. Under-reporting of Victimization

Ross (1996) writes that in his view one of the most striking and unacknowledged failures of the Western justice system is that a great many Aboriginal victims choose not to use it. McGillivray and Comaskey (1999) elaborate on the reasons offered by Ross. They attribute much of the failure to respond to a complex web of factors that effectively "silenced" victims such as isolation, inadequate services, including police racism and the chilling effect it has on decisions to call for help, community norms, kinship networks, and band politics. In some cases Aboriginal victims have been ostracized and driven out of their own community. The case of R. v. F.(A.) (1994), is a shocking account of how one northern Ontario Aboriginal community supported the accused sexual offender instead of the victim ultimately resulting in the victim having to leave the community for her own safety. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.

The under-reporting of victimization, particularly domestic forms of violence, is a serious concern in Canada. However, it is argued that in many Aboriginal communities the problem is far more acute than in non-Aboriginal communities. La Prairie (1995a) in her study of Aboriginal victimization in urban centres reported that 74% of the respondents that experienced family violence did not report such incidents of victimization. For example, the literature discusses the hesitancy of Aboriginal women to report incidents of abuse and to use the "protections" of the justice system for fear of the consequences of using a racist system that over-polices and criminalizes Aboriginal men. McKay (2001) refers to a number of studies that support this conclusion.[28]

The literature provides some useful insights as to why there is a low rate of reporting. Ross (1996) provides an explanation as to why Aboriginal victims are reluctant to report. In his book, he discusses his experience as a prosecutor in Aboriginal communities, where he became aware that a great number of problems were not reported at all:

Whether Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal … [w]hen the abuse is within families, there are extra pressures of divided loyalties, and fears about what the criminal process will do to all the other members of that family. There is also the possibility that Aboriginal people face special pressures not to involve the police, for with them comes exposure to the untrusted outsiders, with all their adversarial ways and punitive powers. Perhaps there is also an issue of communal shame at work here, reinforcing the "conspiracy of silence" that surrounds sexual abuse. (pp. 201-202)

In one study prepared for RCAP, Lutra Associates Ltd. (1993), found that despite improvement in the reporting of family violence in the Northwest Territories, the reporting of family violence continues to be a serious problem.[29] They report that in the Aboriginal community of Lutsel K'e, many people do not report family violence and abuse, seek help, or even admit that it is happening or is wrong. According to community members, reporting or dealing with family violence and abuse is hampered by:

  • A fear of being charged for their own use of drugs or alcohol;
  • A fear of criticism or alienation from community or family members; and
  • A lack of confidence in the ability of agencies or the community to stop the violence.

The report also noted that child abuse, including child sexual abuse, is probably the most under-reported of violent and abusive acts in the family. In Lutsel K'e disclosures and reporting of sexual abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, skyrocketed due to joint school-RCMP education programs between 1990 to 1992. Education programs showed children "that it is not alright for Dad to come home drunk and crawl into bed with them," according to a northern law enforcement officer. However, the high rate of reporting in Lutsel K'e captured incidents that had happened in the past. Sexual abuse occurring at the time was not necessarily being reported.

Not only is there a high level of non-reporting among victims within the domestic context, the urban victimization study by La Prairie (1995a) shows that non-reporting of victimization is high generally, particularly with respect to inner-city Aboriginal people. La Prairie defined this group as those who lived on the streets (Inner 1) and those who lived in the inner city area (Inner II). In her study, La Prairie found that the majority of victims did not report their victimization to the police. The reasons given were that the injury was not serious enough, that they did not want to "rat" on others, that they were afraid of retribution or they did not think police would respond appropriately.

Although there is some consistent data that indicates a high non-reporting rate of violence and crime within Aboriginal communities, there is little data that identifies explanations or important differences. Some questions that have remained unanswered include: Are the reasons listed above the only factors? What are the reasons for non-reporting? Are there differences in reporting depending on the type of violence experienced or its locality (rural or urban, First Nation, Inuit or Métis)?

In addition, other studies have found that even when incidents of violence are reported and charges are laid, there is a higher rate of dismissed or not guilty charges. In a recent study by Ursel (2001) on domestic violence policies and their impact on Aboriginal peoples, she found that the dismissal and discharge rate of Aboriginal accused was 60% due to a significant reluctance on the part of victims to attend court and testify, compared to 44% of non-Aboriginal accused. This study confirms Ross's (1996) discussion that Aboriginal accused stand a higher-than-average chance of being acquitted. He finds that Aboriginal victims and witnesses are often unable or unwilling to testify in a convincing manner especially before non-Aboriginal judges if they testify at all. Ross describes this problem of dismissal/acquittal following a victim's reluctance or inability to testify as "corrosive in itself" (p. 203). It sends a message that the justice system is wholly inadequate and that the victimization of the vulnerable in Aboriginal communities is tolerated. Such a low rate of guilty verdicts is seen as a serious failure of the Western justice system.

  • [28] See for example, Hamilton and Sinclair (1991b, pp. 96, 102, 104-105), Koshan (1998, p. 25) and Denis (1997, pp. 79-80).
  • [29] Lutra Associates Ltd. (1993), reported that sexual assault reporting has more than doubled in the N.W.T. and elsewhere in the country from 1982 to 1988. Moreover, the number of reported sexual assaults in the N.W.T. was consistently four to five times the national average for the period 1977 to 1988. According to northern professionals, reporting of all forms of sexual assault is improving in the NWT (estimated at 50%-75% of actual sexual assaults).
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