Canada: New insights on 'honour killings' in report by Ontario police

Publication Date: 
September 15, 2011
The Globe and Mail

The phrase “honour killing” is a misnomer that should be shunned because it emphasizes a twisted rationale for murder rather than the murder itself, and even in Canada the notion has spawned instances of judicial leniency toward the killer, a landmark report on domestic violence among South Asian immigrants concludes.

The report, released Thursday at Toronto Police headquarters, cites numerous other factors as explanations as to why Ontario’s justice system sometimes falls short in addressing family violence – which overwhelmingly means violence toward women and the elderly – among the province’s largest visible-minority group:

  • Patriarchy and male reluctance to address the issue;
  • mistrust of police and immigration authorities;
  • language and other cultural barriers that sow confusion about the services available;
  • a lack of co-operation among religious leaders at some mosques;
  • and a sense of shame among victims.

But not all the news is bad, because when an integrated, multi-pronged approach is taken, real systemic change can take place, the report also suggests.

Written by the Social Services Network, a non-profit charity in York Region that serves the region’s numerous South Asian groups, it summarizes the findings of a one-day series of workshops in Toronto in May that brought together the SSN, police from York, Toronto, Peel and Durham, and Children’s Aid Society staff.

The workshops addressed a common theme that poses special challenges. While domestic abuse is found within all ethnic communities – a 1990 study found that 29 per cent of women in Canada had been physically abused by a spouse or partner – the South Asian experience is “rooted in complex family dynamics and broader systemic barriers,” the report’s chief author, Dr. Naila Butt, told a news conference on Thursday.

“These dynamics differ from the dominant mainstream culture and therefore require different kinds of interventions.”

Three broad strategies are offered, all of which would require a financial commitment from the provincial government: Outreach prevention and support programs; specialized training for the different professional groups that take a role in combatting family violence; and public education.

Also crucial is the need for police to be representative of the communities they serve, Toronto Police Chief William Blair said, noting that about 21 per cent of the roughly 5,500 uniformed members of the Toronto Police Service are now non-white, and that of that 21 per cent, well over half are of South Asian descent.

And as he and other speakers told reporters, the lessons from this particular study can be applied to many other cultures and communities.

In all, about 200 people attended the workshops last May, The topics included “honour-based” violence; the culture of silence that can surround the abuse of women and children; forced marriages; elder abuse; human rights, as spelled out in national and international statutes; and the role of the media in perpetuating the abuse.

The biggest difficulty in curbing family violence among Ontario’s South Asians – who in 2006 numbered about 800,000 – is that “it is perceived as separate and/or distinct from violence against women generally,” the report says in its summary. “This distinctiveness serves to validate racism as well as separate and detach the issue from the mainstream.”