The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability defines femicide as ‘the killing of all women and girls primarily by, but not exclusively, men.’ This definition acknowledges that femicide may be perpetrated by women in various social and cultural contexts. It is also broad enough to facilitate more accurate comparisons of trends and patterns in femicide over time, nationally and internationally, given that different types of data are collected.
Below, using this broad definition, we describe trends and patterns in femicide in Canada. To be consistent with terminology used by Statistics Canada from which these data are drawn, the term ‘female victims of homicide’ is used.
In 2015, the most recent year for which official data were available, females accounted for approximately three in 10 (or 29%) of homicide victims in Canada. The ratio of female homicide victims to male homicide victims has remained relatively stable from 1975 to 2015, ranging from a low of 24 percent of victims in 2008 to a high of 38 percent of homicide victims in 1981.
Trends in Canada
There has been a significant decline in homicide over the past several decades. Overall homicide rates involving a female victim have decreased by 52 percent from 20.4 per million population in 1975 to 9.7 per million population in 2015. There has been a steep decline in male homicide rates during this period as well, dropping 40% (from 40.1 per million in 1975 to 20.4 per million in 2015).
Although homicide rates are generally higher for males than females, females are at a much higher risk of homicide by their male intimate partners. In 2015, the rate at which women were killed by an intimate partner[i] was 45 per million population – more than five times the rate at which men were killed by an intimate partner (9 per million population). Although homicide rates are sensitive to small changes in counts from year to year, overall, there has been a downward trend in rates of intimate partner homicide. For example, between 1975 and 2015, intimate partner homicide rates decreased 37 percent for females and decreased by more than 69 percent for males.
The significantly greater decline for male victims of intimate partner homicide is perceived as a paradox of sorts given that many legislative and policy changes in recent decades were targeted at intimate partner violence by men against women. While these changes appear to have provided some protection for women, the more significant impact for men’s lives suggests that resources may be providing women with alternatives to lethal violence when living in an abusive relationship.
Age of female victims
The risk of homicide varies by age. Among females in Canada, homicide rates are highest for girls 11 years of age and younger (40.7 per million population). The second highest homicide rates were found for females 25-29 years of age (17.9 per million population), followed by 18-24 years of age (14.7 per million population) and 30-39 years of age (11.8 per million population). In contrast, homicide rates were highest for males 25-29 years of age (52.5 per million population), followed by 18-24 years of age (43 per million population) and 30-39 years of age (36.0 per million population).
Relationship between female victims and their killers
In 2015, close to one half (48%) of all solved homicides involving a female victim were committed by a spouse or other intimate partner. Family members (other than a parent) were perpetrators in 22 percent of female homicides, followed by casual acquaintances (14%), parents (6%), strangers (6%), and criminal acquaintances (3%). In contrast, males were most often killed by a casual acquaintance (45%), criminal acquaintance (16%) or a stranger (16%). In contrast to female victims, a much smaller percentage of incidents involving a male victim were committed by a family member (14%), parent (5%), or a spouse or other intimate partner (4%). As such, the motivations and circumstances in which women and men are killed differ significantly, underscoring the relevance of the term femicide. Both female and male victims are killed primarily by male perpetrators.
Unsolved cases involving female homicide victims
In 2015, approximately 16 percent of female homicides remained unsolved at the time of reporting to the Homicide Survey compared to 29 percent of male homicides.[ii] The percentage of unsolved homicides has increased significantly since Homicide Survey data collection began in 1961. For example, in 1961 approximately five percent of homicides involving a female victim and 6 percent involving a male victim remained unsolved. The increasing proportion of homicides that remain unsolved has been largely attributed to the increasing complexity of cases involving criminal acquaintances and gangs. On average, homicide incidents involving spouses and family members are solved more quickly than those involving perpetrators with greater social distance from the offender.
Homicide victimization of Indigenous[iii] women and girls in Canada
Beyond the above variations, risk of homicide is also not evenly distributed across the population for Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups. Indigenous women are at elevated risk of homicide. Based on 15 years of Homicide Survey data (2001-2015), homicide rates for Indigenous women and girls were approximately six times higher (48.2 per million population) than rates for non-Indigenous women and girls (8.2 per million population). Other research suggests that Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women in Canada and 16 times more likely than Caucasian women. This over-representation of Indigenous women and girls among homicide victims has been observed across the country, with the highest rates found in the territories and in the provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, specifically, it has been estimated that Indigenous women and girls are 19 times more likely than Caucasian women to be murdered or missing.
Diverging from overall declining trends in homicide, the number of homicides involving Indigenous females has remained stable or increased[iv] in the 36-year period from 1980 to 2015, but their proportion of total homicide victims has changed. In 1980, Indigenous females accounted for nine percent of all female homicide victims, but accounted for 24 percent in 2015. In addition, in 2015, approximately 17 percent of Indigenous female victims and 18 percent of non-Indigenous female victims were on record as a missing person at the time the homicide became known to police. Currently, in Canada, there is an ongoing National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. In a national overview by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), it was estimated that, between 1980 and 2012, about 1,200 Indigenous women and girls were missing or murdered.
Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS). 2013. Homicide Survey User Manual. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
Hotton Mahony, T, Jacob, J. and Hobson, H. 2017. “Women and the Criminal Justice System”. Women in Canada. Statistics Canada Catalogue No. 82-002-XPE. (PDF)
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Mulligan, L., Axford, M. and Solecki, A. 2016. “Homicide in Canada, 2015.” Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
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Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). 2014. Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview. Ottawa: RCMP.
Smith, L.T. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples 2nd ed. London: Zed Books. (LB)
Trussler, T. 2010. "Explaining the changing nature of homicide clearance in Canada." International Criminal Justice Review. Vol. 20(4): 366-383.
[i] This may include a small number of same sex intimate partners.
[ii] A homicide is considered to be solved when police lay a charge or recommend a charge of homicide be laid against at least one accused (Mulligan et al., 2016). The Homicide Survey is a dynamic database. This means that as police services solve historical homicide cases, this information is added to the Homicide Survey data on an annual basis for inclusion in revised microdata files (CCJS, 2013).
[iii] Since the term Indigenous peoples is frequently used today to represent the collective voice of peoples who have been ``subjected to the colonization of their land and culture`` (Smith, 2012:7), we also use this term. However, it should be noted that the term Aboriginal peoples continues to be used in data collection by Statistics Canada. The Homicide Survey employs the concept of ``Aboriginal identity`` to represent First Nations, Métis and Inuit living in Canada, following the methodology used in the Census of the population (CCJS, 2013).
[iv] Analysing homicide trends can be challenging due to the relative infrequency that it occurs. Small changes from one year to the next, particularly in provinces with smaller populations, can make a large impact on reported rates. For this reason it is important to examine the overall trends instead of relying on annual fluctuations to determine broader patterns of change.