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An annual report into femicide in Canada has found that 160 women and girls were killed across the country last year – an increase from 2019, and a glaring reflection of the disproportionate violence faced by Indigenous women.

This is the third year that the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability has tracked these killings in real-time, with a goal of learning more about how these deaths occur and how to prevent them.

“These are different types of killings, and different types of deaths that are vastly different than what happens with males,” Myrna Dawson, director of the CFOJA and a research leadership chair at the University of Guelph, said of femicides.

Since 2016, the CFOJA has documented the deaths of more than 761 women and girls in Canada. On average, one woman or girl is killed every 2.5 days. In 2020, at least 128 of the 160 women were killed by men. In another 17 cases, the killer has yet to be identified.

The observatory relies heavily on police press releases and local media reports, and Dr. Dawson said nuanced data remain difficult to capture. For example, details about the relationship between a murdered woman and her killer are often withheld by police. In some cases, names are not even released.

The CFOJA was able to discern the relationship between the victim and her killer in 64 per cent of cases where a killer was identified. Within those, 50 per cent of killers were a current or former partner of their victim. Another 26 per cent were family members. In 14 per cent of cases, the accused killers also then killed themselves.

Though information about race and ethnicity was also not available in every case, the CFOJA was able to confirm that 30 of the 128 women who were killed by men were Indigenous. For Dawn Lavell-Harvard, president of the Ontario Native Women’s Association and a member of the CFOJA, this was one of the most striking findings.

“Sadly the biggest thing is that it just reinforces exactly what we have been saying, what we have known at the community level, for decades and generations: the massive overrepresentation of Indigenous women and girls,” Dr. Lavell-Harvard said. “If 23 per cent [of these women killed by men] are Indigenous – that’s 1 in 5. And yet we’re less than 5 per cent of the Canadian population. That should tell people something.”

Location-wise, a disproportionate number of women were killed in rural areas and small towns, despite the fact that the vast majority of Canadians live in urban centres.

Number of women and girls killed in Canada in 2020, by province and territory

Killings per

100,000

Ont.

49

0.66

Que.

23

0.54

B.C.

20

0.77

Alta.

20

0.91

N.S.

15

3.0

Sask.

13

2.22

 

Man.

11

1.59

N.B.

4

1.01

NWT

3

13.68

Nunavut

1

5.21

PEI

1

1.23

Note: The national average for female victims of homicide is 0.84 per 100,000 women and girls. There were no documented killings in Yukon or Newfoundland and Labrador.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: CANADIAN FEMICIDE OBSERVATORY FOR JUSTICE AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Number of women and girls killed in Canada in 2020, by province and territory

Killings per

100,000

Ont.

49

0.66

Que.

23

0.54

B.C.

20

0.77

Alta.

20

0.91

N.S.

15

3.0

Sask.

13

2.22

 

Man.

11

1.59

N.B.

4

1.01

NWT

3

13.68

Nunavut

1

5.21

PEI

1

1.23

Note: The national average for female victims of homicide is 0.84 per 100,000 women and girls. There were no documented killings in Yukon or Newfoundland and Labrador.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: CANADIAN FEMICIDE OBSERVATORY FOR JUSTICE AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Number of women and girls killed in Canada in 2020, by province and territory

Killings per

100,000

Ont.

0.66

49

Que.

23

0.54

B.C.

0.77

20

Alta.

0.91

20

N.S.

15

3.0

Sask.

2.22

13

 

Man.

11

1.59

N.B.

4

1.01

NWT

13.68

3

Nunavut

1

5.21

PEI

1.23

1

Note: The national average for female victims of homicide is 0.84 per 100,000 women and girls.

There were no documented killings in Yukon or Newfoundland and Labrador.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: CANADIAN FEMICIDE OBSERVATORY FOR JUSTICE AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Almost three-quarters of the women and girls who were killed died in a private location such as a home – in many cases, the one they shared with their killer. A smaller percentage (13 per cent) were killed in a public location.

“It’s disheartening, because you could practically copy and paste it from one year to the next,” Dr. Dawson said of the consistency of the findings. “And the numbers aren’t looking any better for 2021 because we’ve seen quite a few deaths in the first couple of months of this year, too. So what will change? That’s where I think we need to really focus on primary prevention.”

Dr. Dawson referenced conversations that have emerged on social media in recent days, in response to the killing of Sarah Everard, who was abducted and killed as she walked home from a friend’s home in London, England, in early March. A police officer has been charged in her death.

There are so many ways that women adjust their behaviour to stay safe in public, Dr. Dawson said – and yet the CFOJA data reiterate that home can be the most dangerous place.

“So it gets to the point where, what more can women do?” Dr. Dawson said. “I think it’s now about saying, ‘What can men do?’ ”

Though 160 is a higher number of femicides than average, the report stresses that these numbers fluctuate. For example, at the time that the 2018 report was published, it noted that 148 women had been killed that year. As more cases emerge (with suspicious deaths reclassified as homicides etc.), the death toll for that year has since climbed to 164.

Another factor that led to the increase in 2020 was the April mass murder of 22 people (13 of them women) in Nova Scotia, which began with a violent domestic assault by the gunman on his common-law spouse.

The CFOJA is reticent to draw any conclusions about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – and the subsequent lockdowns and stay-at-home orders – on femicide rates. One upside to the past year is that it led to increased recognition of this “other pandemic” of violence against women, as well as increased government attention and an influx of emergency funding to the anti-violence sector.

“It’s really forced people to open their eyes to the incredibly impossible choices that women in violent situations are facing,” Dr. Lavell-Harvard said.

Dr. Dawson said it would also be premature to say whether this emergency funding helped to prevent femicides – and said the real question will be whether it translates into sustained support for the sector.

“Front-line agencies don’t need to be grasping for money every time they turn around,” she said. “I think we need to see sustained funding for the work that they’re doing.”

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