Rashmee Singh is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo
Stephen Harper recently responded to renewed calls for a public inquiry into the national crisis of missing and murdered Aboriginal women with the comment that the 1,200 cases are "crimes" and not "sociological phenomena."
The recent pressure on the federal government to acknowledge that these incidents constitute a national crisis emerged following the tragic murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine. Since Mr. Harper made this claim, several commentators have accurately pointed out that the over-representation of Aboriginal women as victims of violence serves as concrete and indisputable evidence that the problem is systemic. In joining those who believe our government should generate policy and claims with reference to reality, I would also like to draw attention to another indisputable and obvious point that Mr. Harper overlooked: crime is a sociological phenomenon.
As a professor of criminology and socio-legal Studies, I emphasize this point to my students in all of my courses. I illustrate this claim in multiple ways. Generally, what students find most convincing are the vast distinctions in homicide rates between the United States and Canada. I use Chicago and Toronto as reference points given that both are similar in terms of population size, ranging around 2.5 million. Back in 2012, Chicago made international headlines when its total number of homicides reached 522. In the same year, Toronto's total was 56. Not only was Chicago's homicide rate almost ten times that of Toronto's; it was only slightly less than the total number of homicides in all of Canada in 2012
What can account for these vast disparities in murder rates between these two cities despite their demographic similarities? Well, if we follow Mr. Harper's logic – that crime and sociological phenomena are two different things – it would simply appear that more bad and homicidal people live in Chicago than in Toronto. In fact, there just must be more bad people in Chicago than in most of Canada. And when it comes to those victimized by violence, it would appear that Chicagoans on average suffer from bad luck at much higher rates than most Torontonians. Obviously, this "bad luck and bad people" explanation is absurd and overlooks the complexity of crime and its multiple causes. However, distinguishing crime from sociological phenomena suggests that both offending and victimization are just random acts. Such a perspective ultimately leads us to this simplistic form of reasoning.
Clearly, what Mr. Harper is urging in his repeated calls to avoid "committing sociology," as he had referred to it once in the past, is to stop asking why social problems occur, such as the astonishing rates of violence Aboriginal women experience. What he also advocates is the total disregard for considering causes of crime when trying to develop ways to prevent it.
Denying that violence against Aboriginal women and crime in general are sociological phenomena accomplishes four objectives. First, the claim obscures the effects of colonialism in rendering Aboriginal women far more vulnerable than other Canadian women to violence. Second, it individualizes accountability for the problem. Third, it prevents a consideration of any response beyond criminal justice intervention. Finally, it completely sidesteps any discussion of proactive responses that can be put in place to address the conditions that render Aboriginal women so vulnerable to violence. As several Winnipeg based activists recently pointed out, improving safety in public spaces by expanding community centres and public transport are just a few of an array of potential interventions that could significantly improve the daily lives of Aboriginal women.
Crime is a sociological phenomenon. More specifically, it is a barometer of social health, a contemporary manifestation of historical violence, and an expression of intersecting structural oppressions. The over-representation of Aboriginal women as victims of homicide is a problem that distinguishes Canada from the rest of the Western world, including the United States. Interpreting homicide rates through a sociological lens illuminates the fact that while homicide in general is not at all a national crisis, the murder of Aboriginal women indisputably is.