Femicide in the Canadian Context
While the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA) was only established in 2017, the term ‘femicide’ has a long history in this country, spanning over three decades. Its use was common for a time, following the mass femicide perpetrated in Montreal, Quebec, in 1989 (see ‘The Montreal Massacre’ below) and, because of ground-breaking research on femicide in Ontario (see ‘Woman Killing…’ below), which was launched earlier that same year. In addition, spanning the full three decades – and longer – was the grassroots, Indigenous movement that sought, and is still seeking, to draw attention to the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in this country (see ‘Murdered and Missing…’ below). While the 2019 MMIWG Inquiry report aptly described the situation as ‘genocide’, our use of the term ‘femicide’ is not mutually exclusive of this phenomenon given the intersection of racism and sexism – institutional and individual – that is key to understanding this form of violence against some groups of women and girls. Each of these contexts are discussed in more detail below because they represent the crucial ground upon which the CFOJA was built.
The relevance of the term ‘femicide’ in the Canadian context was driven home on December 6, 1989, when a single, white male armed with a gun entered École Polytechnique at the Université of Montréal with the intent to kill women, blaming them for his failure to gain entrance to the engineering program. The man separated students by sex and yelled, “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!” before firing at the women.
Following his sex-motivated targeted act of lethal violence, 14 women were dead and multiple other women and men were injured before the man turned the gun on himself. The political nature of this attack as a sex-motivated killing, or femicide, was largely overlooked by the media. In the aftermath of the killing, many people described the man’s actions as the work of a madman, disconnecting the violence from his hateful, sexist, and misogynistic attitudes toward women. In short, it was not acknowledged that he targeted his victims because they were women, consistent with the definition of femicide, and thereby this act was never identified as the mass femicide that it was. Recently, in 2019, 30 years after the killings, the city of Montreal recognized it as an anti-feminist attack, but not as a femicide.
Every year on December 6, Canadians come together to honour the victims of the Montreal Massacre as well as other victims of femicide on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
Like global patterns, in Canada, femicide is most often perpetrated by current or former male partners, a fact clearly highlighted by one of the first studies of its kind, covered in two volumes: Woman Killing: Intimate Femicide in Ontario, 1974-1990 and Woman Killing: Intimate Femicide in Ontario, 1991-1994. In response to a series of killings, this study was spearheaded by a group of eight women who met earlier in the same year in which the Montreal Massacre occurred. These women set themselves the task of learning more about women killed by male intimate partners.
Naming themselves the Women We Honour Action Committee, they conducted a literature review on women killed in the context of their intimate relationships with men, what they referred to as intimate femicide. They, then, undertook a study with three goals: (1) to document the incidence of killings of women by intimate partners in Ontario; (2) to describe the characteristics of the people involved and the circumstances surrounding the killings; and (3) to present the stories of a small number of women who had been killed by current or former legal spouses, common-law partners, or boyfriends.
Occurring in two stages, the study covered the period 1974-1994, documenting the femicides of 1,206 women aged 15 and older from official records. Of the 1,120 cases in which the killers were identified, 705 or 63 percent of the killers were current or former male partners. GARTNER DAWSON & CRAWFORD (1999)
Contributing significantly to knowledge about femicide and intimate femicide at the time, the study authors – Maria Crawford, Rosemary Gartner, and Myrna Dawson – acknowledged that many questions remained. Of note was the following, why did some women – such as Indigenous women – face disproportionately higher risks of intimate femicide compared to non-Indigenous women?
This question continues to be asked today in the focus on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, but not just in the context of intimate femicide given their high risk outside the context of intimacy as well discussed below.
In Canada, official statistics have consistently documented at the national level what was highlighted above in the Ontario study: Indigenous women are significantly more likely to be killed by male partners than non-Indigenous women in Canada. In fact, Indigenous women and girls are overrepresented as victims of femicide more generally. For example, according to Statistics Canada data, about five percent of the Canadian population is Indigenous and female yet they represented 24 percent of homicide victims in 2021, the year for which the most recent statistics were available.
Despite their higher risk of intimate femicide, however, research shows that Indigenous women and girls are also more often killed by male acquaintances and strangers compared to non-Indigenous women and girls. This fact was brought to light by the Sisters in Spirit grassroots initiative launched in 2005 by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) who documented that, by 2010, over 580 Indigenous women and girls across Canada were murdered or went missing. Among the findings was that Indigenous women and girls were more often killed by male acquaintances or strangers than by male partners, although official statistics indicate that they remain eight times more likely to be killed by male partners than non-Indigenous women.
The Sisters in Spirit initiative highlighted various systemic issues including the impunity of many of the perpetrators, similar to what is being documented in other world regions, such as Latin America and South Africa. Their study found that nearly half of the cases involving Indigenous women and girls in Canada remain unsolved and no charges were laid in about 40 percent of the cases. These figures continue to be contested and debated by others, including the RCMP, who reported clearance rates that were much higher, ranging from 80 to 100 percent. The proportion of those that resulted in charges or convictions, however, remains largely unknown.
After repeated calls for an inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous women and girls, the Canadian government launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016. The mandate was to report on systematic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Once again, Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, demonstrated that the high risk of violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls stems, in large part, from a failure of police and others in the criminal justice system to adequately respond to, or provide for, the needs of Indigenous women and girls. This fact is both a cause and a consequence of the ongoing legacy and contemporary processes of colonization, which the Inquiry report concluded was genocide.
Femicide can also be used to describe the killings of Indigenous women and girls, as noted above, because genocide and femicide are not mutually exclusive. Give the intersection of racialized and sex-motivated violence and the documented impunity of some of the perpetrators, the term ‘feminicide’ which has become more common in Latin America, may also be appropriate given that it is meant to capture the impunity of perpetrators and the inadequate state responses to these crimes. Because sex/gender remain an important determinant of their risk of lethal violence in some contexts compared to Indigenous men, femicide has also been used to describe these killings (see, for example,http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/canadas-femicide-epidemic-brings-calls-for-inquiry-9687855.html).
The above activism, advocacy, and research laid the crucial groundwork for the CFOJA and the #CallItFemicide movement.
#CallItFemicide: The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability
In 2017, building on the crucial groundwork laid by the above groups and movements in Canada, and drawing inspiration from advocates and activists in Latin America, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA) was established. The timing also coincided with an ongoing call from the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women, its causes, and consequences for countries to establish femicide observatories or watches to more accurately document the sex/gender-related killings of women and girls, referred as femicide/feminicide.
Adopting as its official hashtag #CallItFemicide, the CFOJA released its inaugural report in 2018 and has since published annual reports, including its most recent five-year #CallItFemicide review (2018-2022). The #CallItFemicide hashtag is used to increase public and professional awareness and education about the importance of referring to the sex/gender-related killings of women and girls as femicide which captures the distinct ways in which women and girls are killed compared to men and boys, although both are killed primarily by men. Identifying such distinctions is crucial to the development of more nuanced prevention initiatives and more accurate documentation of this form of violence, neither of which has been adequately addressed in Canada.
The #CallItFemicide movement also urges governments and leaders to recognize femicide as a distinct crime (see more detail in Femicide and the Law) and urges the media to use the term when describing sex/gender-related killings of women and girls (see Femicide and the Media). Both changes require a better understanding of what motivations or indicators make the killing of a woman or girl a femicide. Efforts at the national and international level are working to improve the conceptualization and measurement of femicide and feminicide as discussed in Defining and Measuring Femicide.
Highlighting the above events, and some groups of women and girls, in the evolution of the term femicide in Canada is not meant to detract from the various other groups of femicide victims. It is recognized that multiple social identities, solely or in combination, act to compound the risk of femicide for some women and girls, which also results in varying social and legal responses to their killings. These issues are further discussed and expanded upon in other sections of the website and discussed in detail in CFOJA annual reports downloadable from this website.
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