Canada’s shame

Maclean’s third annual crime surveys shows an epidemic of violence in the North. Forget Arctic sovereignty. This is the problem that needs attention.
Cathy Gulli with Patricia Treble

From Canada’s most dangerous cities: 2010:

Talk to people living in the North about why the violent crime rate is so high compared to the rest of Canada and you’ll hear about the “complex” or “unique” problems “up here.” But it’s not until you listen to Peter J. Harte, a lawyer in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, tell the unimaginable story of a young woman he knows that you can begin to understand what that means.

At 13, the girl was sexually abused by her brother. This only came to the attention of police when they questioned her about why she was trying to put her little sister into hiding. Her brother wound up in jail, and the teen was placed with a foster family in another community.

Almost immediately, the foster father began sexually abusing her, too—which police learned about this time when they encountered the girl running down the street naked. The man was convicted, but just before sentencing he hung himself. With no place else to go, the girl returned to her home community, where her brother, now free, nearly beat her to death.

“That,” says Harte, “is the first five years of her teenage life. Now she’s got a four-page criminal record, which is mind-boggling for a woman.” Maybe not surprisingly, adds Harte, who is the senior criminal counsel for the Nunavut legal services board, “it includes convictions for hooking to get drugs or alcohol to dull the pain.”

This young woman’s heart-wrenching situation speaks to some of the factors that experts say have caused the epidemic of violent crime in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon: the trauma of sexual and physical abuse, the frequency of suicide, the pervasiveness of addiction, the geographic isolation, the lack of social services. The desperation or rage that drives people to do things they might never otherwise consider.

Taken together, these issues help explain why in 2009 the North had the nation’s highest—that is, the worst—score on Statistics Canada’s Crime Severity Index (CSI). In this, our third annual “Most Dangerous Cities” report, Maclean’s is using the CSI for the first time as the basis for our reporting. It’s a number developed by Statistics Canada using police reports to determine the seriousness of crime in a given area, and it allots more weight to the worst offences such as homicide or sexual assault. As in past years, Maclean’s also tracked trends by commissioning from StatsCan a run of six indicator crime statistics—homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault, robbery, breaking and entering and auto theft.

Almost invariably, the North turned up as the most dangerous part of the country. Nunavut, the N.W.T. and the Yukon took the top three spots respectively in the CSI ranking of Canadian territories and provinces. They also had the highest rates of sexual and aggravated assault.

Nunavut and the Yukon had the first- and second-highest homicide rate, followed by the N.W.T. in fourth. And Nunavut and the N.W.T. also had the first- and second- highest rates of breaking and entering, and auto theft in the country—with the Yukon still above the national rate. Admittedly, the national CSI score has dropped 22 per cent since 1999. But in Nunavut, the N.W.T. (and Newfoundland to a far lesser degree), crime scores have risen in that time.

Although the North has been a political magnet of late—with much attention paid to Canada’s claim to sovereignty, to resource development and fears of Russian planes flying overhead—the reality of rampant crime has often been overlooked. For the people who live in the three territories, though, it may be the most pressing issue they face—one that will have an indelible impact on their very future.

The crime problem is only made more troubling by the fact that it’s occurring in a country like Canada, says Scott Clark, a professor at Ryerson University’s department of criminology in Toronto. Having worked for more than 30 years in the North as a consultant and in government, including in Nunavut’s Department of Justice as assistant deputy minister, Clark doesn’t mince words: “We really should be ashamed,” he says. “We pride ourselves as Canadians on having a good country and a fair country, and we prize equality and helping our neighbours, but when you see what’s happening it just makes you want to hang your head.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that the small population of the North—109,275 people across all three territories—magnifies its crime, as the mayors of Yellowknife and Whitehorse point out.

They and experts emphasize that not everyone in the three territories has been directly affected by violent crime, and the devastation it creates. It is still the minority of individuals who cause the majority of problems. For example, while Nunavut’s homicide rate is 931 per cent higher than the national average, that translates into six murders last year in a territory with 32,183 residents. That may not sound so bad until you compare it with a more populous place such as St. John’s, which is almost six times larger but had zero murders. Similarly, there were 211 sexual assaults in Nunavut versus 165 in Windsor, Ont., which has seven times as many inhabitants. And there were 28 aggravated assaults in Nunavut compared to 20 in Richmond, B.C., population 191,376. Meanwhile in the N.W.T., where 43,439 people live, there were 717 break and enters, versus 711 in Red Deer, Alta., which is more than double the size.

At the root of all this crime is “alcohol, alcohol, alcohol,” says Chief Supt. Steve McVarnock, head of the Nunavut RCMP. “When alcohol comes into the communities the majority of them will experience a spike in police-related activity.” Even places that have decided by plebiscite to prohibit alcohol are often sabotaged by bootleggers. Pangnirtung and Arviat are both “dry,” but they experienced an increase in crime in 2009 compared to one year earlier, says McVarnock. In March, he adds, officers arrested two individuals in Iqaluit who had ordered 2,800 60-ounce bottles of vodka, which sell for up to $500 each in smaller communities.

What’s driving people to drink is a toxic mix of historical suffering and modern-day insufficiencies. The legacy of residential schools continues to haunt those individuals who endured the physical, psychological and sexual abuse first-hand. In many cases that trauma has been passed on to their children, who didn’t receive the necessary emotional and practical support. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder plagues many young people, and can cause behavioural problems. As traditional ways of life such as hunting, fishing and carving have faded, a sense of what Harte calls “cultural dislocation” has beset many in the North. With so few employment opportunities—in Nunavut there are only five communities where getting a job is a viable option, says McVarnock—youth have an easy excuse for dropping out of high school; and they do, at a rate of 75 per cent, notes Clark. Add to this limited recreational activities and you get many idle hands—and a recipe for trouble.

For those individuals who seek help, human rights advocate Lois Moorcroft bemoans a lack of resources—too few crisis centres and second-stage housing for women and families trying to get their feet under them after fleeing domestic abuse. With “very few residences, often women have no other option than to go back to the houses where the men are violating them,” says Moorcroft, who serves on the advisory committee for the review of the Yukon’s police force, and was previously appointed to the territory’s human rights commission.

That most communities have limited roads or are fly-in only can literally trap individuals in a bad situation, adds Barb McInerney, executive director of Kaushee’s Place, a women’s shelter in Whitehorse. Plus, a lack of affordable housing means that “if women have to give a sexual favour to get somewhere warm, or to have a couch to sleep on, then they manage how they have to.” The shortage also has led many to live in cramped, substandard housing—which can cause the type of irritation that may escalate to violence. Or it may stymie the efforts of individuals trying to get clean, adds Harte, or a good night’s sleep so they can get to work or school the next day.

All these factors are only compounded by inadequate numbers of police, probation officers, lawyers and judges, all of whom need to be well-versed in the aforementioned issues to be most effective. In July, Senior Judge Robert Kilpatrick of the Nunavut Court of Justice submitted a report to the federal minister of justice warning of an impending crisis, and calling for additional appointments. So far none have been made, although more deputy judges have been added.

In the meantime, there are small signs of hope: in April, a new mental health unit was announced in Nunavut, staffed with two suicide prevention specialists. Youth are rallying in anti-violence marches. Several reviews are under way, including one of Nunavut’s Liquor Act.

Efforts toward more “therapeutic justice” and sentencing circles are spreading. The Canadian High Arctic Research Station will ideally pump money and jobs into the North, and there is a growing number of southern RCMP officers who are signing up to serve in Nunavut. In fact, in May, McVarnock moved his officers into a new building in Iqaluit that is as much a morale boost as it is a practical necessity.

Professor Clark applauds the individuals who are running the justice system for their dedication and hard work, especially given their limited resources. But he says that improving the crime rates in the North doesn’t just fall to them. “The justice system is really the end of the line. It’s all this other stuff: education, health, housing, that has to be improved. With that improved over the long term we might see real change and there might be less crime. But it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work.”