Northern blight

Canada’s real violent-crime hot spot is three tiny cities in the north

Northern blightReaders of Iqaluit’s Nunatsiaq News might know that when Maclean’s released its annual crime rankings last week, Canada’s most violent region was absent from the list. Iqaluit, Whitehorse and Yellowknife, the biggest cities in the three northern territories, with a combined population of around 50,000, are too small to figure into the roll, which ranks Canada’s 100 largest cities. Yet crime data from Statistics Canada are shocking. Whitehorse had a homicide rate 355 per cent higher than the Canadian average in 2007 (the most recent StatsCan data available). The rate of aggravated assault in Yellowknife was more than 350 per cent higher than average. And Iqaluit recorded an aggravated assault rate 1,033 per cent above the Canadian average. Its rate of sexual assault is more than 1,270 per cent above the average—and, according to the RCMP, climbing.

The north’s violent crime wave, much of it sexual in nature, defies easy explanation. Still, there are clues. For starters, there’s simple demographics. “Nearly two-thirds of all crime is committed by young men between the ages of 15 and 29,” says Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University; 56 per cent of Nunavut residents are under 25 compared with 16 per cent in Canada as a whole. The population of Iqaluit—the country’s fastest-growing capital—has roughly doubled to 6,800 in the decade since it was chosen capital of the new territory and people flocked to new jobs in government, construction, the service industry. Parts of the N.W.T. and Yukon have also boomed, thanks to new resource-extraction projects. And boom towns, as Fort McMurray, Calgary and Vancouver have learned, see increases in crime, violence, and drug and alcohol use (which fuels most northern crime, according to the RCMP).

The problems of the past, meanwhile, live on. A quarter of all babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. More Nunavummiut drop out of high school than graduate. Young women aged 15 to 24 are 36 times more likely than other Canadian women to commit suicide—which accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the territory’s deaths, says Iqaluit-based researcher Jack Hicks. And sexual mores have been influenced by infamous residential schools like Chesterfield Inlet’s Sir Joseph Bernier School, and predators like Ed Horne—among the country’s most prolific pedophiles.

In fairness, Canada’s Far North has so small a population that relatively small numbers of murders or assaults can be magnified. Whitehorse’s aggravated assault rate, which is 138 per cent above the national average, is based on six incidences. Still, the problems are real, and not new. In 2002, the rate of sexual assault rate in the N.W.T. was 455 per cent higher than the national average; it was 1,272 per cent higher in Nunavut—where one of every 100 persons reported a sexual assault. (Canada’s rate was 78 per 100,000 persons.)

The sexual violence problem in particular can show up at the highest levels. Last spring, in Nunavut, Levi Barnabas was promoted to cabinet despite a conviction for a sexual assault that occurred while he was Speaker of the House. James Arvaluk was named education minister despite serving time for rape, and was subsequently arrested for assault (he beat his ex-girlfriend so viciously she required 18 stitches to sew up her mouth, and sustained permanent nerve damage). He took a three-year break from politics after his conviction, but is back as an MLA—a terrible public message, says Iqaluit’s Janet Brewster, whose aunt was killed by her common-law husband eight years ago. (More recently, in November, Nunavut’s legislative assembly unanimously appointed MLA Lorne Kusugak to cabinet two months after he was charged with sexual assault and attempting to choke, suffocate or strangle his victim—although those charges have since been stayed.)

There has been some progress of late. Since tight restrictions on alcohol were enacted in 2007, the prisoner count in Kugluktuk, in western Nunavut—the territory has six “dry communities”—has dropped by over 38 per cent, and high school attendance is up 30 per cent, says RCMP Sgt. Maurice Poisson. Theft and assault have dropped substantially. But sexual assaults have increased; in recent years there has been a shift toward traditionalism, says Jim Bell, editor of the Nunatsiaq News, that’s making Inuit society increasingly patriarchal and hostile to modernity. Bell has written scathing editorials detailing dysfunction too “embarrassing” for government to talk about. The North’s endemic crime is an open secret, but with sex offenders sitting in the House, it’s hard to believe government is committed to change.