Aboriginal Women and Family Violence – Key findings

Key Findings

Despite the fact that no effort was made to recruit victims of violence, many participants in the focus groups had personal experience with intimate partner violence. While intimate partner violence is perpetrated in many ways, physical and emotional abuse were the two most common forms described by the participants.

Incidence and Causes:

Confirming other research findings, first responders expressed the perception that there is a higher incidence of intimate partner abuse in Aboriginal communities than elsewhere.

Although many factors are perceived as root causes of violence (loss of identity and way of life, continued impact of residential schools,Footnote 1 a "learned cycle," etc.), nearly all participants pointed to drug and alcohol consumption (by both parties) as an aggravating factor.


All participants identified a variety of physical, psychological, financial and social consequences of male violence against Aboriginal women. For victims and their children, those consequences include:

  • diminished self-esteem and sense of security;
  • damage to physical and emotional health;
  • negative impact on children (nurturing a sense of fear and insecurity and the intergenerational perpetuation of the cycle of violence);
  • negative impact on financial security;
  • loss of matrimonial home and sometimes relocation outside the community; and
  • self-blame.

In contrast, the impact of the criminal justice system's response on the abuser is often seen as minimal and ineffective. A common view expressed by women within Aboriginal communities and among first responders is that community sanctions are mild, and those delivered by the corrections system are inconsequential. Although some laws and policies allow police officers to lay charges against a perpetrator without the consent of the victim, neither victims of violence nor first responders feel that relevant laws are adequately applied. All participants in this study called for the imposition of increased accountability on perpetrators of violence and reform of the justice system to allow for more punitive measures.

Nevertheless, some first responders see reason for optimism in what they perceive to be a gradual opinion shift among Aboriginal leaders, some of whom are beginning to condemn male violence against women. Focus group participants, on the other hand, had mixed perceptions of community progress in this regard. Although some feel that community opposition to male violence may be increasing, others worry that unless steps are taken to develop greater awareness and accountability, abuse may simply go further underground within the still prevalent culture of secrecy surrounding this issue in Aboriginal communities.

Key Resources for Aboriginal Women Victims of Violence:

Key resources discussed include:

  • On reserve and in settlements: informal networks of family and friends; health care professionals (nurses); Health Centre referrals to off reserve and urban resources, including counselling, shelters and other victim service programs; and police.
  • In urban centres: informal networks of family and friends; crisis centres and shelters; hotlines; Friendship Centres; and counselling services.

The use of such resources and services, however, is compromised by:

  • low awareness of them;
  • their distance from the home community;
  • the lack of transportation;
  • poor relationships with the police;
  • lack of faith in the effectiveness of the resources;
  • lack of privacy in communities and the consequent shame about accessing resources;
  • complex relationships among the victim, the abuser, their families and other community members; and
  • the desire to keep the family intact at all costs (because of fear of the unknown and of losing face, as well as the possibility of losing one's children, home and assets).

What Still Needs To Be Done:

Although community-based resources would be ideal, smaller reserves and Northern settlements often do not have the means to sustain crisis centres or shelters, and all respondents noted that privacy and safety are significant concerns.

Locating services and resources in close proximity to communities would be appropriate if residents also had access to adequate transportation and if the resource services were staffed by experienced and well-trained personnel. However, respondents raised concerns about the qualifications of staff, and the low numbers of Aboriginal personnel (especially the police) staffing such services in some communities. Even when Aboriginal personnel are recruited for policing among Aboriginal people, respondents felt that their presence does not guarantee that women will be treated in a culturally sensitive manner.

In addition, respondents suggested that women need to be helped to become more aware of the resources that are available. Women who live on reserve and in small settlements have a particular interest in receiving information without having to seek it out, given the chronic lack of privacy in such communities. Furthermore, although the Internet can be useful to a small minority of people, it is only a supplement to other means of acquiring information. Most Aboriginal women would not think to look to the Internet, given the low incidence of computer ownership and web access. Not a single first responder mentioned the Internet as a likely candidate for future educational or support initiatives.

Instead, suggestions from participants regarding communications include the use of:

  • local papers;
  • local radio;
  • directories of services;
  • advertising and educational programs in schools;
  • advertising through Friendship Centre bulletins;
  • inserts in government mass mailings; and
  • integrating information about male violence against women into regular women's meetings, as a means of educating women about this issue.


The following points were suggested as potential means by which both Aboriginal women and first responders may become better informed about and assisted in dealing with the problem of male violence against Aboriginal women:

  • Increased funding for resources to assist Aboriginal women victims of male violence, encompassing:
    • Educational programs to teach Aboriginal women about healthy relationships
    • Short-term and long-term housing for victims
    • Short-term and long-term counselling for victims
    • Counselling and provision of basic resources (e.g., food and clothing) for children
    • Interim financial assistance for victims
    • Affordable transportation to available services
  • Emergency 24-hour, 7-day crisis hotlines
  • 24-hour, 7-day access to assistance from first responders within reasonable proximity to communities
  • Increased convenience and privacy in reporting acts of violence on reserves and in settlement communities
  • Cultural sensitivity training for all first responders (police, health care professionals, educators and others who directly assist women victims of intimate partner violence or otherwise work with communities to reduce the incidence of such violence)
  • Strong incentives or mandatory training for community leaders to ensure that they treat the issue of male violence against women as a high priority and a serious community-wide problem
  • School-based activity to teach Aboriginal children about the issue and to reach out to parents
  • A "piggy-back" use of existing programs (such as Friendship Centres and medical facilities) or government sponsored mailings (such as regular mailings of payments) to provide information on this issue and spare women from having to seek it out
  • Encouragement of word-of-mouth dissemination of information about coping with and stopping such violence
  • Training for personnel dealing victims of abuse about privacy issues and the consequences of failing to respect the confidentiality of women dealing with this sensitive issue in communities with tight and overlapping familial ties
  • Both short-term and long-term assistance and relapse prevention for abusive men, including:
    • Educational programs, including community-based education on the issue
    • Substance abuse programs
    • Job training and job-search assistance
    • Mandatory participation in community-based education programs as part of treatment and counselling for perpetrators, with immediate, predictable and reliable punitive consequences for repeat offences or failure to participate
    • Long-term engagement with perpetrators by the corrections and parole systems, including following release, to facilitate long-term change. This should include:
      • Development of Aboriginal community-based support programs for men
      • Development of sentencing circles and application of the principles of restorative justiceFootnote 2 to foster culturally sensitive means of determining consequences for acts of violence and to develop a sense of individual and community responsibility for the issue of male violence against Aboriginal women.

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