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.”
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