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A Closer Look at Nunavut’s Notoriously High Murder Rate

Nunavut has the highest per-capita murder rate in the country, but statistics can be misleading. We examine what that number actually means.

by Peter Worden
Dec 5 2014, 8:10pm

Entrance to the Baffin Correctional Centre in Iqaluit. Photo by Peter Worden.

My neighbor in Iqaluit tried to kill someone. We've shared cabs and we pass one another in the toiletry aisle, but it wasn't until her name was called in court this week that I made the connection. Even then, I just nodded as if to say, well, shit happens.​

Life goes on in the territory. It has to—even after a suspicious death last w​eek in Igloolik (pop. 1,454), a murder the week befo​re in Rankin Inlet (pop. 2,266), and one before that on October 1 in Pon​d Inlet (pop. 1,549). In Nunavut (pop. 31,906), we're all neighbors to the most serious criminal offence: murder.

This week Statistics Canada released its Homicide Su​rvey—an annual cobbling-together of data from police forces across the country. It boasts the fewest homicide victims in 40 years. That number is down in Nunavut too: four homicides in 2013 from five in 2012 and seven in 2011. It's a deceptive stat that, like so many national reports, paints Nunavut as an outlier in Canada.

If Nunavut were a city its homicide rate would be triple that of Regina, the Canadian metropolitan area with the highest per-capita murder rate. If it were a country its murder rate would be double that of the US and in the range of Nicaragua and Haiti.

But Nunavut is not a city or a country. It is 26 fly-in communities ranging from 130 to 7,000 people spread out over Canada's newest and largest jurisdiction; it's a population so small in a territory so close-knit that familiarity with crime is ipso facto.

There are currently  12 people in various stages of trial pertaining to murder charges: nine first- or second-degree charges, one manslaughter, and two attempted. They filter through the Nunavut Court of Justice where, with the exception of—at last count—five cold cases, all cases end up. Peter Harte, a criminal defence lawyer who worked in Nunavut between 2005 and 2012, has heard it all. When he first started, a grandfather, father and son were all in court on the same day charged with different offenses. The number of violent crime cases he has worked are, in his words, too many to count.

Nunavut Court of Justice. Photo by Peter Worden.

His banker's boxes full of files attest to the variables associated with the high crime rate: poverty, lack of employment opportunities, overcrowded housing, substance abuse—in particular, alcohol—violent experiences growing up, and a frequent history of residential schooling which often passes the dysfunction and damage down through more than one generation.

"Those predict high crime rates everywhere and they exist in abundance in the North," Harte said.

Alcohol ranks particularly high on his list of destructive forces. Harte says the culture is diluted by alcohol, which interferes with what it means to be Inuit. He says it is as potent as losing a language and as invasive and eroding as cable TV. He hopes communities—many of them technically dry—eventually decide that alcohol is too much of a threat to Inuit culture.

"I suspect as long as Nunavut is struggling to deal with alcohol and housing and limited employment opportunities, it will continue to have a significantly high crime rate," he said.

Meanwhile, Iqaluit—which has the highest rate of crime in the territory—is considering opening the territory's first beer and wine store.

Well, second.

In the 60s and 70s there was a liquor store. It's remembered sourly by John Amagoalik, largely considered the Father of Nunavut and amicably referred to simply as John A. Like all the elders who filibustered a community hearing to voice their opposition to opening a pilot store, he warned of the perils of alcohol, or imialuk—bad water—in Inuktitut.

"There was a lot of abuse of alcohol back then. There was a lot of violence. There was beatings. There was crime. There was rape and even murder. Because of that the liquor store was closed," he said.

It's one area where Nunavut is in line with the national Homicide Survey: a large percentage of murders are committed when the assailant is under the influence of alcohol.

What's not clear or fair from the statistics is that the population is so low that per capita, it does not take a large number of offences to make a relatively big jump. Four murders this year gives Nunavut a way higher murder rate than the national average. As Harte puts it, if you took another area similar in housing shortages and alcoholism, you would have a similar crime rate.

"It's a little unfair to look at Nunavut and the crime rate that it has and sort of assume that it's all Nunavut's fault," he said.

Still, the justice system at present is far from peachy. The hamlet of Pond Inlet was referred to in court as the "jury capital of Nunavut" by one Crown prosecutor for its recent number of trials and growing difficulty of assembling fresh jury pools.

Closeup of the Nunavut Justice Centre. Photo by Peter Worden.

Graham Clinton is the economist who penned the 2013 Nunavut Economic Outlook. In it, Pond Inlet is named one of the two communities most likely to be affected by resource development. Clinton says in times of sudden economic growth you can expect crime to go up.

"It's not that it's inevitable, but most research shows that it's extremely likely," he said. "You can't find too many examples where a community is unique enough to avoid such an outcome."

The maturation process can be a rough one, but it may be a case of short-term pain for long-term gain. Clinton cites the mining town of Kugluktuk, Nunavut as an example. There, raw data and anecdotal evidence showed crime shoot up in time with the onset of the diamond mining industry. Today, crime has levelled off. 

"The transition was difficult," Clinton said. "People were away and people weren't used to that and all the things it exposed."

He says while the resource industry has a vested interest in healthy communities, and money does trickle down to social programming through royalty payments and Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreements, it doesn't have an immediate and tangible effect on lowering crime. "It's getting a little bit far away from their not only roles and responsibility but also areas of expertise."

He says community readiness is key.

A critical piece of the justice puzzle is the justice system itself. Harte believes Nunavut does an exemplary job of being transparent and fair despite its abundant caseload.

"The accused person has relatives and the accused person has people who will listen to him or her and ultimately the justice system is not served well by a process that results in an accused person saying 'I didn't get a fair trial,'" he said, adding that corrections does the best it can. It cannot, however, reverse the combined deleterious effects of substance abuse, poverty and historic trauma. In many cases, recidivism is almost a given, with the problems that brought that person into the legal system waiting for them at home.

"Corrections," Harte said, emphasizing each word, "can't fix the underlying problems."

"It's impossible for corrections to deal with the social problems that ultimately are at the heart of what brings people into conflict with the law."

​@wordenCBC