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Policing Perspectives Concerning Confusion and Uncertainty in Policing Practices with “Honour”-Based Crimes and Forced Marriages

Published onApr 20, 2021
Policing Perspectives Concerning Confusion and Uncertainty in Policing Practices with “Honour”-Based Crimes and Forced Marriages


Police regularly deal with various forms of violence against women and girls, such as domestic violence, family violence, and intimate partner violence in police work. However, since certain kinds of violence require a more nuanced approach to investigations, this paper reports on the experiences and challenges in policing different types of violence, such as “honour”-based crimes (HBCs), including forced marriages (FMs), within the broader Canadian discourse and political stances informing law and policy decisions. As well as what is still needed to improve responses to HBCs and FMs, it is important to consider the impact of laws and policy changes on police perceptions. I conducted 46 interviews with police officers and civilian members working in Canadian law enforcement agencies in Alberta between 2015 and 2017. Data were analyzed with constructivist grounded theory techniques to identify the emerging core (central) category of “confusion and uncertainty in policing practices;” the results show how participants experienced the core category when dealing with HBCs and FMs. In this paper, I connect the core category to three themes that contribute to it: inconsistency in the use of terminology, police perceptions of training, and police understandings of FM as well as their perspectives on the “Barbaric Cultural Practices” bill. These themes reveal how police are often met with challenges and resistance from colleagues within the service, as opinions are divided on understanding this form of violence and what to call it. Participants described the tensions and issues they observed in training which impacted both their investigations and their involvement in responding to HBCs and FMs. A significant finding points to the gap in knowledge about FM and relevant amendments to the Canadian Criminal Code.


Police regularly deal with domestic or family violence in various forms. Domestic violence (DV) continues to be a significant problem worldwide, and in Canada, the term is commonly used along with family violence (FV). DV, often referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), is any pattern of abuse that occurs in an intimate relationship between current or former opposite-sex or same-sex partners (Government of Alberta, 2020) and includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, often accompanied by psychological abuse which includes threats of violence and patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour (see Stark, 2007). FV is an umbrella term used to describe any form of abuse and violence involving a family relationship or between partners in an intimate relationship, including child abuse, sibling abuse, parent abuse, intimate partner abuse, non-intimate partner abuse, and elder abuse. Both DV and FV can be perpetuated by or against a person regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, and sexual orientation (Wells et al., 2012). This paper uses these terms interchangeably because police in Canada use both DV and FV to describe experiences of violence in certain contexts.

In the context of police work, it is unclear whether these definitions can include other forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG) that include parent-child abuse and threats of violence from extended family and community that lead to or are likely to lead to “honour”-based killings (HBK) and forced marriage (FM). Thus, the involvement of the police can vary significantly depending upon their agency’s definitions of DV and FV and how they are applied. For example, Dutch police use “DV” for events within the nuclear family (usually between partners), whereas “HBV” is understood to involve a much larger circle of extended family and community partners and thus requires a different police response (J. Janssen, personal communication, February 16, 2021). Currently, definitions of honour-based crimes (HBCs) and manifestations of VAWG are not fully captured in the Alberta Government’s framework to end FV (Wells et al., 2012). While Alberta’s updated police guidelines note that IPV “may not only include violence towards a new or former intimate partner, but could involve children, other family members, and friends” (Government of Alberta, 2020, p. 2), they only include a brief section on supporting victims of HBCs and FMs:

Police have extensive experience responding to incidents of intimate partner and family violence; however, they may be less familiar with the specific context of incidents involving “honour-based” violence (HBV) or forced marriage (FM). HBV is defined as criminal conduct that has been motivated because the perpetrator perceived the crime was necessary or acceptable to protect and/or defend the honour of the family or the community.

Understanding the context and the unique characteristics of HBV crimes will assist police members in effective interventions, assessing the risks associated, responding to victims and identifying patterns that may expand the scope of their investigation. For more information on HBV and associated offences, please see the RCMP’s website and the Indo-Canadian Women’s Association. (Government of Alberta, 2020, p. 32)

Police have a professional duty to protect victims as well as identify perpetrators, but these duties require more nuanced understandings, interventions, and support as well as the appropriate knowledge and tools to approach violence in a family context.

Police responses to domestic and family violence

Police are in a unique position to assist families, and their intervention in HBCs and FMs is critical to ensure victims, mainly young girls and women, are safely directed to other social services that may offer protection (Korteweg, 2014). Unfortunately, police perspectives vary in understanding HBCs and FMs as gendered violence within the context of DV and FV, and we know little about how police in the Canadian context perceive this form of violence and how prepared they are to offer support when called to homes where there are threats to children that may include an FM.

Scholars have noted that there is very little research on how police construct and understand DV cases (Myhill & Johnson, 2016), and even less on HBCs (see Aplin, 2017, 2019). However, a growing body of literature has examined police officers’ perspectives of DV calls in the North American context and challenges in responding (Fulambarker, 2020; Robinson et al., 2016; Saxton et al., 2020) as well as police officers’ use of discretion when identifying, recording, and responding to DV incidents (Barlow & Walklate, 2018; Myhill & Johnson, 2016). Literature has also emerged over the last few years on policing practices in the United Kingdom (UK) and the Netherlands to identify and investigate honour-related cases (Aplin, 2019; Janssen, 2018; Richards et al., 2008; Roberts et al., 2014). Studies on victims’ experiences with the police and helping professionals in the criminal justice system, including the police officers’ understanding, are also more prevalent (Aplin, 2017, 2019; Begikhani et al., 2015; Gill et al., 2018; Idriss, 2017, 2018; Mulvihill et al., 2019). Gill and Harrison (2016) examined UK police officer perceptions in four different police areas in the UK when responding to sexual IPV in South Asian communities. In assessing police officers’ understanding of sexual violence cases, including awareness and training about HBV, and disclosure practices, they found that officers had a sense of why victim-survivors did not report to the police. Nevertheless, it remains unclear how Canadian police make sense of this phenomenon and what challenges they have faced.

I hope this paper will contribute to an understanding of how the broader Canadian discourse and the lack of effective policies (see Korteweg, 2014; Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2010) impact how police position themselves to help victims. Policy and decision-makers in the provincial and federal government and police services may also benefit from hearing these perspectives. This work can help improve policies, procedures, and training for police officers and civilians. This paper will address the following three research questions: 1) How do police officers and civilians who work in policing organizations experience, make sense of, and understand HBCs? 2) What constitutes an HBC from the policing perspective, and what factors influence the decision to separate or not separate these cases from domestic violence? 3) How do policing agencies intervene to prevent, protect, and investigate an HBC?

“Honour,” violence, and women

In the literature, HBC is defined as a crime or type of violence perpetuated by multiple perpetrators, which may include immediate family (e.g., husband, brother, father), extended family (e.g., uncle, cousin), and the larger community (Chantler et al., 2009; Gill et al., 2012; Hague et al., 2013; Idriss, 2018; Mojab, 2012)—including female relatives such as mothers, mothers-in-law, and sisters-in-law (Aplin, 2017; Bates, 2018; Chantler, 2012; Chantler & McCarry, 2020; Gill, 2009; Hall, 2014). Victims are predominantly, but not all, girls and women. The perception of family honour can be influenced by a woman’s sexuality and her actions, like dating or kissing a boy in public (Mucina, 2018). Parents may ask sons to regulate their sister’s behaviour or insist on marrying her off to preserve family reputation and status. Maintaining honour limits the choices women can make for themselves, which may prevent them from reaching out to the police and other professionals (Blum et al., 2016; Idriss, 2018). HBC and FM are underreported, but research with UK police has shown that officers are becoming more aware of how the concepts of honour and shame can make it challenging for women to come forward (Gill & Harrison, 2016).

Feminist conceptualizations of honour and patriarchy

I apply patriarchy as a core theoretical concept in understanding violence that occurs in specific contexts that include the notion of “honour.” “Honour codes” are:

Considered crucial by parents, husbands and their families. But honour in this sense is merely the code of patriarchal authority to ensure male privilege, which is embodied in family, community and caste or religious gender norms. Fathers, brothers and sons thus have a strong interest in protecting (their) women’s honour. (Srinivasan, 2018, p. 414)

Patriarchy as a theoretical concept is useful to explain how notions of honour intersect with gender treatment and power dynamics, which are found in all communities. Like other feminist scholars, I argue that the concept of honour should be situated in patriarchy and along the continuum of VAWG (Aujla & Gill, 2014; Mucina, 2018). There is a tendency to only focus on extreme acts of honour like HBKs and FMs; however, this view misses other types of HBV situated on the other end of the VAWG continuum, such as a preference for sons over daughters and not allowing young women to date or stay out late (Mucina, 2018; Srinivasan, 2018).

As seen with high-profile criminal cases reported in the Canadian media (e.g., Jassi Sidhu; see Aujla & Gill, 2014), women actively participate in carrying out HBKs against daughters who have engaged in behaviour seen as transgressing honour norms. These women may carry out HBCs to maintain their own security and position in the family (Aplin, 2017; Bates, 2018; Idriss, 2017; see Kandiyoti’s 1988 concept of the “patriarchal bargain”). Older women (e.g., mothers) are responsible for socializing younger girls (e.g., daughters) into following gender expectations and may bear the burden and consequences of a daughter’s actions that are seen to tarnish the family “honour.” These women operate within the patriarchal system and support the male perpetrators while protecting themselves from violence, and police need to look for this dynamic when investigating cases (Aplin, 2017, 2019; Bates, 2018; Janssen, 2018). Bates (2018) found that female perpetrators play three different roles in perpetrating HBV: 1) “controllers” who lead the abuse, 2) “collaborators” who support male perpetrators to carry out the act, and 3) “coerced,” who are victims themselves, with little agency. It might not be easy for police to identify mothers as perpetrators, and officers may dismiss their actions as a cultural issue (Aplin, 2017; Gill et al., 2012). But HBV is a “transcultural crime committed by men (and sometimes women),” and police officers need the training to identify it (Gill, 2009, p. 480).

An overview of the Canadian discourse

There is growing political interest in tackling this issue as it impacts how police and other service providers approach VAWG. To view HBV as a form of gendered violence in all societies challenges the Canadian media and state discourses which frame the problem in terms of racialized and immigrant communities. In Canada, the media has played a significant role in stigmatizing and labeling murders in these communities as HBKs (Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2010). The media portrayals have led some feminist scholars and activists to suggest that we adapt new language (e.g., patriarchal violence, femicide) to challenge dominant discourses and to make visible the power dynamics in HBKs (Aujla & Gill, 2014; Fournier, 2012; Hogben, 2012; Quebec Council for Women, 2013).

This problematic framework allowed Canada’s previous Conservative government (2006–2015) to focus on “culture talk” as a way of framing the problem as being imported to Canada by Muslims/“barbaric” immigrants (Abji & Korteweg, 2021, p. 74; Abji et al., 2019; Olwan, 2013). Although the government attempted to address HBCs and FMs, no specific national policy was issued to prevent them and place them within the broader scope of DV or FV (Fournier, 2012). A thematic paper prepared by Korteweg and Yurdakul (2010) concluded that Canada had no policy approach to HBV and FM at the national, provincial, or municipal levels; however, in other countries, the media, political and other institutions, and non-government organizations (NGOs) have been influential in policy responses. In the Netherlands and Britain, police have strategies and action plans to address HBV, have been part of policy discussions, and have developed police policies and manuals (Janssen, 2018; Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2010). Understanding the top-down political discourse can clarify why police agencies in Canada have not influenced policy discussions.

During its tenure, Canada’s Conservative government made a series of glaringly insensitive and uninformed law and policy changes with racist undertones. In the revised citizenship study guide, the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration (2012) denounced “barbaric cultural practices,” including “‘honour killings,’ female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence” (p. 9). This passage is an example of the dominant “othering” discourse. The word “barbaric” implies in a racist way that immigrants pose a threat to Canadian values and perpetuates a stereotype that only immigrant and racialized communities are subject to such experiences. The term “cultural” is positioned next to “barbaric” to suggest that only women and girls from these “other” cultures or communities are vulnerable to such practices. The passage fails to mention that VAWG already exists in Canada and ignores the realities of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (Olwan, 2013). The simplistic and discriminatory binary view of us (Canadians) versus them (immigrants) creates false stereotypes of immigrants bringing cultural baggage to Canada and failing to accept Western/Canadian values of gender equality and freedom (Olwan, 2013). This stigmatizing discourse matches those found in other immigrant-receiving Western countries, which target racialized people (Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2010) and ignore patriarchy as an underlying reason for acts of violence. The now-governing Liberal party, under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, proposed changes to the citizenship guide in 2016, though they have not yet been made—and the removal of these discriminatory references is long overdue (Wright, 2018).

Criminalization and law enforcement

The same stereotypical terminology was included in the controversial Bill S-7: Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act (Government of Canada, 2015; see Abji et al., 2019, on Parliamentary debates over the title and Abji & Korteweg, 2021, on the present Liberal government Act (Bill S-210) removing reference to “barbaric cultural practices”). Passed in 2015, Bill S-7 changed three main pieces of legislation: 1) the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA); 2) the Civil Marriage Act, adding a new minimum age of 16; and 3) the Criminal Code, making it an offence for people to celebrate and participate in an FM ceremony. Bill S-7 aimed to criminalize and prevent the practice of polygamy and disallowed the use of provocation as a defence in murder trials associated with HBKs (see Abji et al., 2019). Through this Bill, the Conservative government focused on punishing and criminalizing immigrant and racialized communities. It also proposed a “tip line” to allow for reporting of “barbaric cultural practices” to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and promised to establish an RCMP task force to focus on enforcing Bill S-7 if re-elected (Powers, 2015), though the campaign was not ultimately successful. Overall, the political discourse throughout the Harper government’s tenure implied that police were equipped and prepared to punish HBC through Canadian laws.

Some activists, like Aruna Papp (2010), endorsed the government’s language in Bill S-7 and its approach to criminalizing FMs, while others were vehemently opposed (Abji et al., 2019). Papp’s report Culturally-Driven Violence Against Women: A Growing Problem in Canada’s Immigrant Communities (2010) echoes the government’s use of a cultural explanation to perpetuate the idea that HBKs and FMs only happen to women in “other,” specifically immigrant and South Asian, communities. However, South Asians are not a homogenous group. The report’s cultural explanations create a different understanding of DV in racialized communities (Aujla & Gill, 2014) and divert attention from the VAWG found in all cultural, religious, and ethnic groups in Canada. But Papp’s experience as a victim of HBV and FM resonated with the government (Korteweg, 2012; Olwan, 2013, 2014; Wiseman, 2012) and her testimony was included in the parliamentary debates over Bill S-7 (Abji et al., 2019).

However, the criminalization of FM allows police to further profile and target racialized communities. “There is no evidence to support that criminalization of forced marriage would in fact serve to prevent it,” according to the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO, 2014, p. 4). Along with other anti-racist, feminist, and community organizations, SALCO has exposed the racist agenda evident in the government’s response and drawn attention to how measures to “warn” these communities can discourage girls and women from seeking support and reporting HBC and FM to the police. The criminalization approach to FM may also impact how service providers such as the police provide appropriate supports and safety to victims.

The literature includes accounts from victims of HBCs and FMs of why they refuse to involve the police. Reasons included remarks about not wanting to criminalize family members, not knowing if the police could help, and concerns about police unfairly stereotyping racialized men (Chantler & McCarry, 2020; Gill & Harrison, 2016; Gill et al., 2018; Mulvihill et al., 2019). These few studies have shown that many factors, particularly mistrust of the police (Aujla, 2021; Gill & Harrison, 2016), impact whether victims report their experiences. Other studies captured victims’ experiences and perceptions of the varying levels of support received from the police. Police officers’ lack of awareness of HBCs, including FM, may cause a greater risk for victims who already fear bringing dishonour to their families by reaching out to the police. As noted mainly in the UK context, the police response needs to be improved with ongoing training as not all officers are equipped to take reports of HBC or FM seriously, so victims are not always protected (Begikhani et al., 2015; Gill et al., 2012; Gill & Harrison, 2016; Gill et al., 2018; Idriss, 2018; Mulvihill et al., 2019).

In Canada, the Department of Justice has created specialized police training on HBCs, and some police services have developed their own internal training materials to increase awareness (see Aujla, 2021; Quebec Council for Women, 2013). For example, in 2015, before the passing of Bill S-7, the Departments of Justice and Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development hosted a conference covering FM and HBV. The discussions included specific information about responding to FM and HBV victims, enforcement and prosecution of past cases, and the legal framework in the Canadian context, including Bill S-7. Also, since the murders of Aqsa Parvez in 2007 and the Shafia family in 2009, law enforcement officials across the nation have been educated by “experts” on the subject to distinguish honour as a culturally driven practice (Abji et al., 2019; Olwan, 2013). For example, in March 2012, the Alberta Criminal Justice Association invited an HBC educator to deliver external training to law enforcement and other professionals, exploring the concept of honour-motivated violence from a personal perspective. The HBC educator shared an extensive list of at least 24 points separating HBV from DV to help police detect the signs. However, these points were not cited from existing literature but based solely on the trainer’s experience as a survivor of HBV and FM and her social worker position. This training further stigmatized immigrant communities and was no different from the Canadian state and media discourses that validate assumptions about HBCs and racialized individuals, rather than dispelling the harmful stereotypes and contextualizing HBC as part of a larger culture of VAWG (see Wiseman, 2012). My research seeks to understand how policing perceptions and practices are influenced by the Canadian government’s criminalization of HBC and FM as well as formal training on these topics.


Sample and procedure

This paper is part of a larger qualitative project that sought to explore the perspectives of police officers and civilians within policing organizations in terms of their understandings of HBCs and FMs as well as responses to such incidents. Data collection took place from 2015 to 2017, with ethics approval from the University of Alberta and the law enforcement agencies. I recruited participants through gatekeepers, snowball sampling, and word-of-mouth techniques. Once potential participants were identified, I followed up by email or telephone to invite them to participate in the research study. I conducted 46 semi-structured interviews in five law enforcement areas across Alberta, Canada, including Calgary Police Service (CPS), Edmonton Police Service (EPS), Integrated Threat Risk Assessment Centre (I-TRAC), the Alberta Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, and the RCMP “K” division. My sample included 32 police officers and 14 civilians, including 20 men and 26 women, ranging from 25 to 68 years of age. The participants self-identified as White (38), South Asian (5), Indigenous (1), and mixed-race (2). The participants’ education levels ranged from high school (3), some post-secondary university classes (2), and completed college diplomas (12) to undergraduate (22) or graduate-level (7) degrees.

Police officers had varying ranks, years of service (three to 29), and positions (frontline officers to constables and detectives in specialized areas). Civilians held a wide range of positions: frontline victim service advocates, intake and threat assessors, outreach and crisis workers, social workers, psychologists, senior advisors, project coordinators, supervisors, managers of specialized units, and 911 call operators. Civilians had held these jobs for a few months up to 28 years and had a wide range of DV experiences supporting the more operational work of police officers. In the two municipal police services (CPS and EPS), civilian social workers and risk assessors worked alongside the police officers to assess risk in all DV reports within 24 to 48 hours. This police-civilian model differed between CPS and EPS, but the civilians’ aim was generally to assist in investigations and provide support, advocacy, and referrals to services. A similar initiative was being piloted in the RCMP “K” Division, where a social worker reviewed all high-priority DV files and provided follow-up support and safety planning. Speaking to both groups of participants allowed me to obtain many viewpoints and a broad perspective on responses to HBCs and FMs within police organizations.

I asked participants questions about 1) socio-demographics and background (e.g., “How long have you been in this position?”); 2) experiences (e.g., “What types of experience have you had in the workplace with regard to understanding this issue?”); 3) risk assessment and intervention (e.g., “What preventative measures are taken to protect and investigate?”); and 4) training and agency supports (e.g., “What type of training is found within your agency and external to it?”). Interviews lasted from 1.5 hours to 4 hours, and were audio-recorded with the consent of the participants and transcribed prior to data analysis. Pseudonyms and limited information about positions are included in this paper to protect participants’ identities.

Data analysis

I analyzed all of the data using nodes and sub-nodes to code in NVivo 11, following the principles of constructivist grounded theory (CGT) techniques outlined by Charmaz (2006). Initial, focused, and theoretical coding guided my data analysis of the interviews to identify emergent themes. CGT was suitable for this study to understand police meaning-making processes and in-depth insights with an understudied phenomenon (Birks & Mills, 2015). CGT analysis was used because it allowed me to explore multiple perspectives and shared meanings constructed by police officers and civilian members with HBCs and FMs. Data saturation was reached by the 46th interview as no new themes emerged; generally, 20–30 interviews are recommended in CGT to obtain saturation (Creswell, 1998, as cited in Charmaz, 2006). The data were compared across interviews to examine the relationships and patterns across categories.

A CGT approach emphasizes “how–and sometimes why–participants construct meanings or actions in specific situations” (Charmaz, 2006, p. 130). The constant comparative analysis and writing memos allowed me to capture my thoughts on codes, identify variations in perspectives, and refine other concepts connected to the core conceptual category, which helped clarify the research findings. A core category is the main theme or storyline that emerges from the data (also referred to as the central concept or code, see Birks & Mills, 2015; Charmaz, 2006) and is related to other emerging categories and sub-categories (e.g., codes). Next, I explain the core category “confusion and uncertainty in policing practices” which connects to three themes.


The core category: Confusion and uncertainty in policing practices

This paper reports only on the findings connected to the core category “confusion and uncertainty in policing practices.” The main themes connected to this core category reflect police experiences and perceptions in understanding HBCs and FMs. The terms confusion and uncertainty are often used interchangeably to mean that something is unclear, there is a lack of clarity or a feeling of doubt because of the lack of certainty in elements like terminology, training, and new laws. Many participants indicated their concerns for victims of HBCs and FMs and recognized that police services need to do more to support them. Mark, a senior officer, explained, “If we really want victims to come forward and talk to us, well then, then we have to have a process in place [otherwise] they’re not going to come forward, and I wouldn’t blame them.”

The confusion and uncertainty contribute to inconsistency in police practices, which means cases may fall through the cracks. This core category highlights the complexity of tackling the problem when there is a lack of clear direction. Police officers and civilian members have no blueprint for managing HBCs and FMs. There really can be no blueprint because every case is unique, but there can be some recommended policies and procedures to help cut down on the feelings of uncertainty. If police officers know what steps to take and in what order when investigating cases, the unknown aspects are less threatening. When I asked Olivia, a junior police officer, about the ongoing challenges, she replied,

It’s like when you get [a file], everybody feels like they’re kind of starting from square one, there’s really no specific guidance as to, you know, where to go with it next, that kind of thing. Where to go, what to do.

When she needed to help a school resource officer with an FM case in a rural community, Olivia asked for advice from an officer at a municipal police service who had dealt with relevant cases. Similar uncertainties over what to do next in an investigation led other officers to look for resources on their own. While it is important to consult police officers with more HBC/FM experience, this example points to the gaps that required some participants to increase their awareness.

Both officers and civilians spoke about how they do the best they can to navigate the variability in policing practices, but there is an urgent need for policies and procedures for guidance. One senior officer shared a report on HBCs prepared for their Chief of Police in which they had identified that the police service had no policies and procedures to handle HBCs and FMs, including related kidnappings and assaults. I could sense the officer’s frustration level as their efforts in identifying the gaps in policing practice had little influence on policy development and victim supports. At another municipal service, a senior officer in a specialized unit identified a need for an HBV coordinator to be a single point of contact to triage calls to adequately support all members and victims. The officer was still in the early stages with the proposal for an HBV coordinator position. When I asked if the police service was supportive of their efforts, the officer explained, “I haven’t had that experience yet. But then, I haven’t gone anywhere with it yet. I know of past experiences that weren’t so good, but I was not involved in any of that.” The officer was careful about who was approached within the organization, knowing that different perspectives about HBV had made it challenging for others who had tried to prioritize it. But the officer felt that in their current position, they could “make a difference and actually get some traction going on” in the police service.

Three themes emerged from the data that help to unpack the core category of “confusion and uncertainty in policing practices”: 1) Inconsistency in the Use of Terminology; 2) Police Perceptions of Training; and 3) Police Understandings of FM and Perspectives on the Barbaric Cultural Practices Bill.

Theme 1: Inconsistency in the use of terminology

The inconsistency about what to call this form of violence in police services leads to confusion and frustration for officers and civilians. At the time of the study, municipal police services were debating the use of honour terminology, which has different meanings for different people. A senior police officer, Mark, articulated the tensions clearly:

You got people that are adamant that we’re not calling it honour-based because there’s no honour in this. You know, patriarchal violence is the way to go, and people are pretty passionate about that, and then you got the other camp where I guess, I would fall into, that, feel the other way.

Mark elaborated on how his police service was not keen on the HBV terminology, but he preferred to “call it what it is” because in his opinion that was how victims and offenders viewed it. Likewise, Cathy, a civilian member, recalled a co-worker asking her,

“What do we call this?” and I said, “domestic violence” [laughter]. But she said, “no,” we need to [ask], is it patriarchal violence, is it honour-based violence in quotation marks, is it so-called honour, and I said, I don’t know, I’ve read different things, I’ve read things where they use honour-based violence, quotation marks, so-called, ah, patriarchal violence.

Both comments illustrate a lack of consensus about terminology, where some people include quotation marks or the phrase “so-called” to signal that the term “honour” is being contested, while others use it straightforwardly, and still others feel the term is entirely inappropriate. A civilian member, John, said,

I certainly don’t have an issue with the term “honour-based violence,” that gets at the heart of the motivation, and I don’t care that it’s objectively not honourable. If your subjective view is this is about maintaining my honour, then so be it. I think it’s actually helpful to kind of label it that way.

However, Trina, a civilian member, rejected the term “honour” because it perpetuates and supports racism by stigmatizing racialized communities. She explained, “concepts of ‘honour’ and shame, … exist across all cultures, but … it’s been sort of co-opted by the media, and … the government has reinforced it. … They’ve kind of used it as, almost like a cultural scapegoating term.” Trina identified the way that the media’s xenophobic discourse and coverage of past cases with “honour” terminology further perpetuates stereotypes and racist attitudes. Similar concerns have been raised in the scholarly literature about how the dominant Canadian media and government narrative reinforces many stereotypes and assumptions about racialized communities (see Jiwani 2014; Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2010; Olwan, 2013). Jay, a junior police officer, agreed, explaining that “the more we are going to label [this] ‘honour’, you are going to lose the important people from certain communities, to come forward and work on these topics.” Jay explained how this kind of labeling leads service providers and police to lose the trust and buy-in of communities. He explained that police should be careful with their messaging, so communities do not withdraw from them and instead take action to come forward. When “honour” terminology and other terms like “barbaric cultural practices” are frequently used, it makes it harder for the police to talk to community members.

It is important to note that labels such as “shame-based culture” or “patriarchal culture” still surfaced in the interviews, as well as “honour killing.” Some participants associated culture with this type of violence and commented on how they viewed it as culturally different from a typical North American DV/FV case. Thus, the constant negative media portrayal of this issue may affect policing and perpetuate stereotypes, biases, and assumptions about certain communities. The framing of violence in racialized communities is often labeled as a “cultural” problem instead of recognizing that violence is also found in White communities where cultural indicators are not flagged (Aujla, 2021). This form of VAWG is found in every culture, but it plays out in different, specific ways depending on a community’s cultural practices and other layers of intersectionality in each case.

Participants also expressed concerns about the amount of time spent trying to identify and switch to other terms to describe this form of violence, without any real results. Police officers were concerned with the practical work of preventing and responding to this type of violence, instead of getting caught up in the semantics. As Henry, a junior police officer, articulated, “Forget what the term is, use whatever you want. We need to deal with the issue.” However, the terminology concerns are more than semantics as the issue profoundly affects racialized women, girls, and communities.

Indeed, the uncertainty over terminology has real-world implications in terms of how police identify and label files. Lori, a senior police officer, explained, “I think that we need to challenge the terminology because, you know, at the end of the day, it’s about power and control and it has nothing to do with honour, there’s no honour in violence.” In her police service, officers and civilians would label a file “patriarchal violence” or “matriarchal violence,” depending on the person who used controlling behaviour. But other officers explained how risk assessors were asked to check off HBV along with patriarchal and matriarchal violence in a file, and identified issues with not calling files HBV when the DV unit was still checking off cultural elements/indicators or calling it “culturally influenced domestic violence.” Notably, no official term was used in the DV unit or across the police services involved in this study, and participants from this service were uncertain about the appropriate terminology and approach for flagging files. Reddy (2014) argued that seeing HBC as a form of gendered violence helps avoid “the potential pitfalls of designating honour-related violence as a separate species on the basis of the presence of allegedly unique ‘cultural’ factors, such as stigmatisation and stereotyping of ethnic minority communities” (p. 41). Labeling the files correctly might be an important first step in applying consistent terminology throughout the police service.

Theme 2: Police perceptions of training

This theme provides a critical analysis of some of the external police training that either pushes or challenges the political agenda that relates to the process of othering. Participants expressed their frustration with the basic training they received. Claire, a civilian member, explained, “I call it Mickey Mouse training … at the very, very basic level and we need to delve in deeper, if we’re really going to be addressing these issues.” Similarly, Emily, a junior police officer, explained, “[there] is a lack of specific training to give really good tools to then go with, ‘ok, so we’ve identified that this is honour-based violence, now what do we do?’” These comments speak to how police receive some training but still lack the tools to help victims at risk.

A recurring theme in the interviews was the amount of discrepancy in training directed at the police and other helping professionals. Participants explained that different training sessions, sometimes even at the same conference, delivered conflicting messages, which led to uncertainty during investigations. Riya, a senior police officer, noted that:

Different people come to give you different training. And they’re all contradicting each other. And some people don’t even give you solutions. They just say don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this. Ok, then what are you supposed to do?

Riya’s concerns about the confusion caused by divergent views were echoed by many other participants who identified specific ways that current training makes it challenging for police and civilian supporters to respond to HBC and FM. For example, some participants commented on how training that emphasizes the cultural aspects of HBC is not only confusing but concerning, as it can affect how police approach investigations. A civilian member, Trina explained,

It’s challenging in that other things are happening externally, our members are seeing it, and they come back. So for instance, [at one DV conference] there were two different presentations on honour-related violence. One was super racist, and culturally scapegoating and profiling and all that stuff. The other one was challenging, disrupting that, right? Everybody went to the racist one and thought it was all great, ’cause it fits in, ’cause it’s easier to be, you know, like, to have all your categories and, your assumptions, reinforced. Rather than one that’s going to disrupt and challenge that, right? So, our members go to that. They come back with that information, and then we have to somehow get them to unlearn it, or, get them to challenge it.

It thus becomes difficult internally for police services to figure out ways to disrupt the prejudice and racist views that could come from inconsistent training and affect investigations.

In addition, current training often glosses over cultural nuances and potential presentations of HBC in different cultures. Joanne, a senior police officer, commented,

I don’t know if honour-based violence, is it the same across cultures? Is it a, is it, does it have different nuances in each culture? Um … and what [are] those differences and, is the trainer coming from one particular culture? And so focusing on this aspect of it, and sort of glossing over this. So I think there needs to be some kind of, of, you [know], it needs to come together so that there’s a commonality in it, because, you’re going to be trying to cover off a lot of bases with a core bit of information, so, yeah, [that is] real[ly] important … ’cause if I learn from one person and I go back and teach my detachment, and I’ve missed something completely, about, let’s say a Chinese family. What the hell? You know? I’m gonna miss all the cues in that one and go, “oh, no, Chinese people. Don’t worry about honour-based killing.” Well, yeah, they do. You know? But, ah … they might call it something different, or it might manifest itself differently. Or, it might come from the mother instead of the father, depending on if it’s a matriarchal or a, patriarchal household.

Joanne’s comment illustrates the dangers of only showcasing one perspective on HBC, as FV and HBV manifest in different ways in different cultures.

Several participants highlighted the problems with training that blamed men from a particular culture, implying that all men from these communities are violent. Jackie, a senior police officer, commented that the “[HBC educator] … is [insensitively] slamming men. She slammed the men of her culture. … And so that really creates a bias. And it really creates a stigma against the men.” Similarly, a South Asian police officer I interviewed expressed how educators have a tendency to label men from racialized communities as more “barbaric,” which prevents them from speaking out and taking action to end violence in their communities. The officer stressed how training police that men from these communities are more violent does not benefit anyone. It is important for training to be developed in a way that it helps police know what to look for without stereotyping all men from certain communities (see Aujla & Gill, 2014).

Quite a few participants expressed concern with the victim-survivor standpoint that presenters used to portray certain cultures as more violent. Trina, a civilian member, explained,

[HBC educator], I think, is a self-proclaimed subject matter expert. I mean, she’s a woman who, obviously, has survived violence and, and is very much a proponent of, “it’s a barbaric cultural practice,” so it’s rooted in certain culture—from her Punjabi culture. ... She really supports being able to target and identify these specific communities and, really, is about, like, connecting that concept of honour to specific communities.

However, Trina noted that this type of training is “dangerous” because it allows officers to make sweeping statements about an entire group of people and promotes the use of stereotypes, which can cause a lot of damage.

Another senior police officer who previously worked in a DV unit shared how members who had attended that HBC educator’s training were surprised that it had singled out an ethnic community and:

Express[ed] their own concern as well, like, is this how we do things? And I’m like, no. You know ... we approach every circumstance, every event, call for service, with a—fairly and hopefully with a lens that’s bias aware.

This officer counteracted personal experience of cultural training by directing members to focus on bias awareness while completing a DV investigation. Jackie, a senior officer, also indicated that these types of training in the cultural context are misleading and are

Very biased. Very, not very objective. And, and again, I understand why. Because [the presenter] [has] been through that. And I feel for [them], right? But I think the end result, I think, is damaging. And, in a lot of ways. I mean, I don’t think it’s fair for the people who’re dealing with the cultural integration into Canada. I don’t think it’s fair for them to be stigmatized and labeled. And a lot of—I think a lot of them are. So it’s like, “oh yeah, well you’re Muslim, so you beat your wife.” Or you’re, I mean, these are the kind of themes that are being propagated, right?

This finding is consistent with research on VAWG in the South Asian community in Greater Toronto, which included several police participants (Korteweg et al., 2013). Some participants expressed frustration with how the HBC educator portrayed South Asian culture as fixed in traditional practices rather than seeing culture as a meaning-making process.

Some of my participants expressed similar concerns about how this approach to culture and the danger of a single story made it challenging for them to meet the needs of South Asian immigrants in Canada who are experiencing various forms of violence. Survivor-led training can be valuable and powerful for police officers and other professionals if HBC educators do not personify an issue. Effective survivor-trainers of HBC will be cautious not to generalize their own experience to everybody’s experience or individuals from the same community.

In contrast, others I interviewed trusted the information presented in this type of training because it resonated with them, and they found it helpful to hear the victim-survivor perspective. Timothy, a senior police officer stated, “I loved [the HBC educator’s perspective], I think [the survivor-led training] was very, very good … I loved what she had to come [say].” Another senior police officer, Barbara, echoed,

I feel like [the HBC educator’s survivor-led training was] very helpful just to give an inside perspective to see, she had lived through [it] … and had a really good perspective, I mean, this was her field, so it was very informative.

Both Timothy and Barbara considered the survivor-trainer a subject matter expert and did not challenge cultural understandings of violence through an anti-racist lens.

A few participants described more nuanced, credible, and helpful training, commonly referring to it as including anti-racist and anti-oppressive views. Jackie, a senior police officer, appreciated the anti-racist training put on by EPS and I-TRAC as it challenged participants to think differently about HBV as a form of gendered violence. She described the two presenters’ views as “much more rounded. Much less biased [and] culturally hostile. Than [the survivor-trainer]. By far. And I found them to be much more effective in their assessment and treatment.” Jackie felt that the anti-racist training providers used their social work and law training, as well as experience collaborating on difficult HBC and FM cases, to take a more nuanced approach using an anti-oppressive lens. Jackie elaborated:

They come across as, “this is happening everywhere. Let’s try to do something.” And it’s not happening in every single family of a particular [culture], like, … not every Muslim man beats his wife. But, there are certain ones that do. There’s certain ones that are mean to their children. But not everyone is like that. So, you can’t—so they’re not blanketing everybody in that culture with that.

According to Jackie, these presenters emphasized how not all families or men from the same culture, ethnicity, or community engage in this type of behaviour. Similarly, Sandra, a senior police officer, commented that,

You know what, the best thing I took away from that was what, the fact that honour-based violence is not tied to any religion or culture or just, what it actually is. That it’s a family unit that’s controlling another family member in the name of their family and their family name.

Participants who attended the anti-racist training also reflected on how it helped them be careful not to generalize HBV and FM as happening in one culture because transgressions of family beliefs occur in all cultures.

Nonetheless, throughout the interviews, I heard how some police services received the HBC educator’s survivor-led training that profiled and targeted racialized communities, and how several services were moving away from this training. Cathy, a civilian member, explained the challenge of repairing the harm done by some cultural trainers. She explained,

Some of the training that [the HBC educator] developed, I think you need the bias awareness training to counter that? Well, I think because you have all these, say, police officers now who have been trained by [the HBC educator] who are looking for a cultural issue, well, you kind of need to fix that and say, no, you know, you do your investigation and consider that people are different for a variety of reasons.

She further described how some of the anti-racist law enforcement training in Calgary and Edmonton was well-received because it focused on “this is domestic violence and bias awareness” training. Other participants explained how the discourse and training has shifted. Jay, a junior police officer, said:

Some of the agencies, you see how their approach was 5 years ago and how their approach [has] started changing, now, and 5 years ago, it was all against the culture, and the agencies focused more on that. But now, when people started talking, that blaming any certain culture or community is not a solution of the problem, and then you see the same agencies actually coming up with, with different [training that is] more educational.

Similarly, civilian members also touched on how the cultural awareness training they received was not helpful as it pigeonholes everybody. Thus, other training avenues were emerging to help members unlearn racist assumptions and to allow them to check their own stereotypes about people from certain cultures and communities.

A few participants spoke about how the training inspired them to seek out multiple perspectives on HBV, a finding consistent with Gill and Harrison’s (2016) study in which police officers took it upon themselves to learn more. Sarah, a civilian member, explained:

I’ve tried to learn more, at the outset when I first heard the term, and I’ve been to training, I’ve worked with a criminal justice association that brought in somebody from the Greater Toronto Area, that spoke to a group of criminal justice stakeholders about the issue and I think at that time I realized there might be much more to this, so I’ve read extensively about it.

One municipal police service was in the process of rolling out an internally developed e-learning component with a section on terminology, legal changes, and United Nations suggestions around understanding HBV. The belief was that the internal training would provide consistent information about terminology and increase awareness of HBV, since external training did not offer shared understanding or agreement. A civilian member explained,

We’re releasing a[n] e-learning component that actually says, like, you know, what is like honour-related violence. Right? Because we need [police officers] to understand that this term is used, and it’s challenging. Because, at the end of the day, they just need to know, like, what are essentially my marching orders and my tools in my toolkit that I need to use. But, I’m being bombarded with all these labels and this terminology, so, I don’t want to just say, “oh … we just don’t call it that.” And just keep on going, so, it’s like we’re letting them know and unpacking the term, and at the same time we’re also going, “we really don’t want to use the term [HBV], ’cause it’s just problematic.” Like, there’s nothing helpful about it.

The civilian mentioned that the e-learning tool would be accessible to everyone in the police service, from frontline police officers to investigators and civilians, although it would not be mandatory. When I asked whether it would be available to other police services, the civilian said they believed there were benefits in sharing it widely with all interested law enforcement agencies.

Steven, a senior police officer, agreed, and explained the need for consistent training across police services:

Well, I think we have to come out with something consistent and have a consistent [approach], I mean, we’d have to develop something that, this is what all the police agencies in Alberta, or across Canada, are going to define this as [X] and this is what the training is going to be like, and it needs to be consistent across the board.

Participants like Steven acknowledged their current incompetency while calling for consistent training, guidelines, and tools across police organizations in Alberta. While some education and training initiatives on HBCs and FMs do exist, participants also highlighted the need for education and training for new recruits. Overall, the dominant perception was that the diverse range of perspectives on HBC presented in training (e.g., a cultural view versus recognizing it as a form of VAWG) has been confusing. The inconsistent external training has also created more divisiveness on how service providers should respond, and both officers and civilians felt uncertain about how to conduct HBC investigations effectively.

Theme 3. Police understandings of FM and perspectives on the Barbaric Cultural Practices Bill

Many participants were aware that FM occurs without one or both parties’ consent and is often mistaken as an arranged marriage (AM), in which families find suitable candidates for their children to marry, which is not illegal if it is consensual. Participants referenced different forms of pressure (e.g., physical and emotional/psychological distress) from family members (e.g., parents) forcing a child to marry against their will. Bryan, a senior officer, described how both mothers and fathers might use emotional blackmail. Participants were also aware that there could be several reasons for FMs (e.g., pregnancy out of wedlock, economic factors, social standing, or to save family honour). They also identified how males (e.g., in a homosexual relationship) could be victims in an FM, and touched on how children could be coerced into heterosexual marriages if their behaviour had brought dishonour to the family. Participants understood how FM could be a punishment for actions that were deemed shameful, and victims could be of any gender or age. The participants also described how such actions violate human rights, such as the freedom of individuals to do what they desire (e.g., choosing to be in a different relationship and not enter into an FM).

Participants were able to identify warning signs of FM, such as parents showing up at school, removing a child from school and taking them overseas, not letting a child out of the house, and taking away opportunities for education. However, they felt that not all officers would be able to distinguish an FM from an AM or know what to do in response. More importantly, participants stressed the need for more clarification on the difference between the two, because they found it a “slippery slope” to determine what constitutes an FM. It also became apparent in the interviews that some participants still lacked knowledge on FM and AM and were not able to understand the differences. A few officers shared how they now understood what FM was, but when they first heard the term, they used it interchangeably with AM without knowing what it meant. They worried that other officers would experience similar challenges and felt it was important for police to recognize that an FM is not the same as an AM.

Conceptualizing forced marriages in Canada

The “confusion and uncertainty” also surrounded whether FM is a policing matter and whether it is against Canadian law. What are the Criminal Code offences? When does FM become a crime that police have to investigate, and how do they intervene? Many participants thought aloud about whether or not FM is overtly a police issue that is against the law, since all parents hold beliefs and values around their children’s acceptable behaviour. Others expressed how victims could come to the police, but police actions are limited to using the Criminal Code to lay charges, and not all victims want to pursue this avenue. Some police officers who did not have any specific hands-on knowledge of FM shared how they would not know what to do in that situation, highlighting the gaps in police services to support a potential FM victim.

Some participants contextualized FMs in the Canadian context using “shotgun weddings,” in which a father forces a man who impregnated his daughter to marry her, to emphasize that FM is a universal problem that cannot be ascribed to any culture. As Postulart and Srinivasan (2018) argued, “protecting the honour of daughters has a long history in Canada,” and the actions of unmarried daughters were important to the family’s social standing and reputation (p. 452). Melissa, a civilian member, explained FMs as:

You’re 17, you get pregnant. Your father takes the shotgun out, truly, to this guy who’s got his pickup truck and says, “listen. You’re going to marry my daughter.” That’s a forced marriage. That’s very common in our history, here. 100 percent.

Other participants noted that FM is not just a problem imported into Canada from Asian and East Asian countries. Kyle, a senior officer, explained,

I’ve seen it, within Canada as well and certainly within cultures within, and demographics you wouldn’t otherwise expect. Certainly there’s lot of, lots of religious groups that aren’t necessarily, um … Muslim. Which seems to be, a lot of people seem to lock this into the Muslim idea. And that’s not accurate at all. I’ve seen, I mean, you can deal with fundamentalists, fundamentalist Mormons. Bountiful, B.C., seen a lot of these forced marriages. Ah … and even to a lesser extent some of the other religious groups in the area.

As a White officer, he identified dominant misconceptions about HBCs and FMs as these issues are not unique to particular religions or cultures. Many officers were cautious about saying that FMs only happen in one culture or among racialized communities, although some White officers shared personal opinions that FMs were more prevalent in certain cultural groups. Elizabeth, a senior officer, said,

You’re not going to see it in a predominantly White community where they’re serving cabbage rolls and perogies for supper, right? Like ... it’s very, very, very cultural. And it’s cultural specific. But, having said that, not to paint it with a broad brush that every single Muslim individual is subject to this. Right?

A few participants were even more explicit about FMs being more prevalent in Middle Eastern or East Indian cultures. Overall, there was wide variability in terms of participants’ conceptualizations of whether FM exists in Canada and in which cultures or communities.

Bill S-7

Participants also discussed how the more recent focus of new legislation has been to criminalize FM rather than find better solutions to help FM victims. Participants who learned about Bill S-7 during the interviews reacted to the short title and noted the name for later reference. Barbara, a senior officer, was surprised and said, “‘Barbaric’? Wow. It’s very strong. I hope it doesn’t [pass]. I don’t like that at all.” She recognized that it was problematic to say this crime existed within specific communities. Other participants were taken aback by the racist title and reflected on how this approach was offensive, given that it implied that only certain groups have this problem. Riya, a senior police officer, wondered what would be considered “barbaric” and questioned the government’s proposed tip-line to enforce the Bill, saying, “I may not like my neighbour, and suddenly, now, everything that they do is considered in my opinion barbaric, and so, I’m calling RCMP every 5 minutes to report on them.” Riya was concerned that police would receive a tip from a neighbour, attend the call for service, and look at violence through a cultural lens, which would be problematic. She felt that Bill S-7 and the associated tip-line would hurt immigrants because the government discourse would allow police to perceive them as bringing “barbaric” problems to the country. Riya explained,

You can’t just make it this “barbaric cultural practices” exclusive to one religion or one group of people. And, right now, it comes across as that. Right? So, like they’re targeting either the Muslim culture/religion, people from, you know, Africa or Middle East, you know, they’re—it’s like, just like, yeah. Like, gender violence is gender violence. Right? Whether it’s against you, me, white person, green person, brown person, yellow person, whatever you want, you know? Colour doesn’t matter. Ethnicity doesn’t matter.

Riya identified Bill S-7 as a racist and xenophobic law deliberately targeting a specific population, and she rejected the government’s attempt to label this violence as unique to one ethnic group as a misleading stereotype because VAWG is a form of gendered violence that cuts across all ethnicities.

Many participants commented that Bill S-7’s packaging was incredibly racist. One civilian member reflected on their own identity,

You know, I’m First Nation. And, they used to call us savages, right? And so [laughter]. Um … when you use the term “barbaric,” right? That kind of sets me off. … Yeah. Degrading, you know, it’s just degrading. Um … yeah, so, the barbaric word, I don’t like. Right?

The participant connected the government’s history of treating Indigenous people poorly to this attempt to stigmatize new Canadians as barbarians through legislation. Her comment echoed similar comments from the parliamentary proceedings about Bill S-7 (see Abji et al., 2019). Similarly, Trina, a civilian member, commented on how the Conservative government’s words categorized people in a colonial way:

I think there’s racism. I think there’s xenophobia. I think that people that [are in], the dominant sort of culture, and people in power, who are from those communities, don’t want to believe that that’s happening—they don’t want to talk about what’s happening in their world, in their community, amongst their families. If you make it an “other” and then it only happens over there, and this isn’t our issue, it’s their issue. I think that it can almost, largely, be seen as another form of colonization, in a lot of ways, around the way we need to teach, again, using terms like barbaric cultural practice, I mean, that’s such a colonial sort of way of looking at things, right? Like, we are the dominant, mainstream, normal way of doing things. We need to civilize the savages, whether they are indigenous communities of one time or, these new emergent communities that are coming in, they’re bringing in their savage practices and we need to fix them, so they can be normal and proper, into our society. Right? So, I think—in a way, it’s about distracting and being ok with, like, “no, we’re ok, like, we’re normal, we’re fine and everything like that. We’re just gonna need to fix them.” Right? We have to let them know that we don’t do things like that around here. And xenophobia. I mean, I think xenophobia is a huge one, too, right? Because, again, if you look at the way that they took the polygamy within the changes, like, it’s not focused on current communities, like, I mean, there’s obviously other, you know, stereotypes and assumptions about Mormon communities, but, it’s about the fear of the foreigner coming in, right? And then we’re going to reinforce that. That is a pretty xenophobic move.

Trina’s example of polygamy in communities in Canada emphasizes the distinction between the way it is discussed in different contexts, and how the new law describes the problem as a cultural phenomenon specific to racialized communities. As Trina’s suggested, labeling new Canadians this way is xenophobic when many cultures around the world and in Canada practice FM and polygamy. Newcomers are not bringing their “barbaric culture” to Canada, but the government uses enforcement as a way to send a strong message to immigrants that they have to assimilate by leaving behind ideological differences.

In contrast, a few participants did not have concerns with the Bill’s language or context. Cathy, a civilian member, felt that there was no need to create a special HBK or FM law or separate racialized people, since the existing laws cover everything law enforcement needs. She said,

It still blows me away how people react to crime, and how people try and make sense by making it somebody else, like, “oh that's another, that’s some other community, or somebody else’s problem, and we need something special to deal with those, those people.”

Police officers also stressed the numerous policies and sections of the Criminal Code they could already use to lay charges in cases of HBC, such as assault (s. 266), criminal harassment (s. 264 (1)), forcible confinement (s. 279 (2)), kidnapping (s. 279 (1)), and uttering threats (s. 264.1 (1)). Bryan, a senior officer with experience in FM cases, explained how if somebody utters threats like “‘I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill your boyfriend,’ that’s an arrestable offence. You can be arrested and charged for that.” Another senior officer, Jackie, said, “I think [a] new law muddies the waters. I think we have enough laws in place, right now, to cover things. We just have to be taught to utilize those laws.” These officers felt that new laws create confusion and are not necessarily the best approach to take if the existing Criminal Code is sufficient.

Although the existing Criminal Code seems to work for some offences, officers were aware that they would need to act on Bill S-7 once the law was passed, even if it was not effective. Kyle, a senior officer, said, “If the law is passed and if it becomes a law, regardless of whether or not I agree with it, or whether another police officer agrees with it, it’s the law. And it would have to be enforced.” Some participants commented on how Bill S-7 and similar laws are a step in the right direction to advance HBC and FM investigations and said they appreciated the legislation to criminalize FM. Mark, a senior officer, stated:

Honour-based crimes, to me, are culturally motivated. Violence. Mental abuse. You know, confined to your room, confined to the basement. Not allowed to work, stuck in the house. You know? You can still, you can still turn those into western, White, ok, so that’s assault, that’s threats. You know what I mean? We can still use those. You know, are they perfectly set up with the nuances of that? No. But I think these new tools that the federal government provided help [police]. Now we can have that conversation, with the girl who’s about to get on the airplane. You wanna go? Are you being forced by your parents to do this? “I don’t wanna go, I am being forced by my parents.” Boom. Now we can seize her, for her safety. But further than that, now we can go after the parents. Right? Whereas, before June [2015], we couldn’t do that. Right? So, yeah. I think we’re at a better place now than we were three months ago.

Mark touched on the benefits of a specific FM offence that would allow police to offer protections for victims before they are taken overseas and pressured into an FM. Other officers referenced how Canada has followed European countries by enacting legislation to criminalize HBC, mainly FM (Idriss, 2018; Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2010).

Police lack knowledge of their ability to intervene in a forced marriage despite new laws

Despite the developments in legal and policy responses, police and civilians still lack knowledge of Bill S-7 and its amendments to the Criminal Code. The level of knowledge of Bill S-7 varied considerably among both groups of participants, and not everyone knew of a specific charge to criminalize acts of FM. Ryan, a junior officer, explained, “It’s a contentious act that Harper brought in, the barbaric cultural practices or something along those lines. ... Although I’ll be honest, I’m not very familiar with [it]. I don’t think any of us here are.” Jackie, a senior officer, wished politicians would consult with law enforcement before developing new laws:

I think it’s on the way to being rubber stamped and finalized and done. I think [the time to] influence change and circumvent things would have been before. I think it’s too late for that now. Now, down the road, can it be changed once it’s seen to be ineffective and confusing? That’s another story altogether. But it’s gonna take years for that to happen.

Similarly, Nicole, a civilian member, said,

I know there was also a piece of legislation that was fairly recent and, I don’t really know all the ins and outs of it, but I had gone to a training [laughter], and they had talked about some sort of new bill [that] was, yeah, coming in.

A few participants recalled receiving communications about changes to the Civil Marriage Act and the Criminal Code, but they were not aware of specifics. Jay, a junior police officer, stated, “I can go and get training on [FM] or the amendments in the criminal law. But, it would be easier for members to use that training if we have a clear direction.” Jay’s comment demonstrates how police lack confidence and need guidance about their role in interventions since the passage of Bill S-7.

In general, officers expected more information on what new authority the legislation would grant them in an FM situation. Sheldon, a senior officer, understood that if police had evidence that an FM was being planned, they could potentially lay charges against everyone involved (e.g., mother, father, brother, and other extended family and community members). However, he explained that while he recognized what the lawmakers were trying to do, he was not familiar with the charges for these cases or the direction the courts would give the police. Another senior officer, Kyle, saw the “witness who aids or participates in an FM” piece to be vague and was concerned that someone might attend a marriage ceremony while being unaware that it was an FM. Kyle uncovered the limitations of this law: it would not allow police to lay charges unless they had enough evidence to proceed with an investigation to criminalize the numerous actors involved in an FM.


This study confirms that police face many challenges in improving their responses to HBCs and FMs. The “confusion and uncertainty in policing practices” is systemic and rooted in government, media, and training discourses, which raises concerns about a lack of policy and best practices. Participants also acknowledged that the current police response is ineffective as there are no policies and procedures to support their interventions. Within the core category, “confusion and uncertainty in policing practices,” I observed polarized views and tensions with “honour” terminology, training considerations, and the implementation of new legislation that further contributes to stereotyping and racism. However, some of my participants addressed why police must engage in anti-oppressive practices, challenge language to understand this type of violence, seek training that conveys different meanings, and try to understand new laws that reinforce criminalization and dominant media discourses regarding HBCs and FMs.

As discussed, terminology debates have surfaced in police organizations similar to what we have seen in the media discussions of murders and in NGOs refusing to use the term “honour” (Aujla & Gill, 2014; Hogben, 2012; Jiwani, 2014; Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2010). Participants were engaged in similar discussions and meaning-making processes where they disagreed about what terminology to adopt. There is some evidence in the existing literature that language matters, and police services need to be mindful of the terms they adopt. The terms femicide or patriarchal violence carry different meanings, as they do not perpetuate stereotypes towards racialized communities, especially Muslims. As Aujla and Gill (2014) argued, “femicide is not disrespectful or prejudicial towards [racialized] communities, highlighting the fact that these murders are no different than the ones occurring in mainstream communities (e.g., domestic violence homicides)” (p. 154). Thus, language that names the form of violence on the VAWG continuum allows police and other service providers to focus on experiences across cultures. However, participants hesitated when asked what word to use and described tense discussions about terminology that caused “confusion and uncertainty.” As the relevant literature on media and policy debates has suggested, this violence “is real, regardless of its label, and does need to be addressed” (Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2010, p. 3).

A significant finding from my study points to how police training needs to be increased, ongoing, and consistent to help officers and civilians understand HBC and FM as manifestations of VAWG and avoid essentializing cultures. These findings support Gill and Harrison’s (2016) study which found that UK police officers relied on “ad hoc and sporadic” (p. 454) training to respond to intimate partner sexual violence, including HBV. Participants recommended making training consistent, as educators’ perspectives on the topic vary.

At the time of my study, some police services were trying to educate members by bringing in anti-racist training programs. The trainers operating from an anti-racist lens collaborated with one police service (EPS) to develop a non-mandatory web-based course for interested police officers and civilian members. This shows that police services were aware of the concerns with the training being provided and were trying to improve their education strategies by bringing in better trainers.

Despite these changes, police still lack proper training to provide appropriate levels of support to potential victims of HBC and FM. The training needs to cover how police officers should treat these cases with appropriate seriousness and what interventions or follow-up should look like. Police officers still need institutional support from police services to properly assess and record/label such cases. Definitions and common language inform how police officers identify a case and choose appropriate interventions related to the terminology and DV framework police services operate within.

Participants also suggested that training be in-depth, so police are adequately prepared to investigate and handle cases. The individual officer and civilian perceptions of training from this study expand on Korteweg et al.’s (2013) recommendation to strengthen service provision through an intersectional approach that recognizes multiple voices and experiences “rather than privileging personal voices as speaking for the collective” (p. 27). An intersectional approach would address the diversity of survivors’ identities and experiences and help the training to capture the variations of this form of violence more broadly in all communities (see Abji & Korteweg, 2021 on policy implications for survivors’ stories).

Like other nations, Canada enacts legislation in the criminal justice system against HBCs and FMs with targeted zero-tolerance policies like Bill S-7 (see Korteweg, 2012). This study demonstrates a great deal of confusion surrounding Bill S-7 and the direction police should take when dealing with FM. In the interviews, it became apparent that participants demonstrated efforts to comprehend FMs, but some participants questioned police involvement in these situations and reflected on the new law’s purpose, its necessity, whether it would be useful, and whether existing laws were robust enough. A few participants noted that Bill S-7 criminalized and further marginalized racialized communities for not obeying Canadian laws. This finding is consistent with scholarly literature on how Canadian laws should apply to everyone and not single out racialized communities (Aujla & Gill, 2014).

Implications and conclusion

Improving policy and police practice

My analysis also demonstrates police officers’ frustration and confusion surrounding the lack of policies and practices to support a stronger intervention by police. Throughout the interviews, they voiced concerns that the lack of guidelines made them feel stuck. These views suggest that not much attention is given by police services to guide officers in their work to prevent and investigate HBCs and FMs and protect victims within current DV and FV strategies. Thus, I propose taking steps to alleviate the “confusion and uncertainty in policing practices” and guide responses to help police better support victim-survivors of HBCs and FMs. I offer the following five recommendations for policy and practice:

  1. Create a clear national DV policing strategy and guidelines that incorporate how to approach HBC and FM through an anti-racist lens.

  2. Adopt standard terminology in Canada to address HBC and FM as forms of VAWG, so that all social service providers can apply the same definitions.

  3. Develop a mandated provincial police policy for HBC and FM in the existing DV policies and policing guidelines that all police services follow.

  4. Improve training to be in-depth and ongoing, so it challenges biases towards communities, strengthens interventions, and improves the thoroughness of investigations to protect those at risk. Provincial law enforcement training should also include education on identifying and responding to HBCs and FMs within the existing DV policies, as well as within both new and existing legislation.

  5. Set up a federal and multiple provincial police task forces that create plans for institutional police commitment to understand this form of violence across communities (see Janssen, 2018). Alberta’s provincial task force could be established under the leadership of the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General Policy and Program Development Branch. The task forces should consider handling cases and putting forth recommendations for investigations, share best practices and gaps, and liaise with other professionals. They should consist of multi-stakeholders, including civilians (e.g., social workers) from police services who work alongside the police in investigations. The task forces should review Bill S-7 and the Criminal Code to determine whether law enforcement is a useful measure to help victims.

Service gaps can arise from lack of specific information about HBCs and FMs. For example, the non-profit Indo-Canadian Women’s Association is mentioned in the police guidelines, yet there is little direction on why police should connect with them (Government of Alberta, 2020, p. 32). Listing an ethnic organization without any explanation can cause police to stereotype this type of violence as part of only South Asian cultures. Implementing anti-racist policies can assist police to respond to violent situations in specific cultural contexts without stigmatizing racialized communities. Like Fournier (2012) and Hogben (2012), I argue that culturalist explanations are simple and easy to follow, except they do not help frontline professionals working with victims to understand these complex cases. The police must be cautious of training or implementing policies that racialize communities by looking for culturally driven factors of HBV and FM. I suggest a review of what other countries have done and how NGOs, media, and police have played an instrumental role in developing policy (see Begikhani et al., 2015; Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2010). This may allow police in the Canadian context to influence policy-making processes. I would caution against creating a policy at either the federal or provincial level that would further stigmatize racialized communities.

The government’s current strategy on gender-based violence is based on three pillars: “prevention; support for survivors and their families; and promotion of responsive legal and justice systems” (Government of Canada, 2017). I encourage policymakers to coordinate their actions to articulate how HBC and FM can be included in this existing federal initiative to prevent and address this form of VAWG. These actions should include developing best practices for early prevention and supporting intervention programs to address the current gaps that affect the ability of police to support individuals at risk. I also recommend reviewing the Alberta framework for FV to consider including information to raise awareness of HBC and FM that does not presuppose these specific forms of violence are only found in racialized communities.

In exploring the challenges facing police in addressing HBCs and FM, I found that there is divisiveness in naming these forms of violence, polarization in what training approaches to follow, and inconsistency in understanding and applying the new legislation. More attention should be given to how these factors in the Canadian and Albertan context have created “confusion and uncertainty in policing practices” and among other social services. The findings also shed light on the different ways participants conceptualize the issue, thus informing the ongoing challenges and lack of clarity in policing. Highlighting these experiences can benefit police services as it may allow them to gather momentum and implement an action plan.

Police officers are first responders and considered most important when it comes to identifying and managing HBC and FM cases; however, my findings show that police struggle to make sense of how best to support victims and families in disputes where honour becomes the reason for the violence or FM. The Canadian government and police services are responsible for the lack of policy that is sorely needed to help officers improve their level of preparedness and response. From my findings, I conclude that participants recognized the need for better direction from government and police administration. Police officers and civilians were honest about their experiences and sensitive towards doing the right thing concerning intervention in these cases but lacked guidance.


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Wendy Aujla is the BA Criminology Program Advisor and a PhD Candidate at the University of Alberta. Her dissertation examines the perspectives of Alberta law enforcement on “honour”-based crimes and forced marriages within the context of domestic violence. Wendy is actively engaged in community-based research and is passionate about building safer communities free from violence. She serves on the expert advisory panel for the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA) and the Ethno-Cultural Family Violence (EFVC) Committee. She also served as a co-chair and committee member on the annual Diverse Voices Family Violence Conference. Most recently, Wendy was a recipient of an Inspiration Award from Alberta Community and Social Services. She was recognized for her leadership in prevention of family violence in Alberta. Her other research and teaching interests include vignettes in qualitative research, community service-learning (CSL), community-based research (CBR), critical race feminism (CRF), and intersectionality theory.


I thank Dr. Jana Grekul and the two reviewers for their helpful comments.


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