14. Victimology

14.3 Measuring Victimisation

Dr. Jordana K. Norgaard and Dr. Benjamin Roebuck

Crime, and the factors related to it, are complex and can be measured in a variety of ways (Cotter, 2021). As discussed in 5 Methods and Counting Crime, data collected from the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and victimisation surveys offer different information on crime; some differ in the populations they sample from, such as offenders versus victims, while others make different assumptions about the reliability and validity of their data (Winterdyk, 2020). In Canada, victimisation surveys are primarily used to help uncover crimes that have not been reported to the police, otherwise known as the dark figure of crime. These surveys can be conducted in a number of different ways in order to obtain more detailed information on different crimes and their impact, such as the injury and cost to victims and/or survivors, as well as to better understand why some crimes do not come to the attention of the police. The decision to report or not report a crime is dependent on a number of factors, ranging from the type of relationship the victim has with the perpetrator, the nature and severity of the crime, the circumstances of the crime, the victim’s previous contact with police, and the level of confidence the victim has in the criminal justice system (Fisher et al., 2016; Sinha, 2015).

General Social Survey

The largest administered victimisation survey in Canada is the General Social Survey (GSS). Established in 1985, the GSS asks Canadians about their experiences with criminal victimisation, including incidents not reported to the police, as well as a number of socio-demographic questions. These questions provide relevant stakeholders with more detailed information to examine victimisation rates across different populations and jurisdictions (Cotter, 2021). Results from the most recent GSS survey in 2019 reported 8 million incidents of criminal victimisation. It is estimated that one in five (19%) individuals (almost 6 million people) 15 years of age or older in Canada reported that in the past 12 months they or their household had been a victim of one of the eight [1] types of crime measured by the GSS (Cotter, 2021). This is in stark contrast to the 2.2 million incidents reported to police in 2019 (Moreau et al., 2020).

A number of other smaller surveys seek to gather further information about the experiences of victims not captured in traditional standard surveys like the GSS.  Listed below are some examples. (see 5. Methods and Counting Crime)

Students’ experiences of unwanted sexualized behaviours and sexual assault at post-secondary schools in the Canadian provinces (SISPSP): A 2019 survey that measured the nature and prevalence of unwanted sexual and discriminatory behaviours and sexual assault among students of Canadian postsecondary institutions.

Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces (SSPPS): A 2018 survey that explored Canadians’ experiences of safety at home, in the workplace, in public spaces, and online. The survey is intended to inform interventions to prevent gender-based violence. Like the GSS, this survey is carried out every five years.

Violence Against Women Survey (VAWS): A 1993 survey of Canadian women aged 18 and over that examined women’s safety inside and outside the home, focusing on issues such as sexual harassment, sexual violence, physical violence, and perceptions of fear.

Canadian Urban Victimization Survey (CUVS): A 1982 survey of adults aged 16 and over from seven urban cities in Canada (St. John’s, Halifax/Dartmouth, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver) that asked the extent and distribution of selected crimes, the risk of criminal victimisation, and the functioning of the criminal justice system.

Transition Home Survey (THS): A biennial survey starting in 1992 developed by the federal government’s Family Violence Initiative aimed at reducing incidents of family violence in Canada. The THS is a census of all residential agencies providing services to battered women and their children across Canada.

Indigenous Research and Reports

  • The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (1999): This inquiry was commissioned by the Manitoba government and was mandated to investigate the racism in Manitoba’s justice system through a forensic probe of both the 1971 homicide of Helen Betty Osborne and the 1988 police shooting of J.J. Harper. The inquiry resulted in a report outlining 296 recommendations, some of which included calls to better protect Indigenous women and girls, better coordination between police, social workers, and abuse teams to deal with women involved in domestic violence, more community-based policing in predominantly Indigenous populations, and cross-cultural training among police officers and justice officials.
  • Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry [PDF] (2012): This inquiry and report examined the conduct of police investigations into the disappearance of nearly 50 women reported missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside between 1997 and 2002.  The final report outlined seven critical failures in the police investigations which included (but were not limited to) the failure by the police to fully investigate serial killer, Robert Pickton, not taking proper reports on missing women, not using available investigative strategies to solve the case, and the lack of an effective internal review of the external accountability of police work.  The report stated that there was “isolated” bias to the missing women investigations that allowed “faulty stereotyping of street-involved women” and that police failed to recognise their duty to protect an endangered segment of the community.  The report includes 63 recommendations to improve supports for missing persons investigations, improve police training and standards, and support Indigenous-led solutions to mental health and wellness.
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action [PDF] (2015): This commission was undertaken to document the history and lasting impacts of the Canadian Indian residential school system on Indigenous students and their families. The commission concluded that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide.  The final report outlines 94 calls to action to facilitate reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

A growing number of commissions and inquiries captured in these reports have demonstrated the devasting impact of colonial and patriarchal policies that have disproportionally harmed Indigenous peoples, in particular Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people. At the same time, there are growing calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous men and boys who are murdered and go missing at a higher rate than women (CBC News, 2015; Guyot, 2022).

Highlight Box 1: Documentary and Discussion Guide – nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up

nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up (52 minutes) by Tasha Hubbard – NFB

nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up – On August 9, 2016, a young Cree man named Colten Boushie died from a gunshot to the back of his head after entering Gerald Stanley’s rural property with his friends (Hubbard, 2019). The jury’s subsequent acquittal of Stanley captured international attention, raising questions about racism embedded within Canada’s legal system and propelling Colten’s family to national and international stages in their pursuit of justice (Hubbard, 2019).

Challenges to Measuring Victimisation

One of the biggest challenges in conducting victimisation research involves operationalising criminal victimisation. Definitions directly affect how concepts will be measured in victimisation surveys (Fisher et al., 2016). In survey research the quality of the data  obtained from the survey depends on how questions are worded, how they are asked (e.g., face-to-face), and how they are interpreted by respondents. Consider the following questions below in Highlight Box 2 to illustrate the importance of wording in survey questions.

Highlight Box 2:

  1. At any time in your life, have you ever been the victim of violence?
  2. Since 2016, have you been a victim of family violence? Family violence is defined as any harm (physical, psychological, financial), or threat of harm.

These questions would result in very different responses from the survey respondent. Therefore, it is critical to consider how questions are asked in surveys and whether the questions will generate reliable findings that can be generalized to the greater population.

Another challenge victimisation surveys face is the mode of data collection. Victimisation surveys can be administered in a number of ways, such as in-person, over the phone, online, or through the mail. As Fisher et al. (2016) note, even carefully constructed questionnaires will fail to produce useful data if the method of survey delivery is flawed, resulting in low rates of participation or questions that are not answered. Researchers must consider who the target audience is and choose what mode of delivery is most appropriate. For example, a researcher interested in studying partner violence may decide that in-person or telephone interviews are not appropriate. Victims of partner violence may be unable to participate in the survey without risk of harm from their partner. They may be unable to leave their household and/or talk freely without fear of being harmed or threatened. Instead, it may be better to employ the use of an online survey where victims can discreetly respond to the survey in the absence of their partner.

Lack of intersectionality is another obstacle in conducting research on criminal victimisation. Many surveys are unable to capture the true prevalence of criminal victimisation due to under-reporting and/or misrepresentation of the experiences of marginalised populations such as those who identify as two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGBTQQIA+), racial and ethnic minorities, individuals who have a disability, and people experiencing homelessness. This incomplete knowledge not only provides inaccurate and distorted information regarding the scope and nature of criminal victimisation, but it is also used to inform policies and practices that ignore, and potentially harm, marginalised groups (Brubaker et al., 2017).

Highlight Box 3: Hard to Measure Crimes: Sexual Assault

Historically, sexual assault is a vastly under-reported crime. According to the 2019 GSS, approximately six percent of sexual assaults were reported to police, making it the most under-reported crime among those measured in the survey (Cotter, 2021). Respondents of the 2019 GSS reported the main reasons for not reporting their sexual assault victimization to the police include the crime was too minor, not worth taking the time to report, matter was personal or private, handled informally, did not want the hassle of dealing with police, not enough evidence, felt the police wouldn’t have considered the victimization important enough, did not think the offender would be convicted or adequately punished, and/or fear of retaliation.

The #MeToo movement has played a significant role in bringing widespread attention to the prevalence and under-reporting of sexual violence within society. The movement was first established in 2006 by American activist Tarana Burke, after her own experience of sexual violence (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2021). The term re-emerged in 2017 with the “#MeToo” hashtag on social media after a series of sexual assault allegations were made against a number of high-profile figures and celebrities. The hashtag called on people to share their experiences of sexual assault and harassment. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation (2021), #MeToo has been called a “watershed moment in the advancement of gender equality”, providing a powerful platform to women to demonstrate the extent of sexual assault and harassment across society (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2021, para 2).

According to data reported by police to the UCR Survey, there were 23,834 victims of founded sexual assault (levels 1, 2, and 3 combined) in 2017, representing a 13% increase from 2016 (Rotenberg & Cotter, 2018). In particular, nearly 2,500 victims of sexual assault were reported by police in Canada in October 2017 alone (the same month #MeToo went viral). Furthermore, changes to the definition of “founded” in the UCR has led to an increase in reporting. An offence is defined as founded so long as there is no concrete evidence that the crime did not occur (Statistics Canada, 2018). This has impacted the number of sexual assaults reported to the police and may help explain changes to the overall crime trend of sexual assault.

  1. Crimes include sexual assault, physical assault, robbery, theft of personal property, break and enter, theft of motor vehicle or parts, theft of household property, and vandalism.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Jordana K. Norgaard and Dr. Benjamin Roebuck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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