The Shafia Murders, Immigration, and Misrepresenting Canadian Violence Against Women

By Sean Kheraj

George Cruikshank, "The Bottle" Plate VI (1848)

Public debate and media coverage of the Shafia family murder trial has obscured and misrepresented patriarchal violence against women in Canada. Following the guilty verdict last month, lead Crown prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis mistakenly proclaimed that, “[t]his verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and the core principles in a free and democratic society that all Canadians enjoy and even visitors to Canada enjoy.” The verdict and public discourse surrounding this horrific case of family abuse and murder misrepresents both the historical and contemporary status of women in Canada and the prevalence of spousal violence against women. The suggestion that the verdict was a “wake-up call” and an “École Polytechnique” moment for Canadian Muslims, as Sheema Khan wrote in the Globe and Mail last month, mistakenly implies that violence against women and misogyny are not endemic throughout all of Canadian society.

Media coverage and discussion of the trial focused on the notion of “honour killings” and the need to instruct Canadian Muslims about liberal democratic values and gender equality. For example, Rosie DiManno and Andrew Chung from the Toronto Star wrote: “In our country, men and women are equal. A female’s life is worth as much as a male’s.” This, of course, is not true. In 2008, Canadian women earned an average annual income of $30,200 while men earned on average of $46,900. Women’s labour in Canada is more likely to be unpaid than that of men, especially in the care of children, the care of the elderly, and volunteer work. And, most significantly to the Shafia murders, Canadian women suffer from disproportionate levels of emotional and physical violence. According to Statistics Canada, in 2008, more than 8 of every 10 victims of spousal violence were female. And in 2007, almost four times as many women were killed by a current or former spouse as men.

Violence against women and spousal violence are not unique to the Canadian Muslim community, they are systemic throughout Canadian society. In a country with a long, brutal history of violence against women, it is absurd to suggest otherwise. The actions of the RCMP alone should suggest that Canadian society does not, in fact, value the lives of women equally to that of men. Current and former female RCMP officers will soon launch a class action lawsuit against Canada’s national police force concerning an entrenched culture of sexual harassment against women. That same police force was also compelled to apologize for its protracted apathy toward the serial murders of dozens of women by Robert Pickton. Are these the “Canadian values” and “core principles” Crown prosecutors hope to teach immigrant communities?

Hypocritical Canadian attitudes toward violence against women among immigrant communities are nothing new. For example, consider the murder of Elizabeth Fallon in Toronto in December 1911. Fallon was murdered by her boyfriend, Rafaelo Dinenni following a jealous argument. Dinenni beat and killed Fallon over allegations that she had been unfaithful. At his trial in May 1912, upon the strong recommendation of the presiding judge, a jury mercifully refused to convict Dinenni of murder and instead found him guilty of manslaughter, sparing him from a death by hanging. The judge told reporters that he believed that Dinenni, though deserving of punishment, was also entitled to some leniency because, “I realize the difficulty of dealing with Italians who do not understand our laws or our ways, but they must understand the way we insist on women being treated.” [1]

The judicial insistence that new immigrants learn about “our laws or our ways” in the Dinenni case were echoed in the remarks of Justice Robert Maranger in the Shafia trial. “The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders” Maranger stated in court, “was that the four completely innocent victims offended your twisted concept of honour, a notion of honour that is founded upon the domination and control of women, a sick notion of honour that has absolutely no place in any civilized society.” Though the Justice’s remarks were true, they failed to recognize that the domination and control of women by men is not restricted to Muslim immigrant communities, but has been a part of Canadian society for a very long time.

[1] Archives of Ontario, Criminal Assize Clerk Criminal Indictment Files, RG 22-392, box 268, file 8964; Toronto World, 14 May 1912, p.1.

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor of Canadian and environmental history at York University. He blogs at

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2 thoughts on “The Shafia Murders, Immigration, and Misrepresenting Canadian Violence Against Women

  1. Neil Schipper

    Did you intend this article for an assignment in which students have to identify ridiculous argument and hyperbole, Professor?

    Salary disparity is evidence of disparity in worth of life before the law? Perfect gender income equality would be a prerequisite for considering that the law treats crime victims in a gender neutral manner.

    Violence against women and spousal violence systemic throughout Canadian society? Beyond the fact that Canada ranks among the least violent countries on the planet, it turns out it’s not so hard to find unbattered, unbruised women on the bus or at the mall. I suppose there may be a few million of them in hiding or in the hospital.

    Surely you noticed that the Shafia case is an instance of violence *by* a woman. Yet you claim that the judge erred in not decrying Canada’s long, brutal history of violence against women. Conclusion before reasoning?

    So what’s your agenda? A need to establish some post-modernist-feminist cred? Protecting against the slurs of a nasty Islamophobic judge?

    Read wide and deep, think new thoughts!

  2. seankheraj


    Thanks for reading my article. I hope you have a chance to read it more carefully and look at some of the linked references a second time. My agenda is clearly stated in the argument of the article and should be evident with more conscientious and thoughtful reading (along with a quick reference to the meaning of the word systemic).

    Women in Canada are not treated equitably under the law and have not historically been treated equitably. Canadian law prior to the constitutional protections added in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 discriminated against women in both statute and the application of law and judicial discretion. Even in the period after 1982 gender-neutral application of the law has been more of an ideal than a reality.

    Sorry I did not post a response to your thoughtful comments sooner. Better late than never, I suppose.

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