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Canada looks to Chicago to reduce 'honour' crimes

Saleha Khan, right, Board Member at the Muslim Resource Centre in London, Ont., speaks with executive director Mohammed Baobaid, centre, and Norman Kerr, director of Chicago's CeaseFire program, at the resource centre on Jan. 23, 2012.

Geoff Robins For The Globe and Mail/geoff robins The Globe and Mail

At first glance, gang crime in a U.S. city would seem to have little in common with the family conflicts that led to the killing of several women in Canada in recent years.

But one Canadian group is taking ideas gleaned from the streets of Chicago to tackle the troubling phenomenon of so-called honour crimes.

The Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration in London, Ont. will announce Tuesday that it has a partnership with the renowned Chicago anti-violence group CeaseFire to develop the Family Honour Project, which its creators hope will soon spread to other communities.

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The initiative, the first of its kind in Canada, is based on the work of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, whose public-health approach to violence reduction has been credited with contributing to a significant reduction in gang shootings in Chicago.

Although gang shootings and family honour crimes seem quite different, at their core they share one important cause: Both are driven primarily by the fear that a person's reputation or image will be harmed if he or she doesn't respond violently to being treated with a perceived lack of respect.

The CeaseFire approach suggests that if conflict can be identified and calmed before it spirals out of control, casualties can be avoided. Ultimately, it aims to teach those prone to react violently to change the way they think.

The difficult part is identifying where violence might break out, understanding why that's the case, and developing a line of communication so that counsellors can defuse the situation.

Norman Kerr, who was a director at CeaseFire for more than a decade and who is working with the MRC, said much of the work depends on building relationships. In Chicago, CeaseFire used ex-gang members as counsellors. In London, they expect to use social workers. Those social workers will need to be tapped into all aspects of a community's life, from school, to the health system to the justice system, in order to gather all kinds of information about who needs support and how to provide it.

"A huge part of [the violence]is the way people feel they're going to be viewed," Mr. Kerr said. "We work with people that [feel]they have been disgraced. We talk to them about the consequences – "If you retaliate, this is what is going to happen" – and after a while they realize it's not worth it. A lot of it is relationships."

One of the reasons London's MRC was chosen is that it has a long and successful history working on issues of family violence. It's also a smaller city with a significant Muslim population. There are four mosques, including one for Shia worshippers and for Bosnian Muslims, but the range of ethno-cultural differences is not as complex as it is in other, bigger cities.

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In recent years the city has welcomed dozens of families from war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. When interviewed by counsellors in the MRC's safe integration program, many exhibit warning signs for potential honour-related crimes, according to Mohammed Baobaid, executive director of the MRC.

"If you have effective strategies for identifying the risk factors of so-called honour-related violence, you can reduce the possibility of honour killing," he said. "If you intervene right when newcomers come to the country, it makes a huge difference."

Dr. Baobaid said they often see families struggling with their teenage daughters.

"They are really concerned that their kids will be influenced by Western culture and they maybe will think, extremely, that the girls will initiate sexual relationships with boys. This kind of perception or thinking may lead some parents to be strict or use different control tactics to control the kids," Dr. Baobaid said.

"We honour their concerns and feelings, but at the same time we help them understand the new reality. Really we help them look at the opportunities available here and normalize this kind of concern, because everybody who has a teenage kid would be concerned, not just Muslims."

Cross-gender conflict seems to be a red flag, according to Eugène Tremblay, program manager at MRC. For many families their sense of public standing is carried in the behaviour of the female child, he said, which can lead to strife in a new cultural milieu.

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"Our hope is to change the entire paradigm around how honour is viewed in the family, and to change it for the positive, so that homes become safer," said Saleha Khan, an MRC board member.

The MRC will have two people working as counsellors initially, but they haven't yet secured funding for the Family Honour Project. It will also be supported by family violence researchers from the faculty of education at the University of Western Ontario.

The idea behind this unusual collaboration began with Sheema Khan, a columnist at The Globe and Mail, who contacted Dr. Slutkin and suggested that his model might be applicable in Canada. He suggested she find a partner organization that was trusted by Muslims and well-regarded in the wider community. She chose the MRC. She said she hopes the project will be expanded to South Asian organizations more broadly, and perhaps grow beyond Canada to Europe and elsewhere.

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About the Author
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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