03/16/2012 12:11 EDT | Updated 05/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Honour Killing: Harper Talks About Crimes In Shafias' Home Town

MONTREAL - Prime Minister Stephen Harper recalled the Shafia killings while visiting the family's hometown of Montreal to underscore Ottawa's support of a program to prevent so-called honour crimes.

Harper visited a Montreal centre for victims of family violence Friday to denounce crimes against women and girls committed in the name of "honour."

He called honour crimes "barbaric" and "heinous" before promising nearly $350,000 to help fund a program led by The Shield of Athena Family Services to prevent these practices in the city.

"Recently, the tragedy of the Shafia girls touched Canadians profoundly," Harper said in a speech at a community centre.

"All Canadians, regardless of the colour of their skin or which god is in their prayers, have the inalienable right to security and life.

"It's our homework to ensure that the victims of these incomprehensible murders did not suffer for nothing."

Three members of Shafia family were convicted earlier this year of killing four others in a so-called honour crime. The four bodies were found in June 2009, in a car submerged in a canal in Kingston, Ont.

Employees at the family-violence centre used the prime minister's visit to share anecdotes with the visiting media about their work.

Melpa Kamateros, executive director of The Shield of Athena Family Services, said she detects an increase in the number of "honour" crimes reported in the last few years. She believes that's because more people are aware of the issue and are more willing to speak out.

"We've had cases that very much resemble the Shafia case and we've addressed them in a certain way, and clearly we haven't had any negative impacts in those cases," Kamateros said.

She described one example where a woman was severely assaulted by a weapon, then brought to the centre: "A male member of the family did not like the way she dressed and did not like her attitude," she said.

The centre offers services in 14 languages, raising awareness in various communities about abuse and about the legal rights of women in Canada.

The prime minister's trip was far from the Conservative government's first foray into the hot-button "honour" crime issue.

Past pronouncements on the issue did not always go well, however.

Federal minister Rona Ambrose touched off weeks of confusion in 2010 when she suggested "honour" crimes could be added to the Criminal Code. The remark mortified some criminal experts who noted that such a policy would only add to prosecutors' burden of proof, and actually make it harder to convict killers.

After a number of vague and contradictory statements from various quarters of the government over a period of several weeks, the Harper Tories ultimately renounced the idea.

The Canadian Council of Muslim Women has warned against the use of the term "honour" crime, arguing that it separates women into categories, based on their particular racial or ethnic group.

Alia Hogben, the organization's director, said allocating this money toward preventing violence against women moves the cause forward, but linking it directly to this specific type of crime is a "backward step."

"If it's violence against women, it's violence against women," Hogben said Friday in a phone interview.

Hogben, a social worker with 30 years' experience, said when violence against women leads to murder, the case should instead be referred to as "femicide."

She was also disappointed that so much money was given to one organization when there are needs to fight violence against women across the country.

Harper addressed several other issues Friday as he responded to reporters' questions during his visit to the federal riding of Outremont, which is held by NDP leadership hopeful Thomas Mulcair.

Asked about the likelihood of the Conservatives one day electing a female party leader, Harper replied that the only woman to hold the Prime Minister's Office was a Tory. He said he hopes Canadians will see that again one day, though he noted it's up to ridings to choose their candidates.

Harper was also asked whether he has given ammunition to Quebec separatists after a string of federal decisions that have been unpopular in the province. He responded that he's witnessed the opposite, saying he believes he's seen the sovereigntist movement decline since the Tories came to power.

He also said his government has no intention of reopening the debate on the death penalty because he doesn't believe there is a public consensus on the subject.

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