MONTREAL - A psychiatry professor at Newfoundland's Memorial University who has studied so-called honour killings said he is working with Justice Canada to define the term in the hopes that it will be included in the Criminal Code.
"The legal system in Canada was not familiar up to now about the context of honour killing and now cases are coming up," said Dr. Amin Muhammad, who estimated it has surfaced in about a dozen cases in Canada.
Muhammad says it is becoming more common as people from countries where such acts persist immigrate to Canada.
He's currently working with Justice Canada to properly define "honour killing," the premeditated murder of a female relative believed to have brought dishonour upon her family, typically by engaging in pre-or extra-marital relations.
The term came up Thursday in the case of the deaths of three Montreal sisters and a caregiver who were found in a car submerged in the Rideau Canal. Police allege the four had been murdered by the girls' parents and brother in a possible "honour killing."
The accused father in the case, Mohammed Shafi, had told police the deaths occurred as the family was headed home after vacationing in Niagara Falls and had stopped for the night at a Kingston hotel. He said the family was travelling in two cars and that he awoke to find one car missing.
Noting the so-called honour killings are not condoned by Islam and are illegal in many countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan even if perpetrators are not always prosecuted for such crimes, Muhammad said many try to use their religion and culture to defend their actions.
"They try to use the Canadian government's leniency towards respect for different cultures," he said, noting cases often get bogged down in the courts.
On Thursday, police in Kingston, Ont., charged Shafia, his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya and their 18-year-old son Hamed Mohammad-Shafia with four counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Earlier this month, the bodies of their daughters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, were found dead in the family car which had somehow been submerged in the Rideau Canal near Kingston.
Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, was also dead inside the vehicle. She was initially believed to be a cousin but police now say she was actually Mohammad Shafia's first wife.
While police alluded to differences in cultural values, they would not disclose a possible motive for the killings, but indicated they were investigating allegations from a family member that it might be an "honour crime."
The allegations against Shafia, his wife and son have not yet been proven in court.
The family spent 15 years in Dubai before moving to Montreal two years ago.
In May, an Ottawa jury convicted Hasibullah Sadiqi, 23, of two counts of first-degree murder. Born to Afghan parents, the Indian native gunned down his 20-year-old sister Khatera and her fiancee Feroz Mangal, 23, in 2006.
The so-called honour killing was an attempt to restore his family's status after the couple moved in together before their wedding.
Jamal Kakar, executive director of the Afghan Association of Ontario, said arrests in the Shafia case have "shocked" Canada's approximately 120,000 strong Afghan community.
"It's really unbelievable to me," he said Thursday, noting colleagues are "very disappointed and very saddened" by what's happened.
He said culture shock is a very real problem for new immigrants and that it's not altogether uncommon for situations to become violent.
Organizations like his assist families with the transition, provide mediation and help newcomers understand the rules of their adopted country. He's calling on the government to invest more into services and resources for new immigrants so that things like honour killings won't happen.
"Every immigrant community needs services to prevent these types of incidents," he said.
According to the United Nations, as many as 5,000 girls and women are murdered every year around the world as part of so-called honour killings.