Advocates will be ‘making a lot of noise’ to push Ontario to address intimate partner violence

Advocates will be ‘making a lot of noise’ to push Ontario to address intimate partner violence

The coroner’s inquest jury that heard 14 days of evidence about what they declared an “epidemic” of intimate partner violence has been asked to join an effort one year from now to measure how far the Ontario and federal governments have come in responding to 86 recommendations meant to prevent gender-based violence. 

“I hope you’ll be back,” Kirsten Mercer, a lawyer representing a local coalition called End Violence Against Women Renfrew County, told the jury during the inquest’s closing arguments. “You might consider inviting the relevant ministers.”

“We’re going to be making a lot of noise until we start to see things being implemented,” echoed women’s advocate Pamela Cross, who testified during the inquest.

The Pembroke, Ont., inquest examined the tragic 2015 murders of three women — Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam — and used it as the springboard for a larger conversation about how to combat the problem of intimate partner violence and better protect survivors in Renfrew County and beyond. 

Women’s advocate Pamela Cross speaks during a news conference after the inquest wrapped on June 29, 2022. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The jurors — three men and two women recruited from the communities of Renfrew, Griffith, Petawawa, Chalk River and Pembroke — heard about a raft of challenges.

To name only a few: a lack of communication between different courts of law, underfunding of services for survivors, inadequate treatment programs for convicted abusers, the need for more training of law enforcement and court workers dealing with intimate partner violence cases, and problems particular to rural communities such as spotty cellphone and internet service and a dearth of transportation and housing options for both survivors and their abusers.

Missed opportunities in monitoring the convicted and imprisoned murderer in the years and months before he killed Culleton, Kuzyk and Warmerdam took up testimony stretching over three days. 

The jury in the inquest came back with 86 recomendations on how to prevent gender-based violence. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

After hearing 72 suggestions — many of which they adopted — the jury delivered a sweeping list of 86 recommendations, largely to the Ontario government, on how to remedy the issues raised during the inquest. 

“We thank the jury and all participants for taking part in this difficult inquest. The government will take the time to review and properly consider these important recommendations,” Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General said in an emailed statement on behalf of the entire government. 

“Our thoughts continue to be with the victims’ families and friends, and all those who were impacted by this tragedy. Every woman has the right to live in safety and with dignity, free from intimidation and the threat of violence.”

A smaller portion of the 86 recommendations — including a call to consider adding femicide to Canada’s Criminal Code — were directed to the federal government. The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability at the University of Guelph defines femicide as the killing of women, primarily by men, because they are women. 

“The government of Canada is committed to ending all forms of gender-based violence, including intimate partner violence, and addressing any gaps in the criminal code, to ensure a robust criminal justice system response and will carefully review the inquest recommendations,” a spokesperson for the federal Ministry of Justice said via email. 

While the jury has called on the province to consider the potential of electronically monitoring high-risk abusers, the Ministry of Justice spokesperson pointed to a Liberal Party bill which, if enacted, would require bail courts to consider an electronic monitoring device for people charged with an offence involving the threat of violence against an intimate partner. The bill underwent its first reading in the Senate earlier this month. 

Checkup a needed ‘pressure tactic’

One of the suggestions jointly made to the jury by the Office of the Chief Coroner, EVA Renfrew County and Warmerdam’s daughter Valerie Warmerdam was for those groups to meet up in one year “to discuss the progress in implementing these recommendations.”

The jury incorporated that idea into its own slate of recommendations, which were announced on Tuesday.

“The jury will be invited to attend,” a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Coroner confirmed. 

The agreement to regroup went hand in hand with a call for parties responding to recommendations — in this case the Ontario and federal governments — to be legally required to report back on whether they acted on a recommendation and if not, why.

Recipients are currently asked to respond and, to the disappointment of people like Leighann Burns, there’s no public database to display any updates received. 

Lawyer Kirsten Mercer represented a local coalition called End Violence Against Women Renfrew County during the inquest. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Burns, a family lawyer who works with domestic violence survivors, said the plan for inquest participants to return in a year is vital.

“If only as a pressure tactic, but hopefully as a report back that they’ve done an immense amount of work,” she said of the Ontario government. 

Valerie Warmerdam, who testified during the inquest about her mother’s efforts to protect her family from the murderer, said the recommendations are a good start.

“If they’re actioned,” she added. “It’s a big if.”

Lack of earlier action leaves daughter ‘furious’

Burns said that while the jury did its job well, the concerns they raised were all too familiar because recommendations from previous inquests dealing with intimate partner violence many years ago have not been acted on — causing them to be brought up again. 

For example, she pointed to recommendation 60 of the Renfrew County murders inquest, which calls for bail and probation conditions to at least consider a plan to remove an offender’s possession and acquisition licence (PAL).

A similar recommendation was made during a coroner’s inquest in 1998, as Valerie Warmerdam learned with great disappointment while preparing for the inquest into her mother’s death. 

While the man who murdered her mother said he found the shotgun he used to kill Warmerdam and Kuzyk, police could never verify that account. The murderer — who was on a lifetime weapons ban — still had his PAL on him when arrested for the triple homicide, raising the question of whether having his PAL allowed him to access a deadly weapon. 

“To see that [seizing a PAL] had been requested as a recommendation by an inquest 24 years ago and still didn’t seem to have seen great action, I was furious. I am furious and I want change,” Valerie Warmerdam said. 

Nathalie Warmerdam’s daughter Valerie Warmerdam took an active role in the inquest. (Jean Deslisle/CBC)

Burns was happy to see the Renfrew County inquest jury recommend a review of the practice of mandatory charging, which requires police to charge someone with assault if they feel they have reasonable grounds to do so.

The inquest heard that some survivors fear they may suffer more abuse if their partner suspects they’re responsible for the charges.

“I think people generally think, ‘You call the police, they lay a charge and it goes smoothly,’ which is not what happens in reality,” Burns said. 

Data from police services on the practice of charging has become increasingly hard to acquire, making that process more “opaque” and in need of clarity, she added. 

Jury also recommends specialized training

Retiree Mark Darroch was among the people who sat in person to listen to the jury read off its recommendations for an hour. 

Darroch helped provide community and social services for 35 years, including in Renfrew County. He said he was glad to see the jury’s call for robust funding of shelters and other organizations that help survivors of abuse.

They need money for full-time staff and for transportation when a survivor needs to flee to another community to escape their abuser, he said. 

“I’ve witnessed the tears from [an] executive director about not having enough money,” he said. 

Ian DeGeer, a former child protection worker who testified at a domestic homicide inquest in 2001, said front-line police officers face an increasingly steep learning curve.

“Mental health to opioids to intimate partner violence to theft under $2,000 — [they] have to know so much and they can’t specialize in anything,” he said. 

The jury has set the goal for every police detachment in the province to have an in-house expert on intimate partner violence.