Groundbreaking Inquest in Renfrew County


Transcript

00:00:08 Andrea  

On September 22nd, 2015, Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam were murdered by their former partner in Renfrew County, Ontario. 

Three lives were taken on one day. 

And friends, family and neighbors were left grappling with the pain of it. 

On June 28th, 2022, a jury on the inquest into these women’s deaths recommended that the province declare intimate partner violence an epidemic. 

What does this mean? 

Why is it groundbreaking? 

I’m Andrea Gunraj.  

Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.  We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.     

The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis, and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.   

00:01:25 Andrea  

“This jury is screaming”, said Kirsten Mercer, lawyer for an organization named End Violence Against Women Renfrew County, or EVARenfrew County, at the inquest. “They’re screaming on behalf of all of us in this province, in this country and around the world when they say intimate partner violence is an epidemic and we must name it as such.” 

The jury made a number of recommendations, including the recommendation that Ontario declare intimate partner violence an epidemic, and with the help of a grant from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Eva Renfrew County was able to work with legal experts and hold community consultations to make sure the voices of people in the county were included in the inquest. 

This is a stunning example of the kind of systemic change work that happens with grants from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, all due to generous donors and partners who give towards gender justice. 

People in Renfrew had a lot to say about how this tragedy impacted them. 

They spoke of shock, trauma and re-traumatization because of abuse they’d themselves experienced in the past, as well as feelings of guilt and helplessness. They also shared a unanimous interest in working together to prevent gendered violence into the future.  

Pamela Cross joins us today. She is a feminist lawyer and a well-known and respected expert on gender-based violence and the law. She’s a researcher, writer, educator, advocate, and trainer. She’s the legal director of Luke’s Place Support and Resource Center in Durham, ON. 

Pamela worked with EVA Renfrew County to lead the community consultation process for the inquest. 

00:03:06 Pamela  

I was a feminist long before I was a lawyer, and I brought that feminism into the work that I do. I decided I wanted to become a lawyer because I thought it was a good way to do social justice and social change work. So when I started law school in my mid-30s, I already had a political analysis, I was already involved with violence against women work. 

But law school really opened my eyes to the ongoing structural inequalities that women face, in particular, women who don’t look like me. Women who are marginalized by virtue of race, class, ability, status in Canada and so on. 

So when I left law school, I had a very different perspective on the law than I had when I entered it. Although people always think I make this up, the very first client who walked into my office when I opened my practice, I opened a sole practice, was a young woman, I would say probably in her late 20s who literally ran into my office holding a baby. I was a brand-new lawyer. I didn’t have any money, so I didn’t have a clerk or a receptionist. She ran in, there I was and she said, you have to help me. I just ran out of my house. My husband has a gun and he has our other child. That was a fairly dramatic entry into the work that I’ve done really ever since then, for almost 30 years. 

I became her lawyer and represented her throughout her family law case and then I saw up close and personal just how terribly legal systems respond to issues related to gender-based violence generally, whether that be intimate partner violence or sexual violence.  Obviously, they overlap, but they also have different tentacles to them. 

My work was mostly in the areas of family and criminal law and both of those systems utterly and absolutely failed and continue to fail women. 

00:05:04 Andrea  

Why is this connection between law and gender-based violence so important to you? 

00:05:09 Pamela  

In Canadian culture, largely, people see the law as being the ultimate arbiter of disputes and the ultimate finder of truth. Somebody who’s charged with a criminal offense and then found guilty of that – it’s assumed that that’s the correct outcome. It’s assumed that this is the absolute, final, and most serious way that we can deal with that person. 

When people go to family court to sort out disputes that arise because their relationship has come to an end – the court, we give them all of this power to make decisions and we accept those decisions. Now I’m saying, we in a very general way, I don’t have that opinion because I’ve watched what these systems do in the face of gender-based violence and I would argue that the opposite is the truth. But the fact is that the majority of Canadians engage with these systems, assuming that they’re there to help them. 

When that’s not true, they’re devastated. 

In the case of intimate partner violence, a woman who goes into family court thinking: OK, we’re going to work out the arrangements for our children and dividing up our property. We’ll sort out something about some financial support for me. In the context of leaving a partner who’s been abusive to her, that woman often walks away with an outcome that doesn’t keep her or the children safe. She may not get an equitable division of property or a reasonable payment in the way of child or spousal support. And that person thinks, well, I don’t know what went wrong, it must be something about me, because surely these laws are good, surely they’re here to help people. 

We have to look at the issue of gender-based violence from many, many, many perspectives. The law is only one. It just happens to be the area where I have some expertise and knowledge. And I think it’s critical that we challenge those systems, as a whole, the structure of them, the assumptions on which they’re based, the biases that they bring into the work that they do. We have to challenge those structures, while we also find ways to support women who have to engage with them. 

00:07:18 Andrea  

Tell me about the June 2022 inquest. First of all, take a step back. What are inquests? 

And what is this one about and what role did you play? 

00:07:28 Pamela  

There are inquests in Ontario, as there are in other provinces, on an ongoing basis. In Ontario, mandatory inquests are held in certain circumstances. For example, a death on a construction site always results in an inquest. There are five or six other similar circumstances- the death of a person in the custody of the state, that kind of thing. In addition to that, the coroner has the authority to order an inquest if that person, the coroner, deems it to be of value. 

So inquests operate out of the chief coroner’s office, sort of arm’s length, from the Government of Ontario. In 2015, three women were murdered by the same man. All of them had had past relationships with him. Murdered in the same morning in a rural part of Ontario. The coroner decided in 2019 that there were systemic issues at play in those deaths that warranted the kind of examination that an inquest could offer. 

Why did it take until 2019 for the coroner to make that announcement? Because an inquest can’t be held until any possible legal proceedings are out of the way. So in this case the perpetrator was tried in 2017. His sentence was imposed right at the end of 2017, actually dramatically on December 6th of 2017. Then there was a period during which he could have appealed. All of those periods of time had to pass before there could be any talk about an inquest. 

The purpose of an inquest is not to find guilt or even culpability. It’s to look at the circumstances surrounding a death, or in this case 3 deaths, and then offer recommendations for system changes that would reduce the likelihood that similar deaths could happen in the future. So it’s not uncommon for an inquest to happen quite some time after the deaths that the inquest is looking at. 

Now, in this case, the inquest was further delayed because of the pandemic. Very early on the coroner’s office made the decision that it wanted this inquest to happen in Renfrew County, close to where the women were killed, and in person to the extent that was possible. 

This inquest was to look at the circumstances relating to the murders of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam. Those circumstances, including things like:

What role did the fact that these women lived in a rural community play?  

What was the past history of the perpetrator in terms of violence?  

Did guns play any role in what happened?  

What about system responses, you know, did probation work as well as it could have, what about the police response?  

What about access to services for the perpetrator? Services for the survivors as they were until the day that they were killed? 

The coroner sets out what’s called the scope of the inquest, and in this case there were eight questions identified to frame the work that the inquest would do.  

When we all gathered on June the 6th in Pembroke, a jury had been selected. It’s a five-person jury. That’s the case in all inquests in Ontario, selected at random from people in the community, those people had their privacy protected throughout. We only knew them as jurors 1234 and 5, they were in the room. There was a chief presiding officer who was a lawyer from Ottawa who had extensive background in human rights and labor mediation and arbitration. There was the coroner’s team which consisted of, in addition to the presiding officer, two crown lawyers and a police investigator. 

Then people can be parties to an inquest. Family members have an automatic right to have standing or to be parties, which just really means be involved in the inquest, and in this case the daughter of Nathalie Warmerdam elected to participate in the inquest, and she represented herself. The Violence against Women Coalition called Ending Violence Against Women in Renfrew County was given standing to participate in the inquest and they hired a lawyer to represent them. And then, as is the case, I think in all inquests the province had standing. It was a party and it had lawyers there too. 

And then there were witnesses who there were more than 30 witnesses. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of pages of written evidence that the jury also had to consider. One of the folks who attended the inquest on a few occasions said to me at one point, I feel like I’m taking a graduate level course in intimate partner violence. So much information was provided by these more than 30 witnesses who spoke to many, many aspects of intimate partner violence generally, responses to it and services to support those who are in those situations generally, but then also people speaking specifically about facts related to this case. 

I wore three different hats at the inquest. First, because of work I’ve done in Renfrew County for a couple of decades, I was retained by the women coalition’s, EVA, to ensure that the voices of community members were heard in the inquest process. And I was able to do that work because EVA received funding from CWF to support it. What I did was to hold consultations in the community in April and May. Those consultations happened in person electronically by telephone, in groups and one-on-one. 

And I asked two questions. 

What was the impact of the murders on you personally? 

And what ideas do you have for changes so this never happens again? 

Based on what I heard, I wrote a report which is now publicly available, which was submitted as evidence at the inquest along with my testimony about it. 

Second, I was retained by the coroner’s office as an expert witness on the topic of intimate partner violence (IPV). I wrote a report looking back over the last 40 years or so in Ontario on this topic, what is IPV? How do we understand it now compared to how did we understand it in 1980? And how have responses to it changed over that period of time? Obviously, I talked a lot about challenges and failures.

But the third thing that I did, and in a way I’m still doing it, was this I attended every day in person. And now I’m working on a report that will, among other things, provide a feminist analysis of the proceedings and the recommendation. 

But I want that report to also be a kind of toolkit, so that when the next inquest comes along and I don’t mean to sound negative in anticipating that there will be another one, when that does happen, I want women organizations, especially small organizations in small and rural communities, to have a toolkit to assist them in engaging with that process because cynicism aside, inquests are very important. They are a very grassroots look at, in this case 3 deaths, in other cases perhaps only one, and they provide an opportunity for regular people in the form of the jury to contemplate what went wrong and to suggest ideas to make things better in the future. 

00:15:17 Andrea  

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00:16:04 Andrea  

And the jury’s recommendation that intimate partner violence be treated as an epidemic. It got a lot of media coverage. 

What does it mean and what will it do for us? 

00:16:13 Pamela  

It was a stunning moment in the room, I can tell you that. The inquest had ended on the Friday and the jury had gone away to consider what recommendations it would bring back as part of its verdict. The jury had been given suggestions from the parties and their lawyers- 72 suggestions, actually, of possible recommendations. 

So they spent a couple of days on their own and we all came back together on the following Tuesday after having. And the jury had 86 recommendations. They included all of the recommendations that had been suggested by the parties and their lawyers, and I should just say, by way of a footnote, the recommendations have to fit within the overall scope that has been set for the inquest by the coroner. So in other words, all of the recommendations had to fit somewhere within those eight questions that the coroner had set out way back in 2019. And they also had to reflect the evidence. They have some parameters around what they can do. They then read their recommendations out loud, taking turns. The five of them. 

It was a very somber and moving moment, but when the first recommendation was read that the Government of Ontario declare intimate partner violence to be an epidemic, you could feel the emotion move through the room. I had goosebumps. I had tears in my eyes. And I think many of my colleagues who were there felt the same way. 

But your question is a good one. What does it mean? You know lots of people said that to me in the few days after: So what? big deal. 

I think it means a whole lot. 

First of all, and maybe most importantly, it has enormous symbolic value. Because it validates for anyone who has survived IPV or who is living with IPV now, that what has happened to them, what is happening to them is real, and it’s wrong. 

We know that many of those who are victims of IPV, who are survivors of IPV turn their lens to themselves. 

It’s about me. What did I do wrong? There’s something wrong with me. 

But if this is an epidemic that’s like the flu, that’s like COVID, that’s like chicken pox. 

It’s not my fault. 

Second, it makes it a public health issue. Epidemic is a word that we associate with medical situations. Well, IPV should be seen as a public health issue. It should be seen as a public health crisis, and now that this word is attached to it, if the government adopts this recommendation, it will do that. It takes it away from being a women’s issue or a feminist issue and makes it a public health issue that all of us need to engage with. 

Third, it opens the door for political action to address it. Once you have an epidemic, there’s a political responsibility to respond to it, just like we saw with COVID over the past 2 1/2 years. 

Fourth, I would hope that declaring IPV to be an epidemic might make it easier for survivors to come forward. For communities to engage in conversations. And generally for intimate partner violence to come out of the shadows, where it has lurked for a very long time. 

There’s huge possible positive ramifications from this recommendation. 

Of course, it has to be implemented. 

But even before that, as you said Andrea, the media have really seized on this, so it’s a concept that’s out in the air now. It’s got people talking about it, whether they have any personal involvement with gender-based violence or not. 

00:20:04 Andrea 

What other recommendations stood out to you? 

00:20:06 Pamela  

Obviously, whoever you talked to who was part of the inquest would answer this question differently. And I want to stress that because I’m looking at it through my particular lens and that is a legal lens. I’m going to mention four recommendations that I think are outstanding, but I don’t want that in any way to be heard as any suggesting they’re more important or that other recommendations are less important. 

The second recommendation is that the government establish an intimate partner violence commission. I think this would be fantastic. It would be arm’s length from government. It would be led by somebody who’s not a bureaucrat, doesn’t owe political ties to anybody. It would have a body of commissioners and it would oversee how systems in Ontario are responding to intimate partner violence, including femicide. It would have the opportunity to critique, to make suggestions, to support, and so on. 

The third recommendation is also important. Unfortunately, the recommendations made by inquest juries are nonbinding. They don’t have any authority. The government can pick and choose which ones, if any, it wants to implement. And we’ve seen over the last just over 2 decades from earlier inquests into domestic violence homicides that very often little effort is made to implement recommendations. So the third recommendation from this inquest is that an independent implementation committee be established to oversee the implementation of these recommendations, that would require any government body that had responsibility to implement a recommendation so any body that did not do that would have to report back to that implementation committee with an explanation of why it chose not to implement the recommendation.  

As many of your listeners probably know, Canada has had a system of what’s called mandatory charging directives in place since the mid-1980s. These were directives given to police forces across the country that said, when you respond to a domestic violence call, it’s your required duty to lay charges if you think there’s any evidence to support proceeding. That was a big change from what happened before 1985, when the police would often arrive at the scene of a domestic violence incident and with the two partners standing next to each other in the living room or on the front porch and the children lingering around, would look at the woman and say, do you want to charge him and most women said no, not surprisingly. So, mandatory charging was a really good idea in 1985. We’re coming up on 40 years. We’ve seen so many unintended negative consequences, which I’m not even going to start to elaborate here right now. It’s time to review that, and the jury has recommended that just that happen- that the whole process of mandatory charging be reviewed to see whether it’s actually helping or whether it’s causing more harm than good. 

And finally, in terms of the four recommendations I picked out as standing out for me, the jury has recommended that the Criminal Code be revised to include the term femicide. So that the murder of women because we are women, be seen as a particular kind of criminal offense and not just another homicide number. That matters for a lot of reasons. Kind of like declaring intimate partner violence an epidemic. It has a lot of symbolic value. 

But it’s also important for things like data collection. If all that a police force releases at the end of the year is a number of homicides. You know there were seven homicides in this town last year, there were 27 in this other one, it’s a lot of work for researchers to go through and be able to pull out of those stats, which of those were acts of femicide? If it becomes a term in the Criminal Code and if police have to code for it, could be very helpful in the research work that is a necessary part of increasing our understanding of violence against women and of gender-based violence. 

00:24:24 Andrea  

And tell us Pam, what can every one of us do to end gender-based violence in our own lives? 

00:24:29 Pamela  

There’s a lot that people can do. 

You don’t have to be an expert. 

You don’t have to work in this area. 

You just have to understand that gender-based violence is a serious problem in our society, that just because we have things like a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, just because we’re financially or economically better off than folks in many other parts of the world, doesn’t mean that women and people who identify as women are not at risk of being subjected to violence because of that fact. 

First of all, we all need to do more work to call out misogyny and sexism in all its forms. That’s everything starting from sexist jokes and assumptions through to things like the insistence that people have to buy one kind of toys for girls and another kind of toys for boys. That means going into your local department store and saying, why do you have a section called Girls clothes and one section called Boys clothes? Let’s get rid of misogyny, sexism, and all of these gendered stereotypes and assumptions that still exist in our communities. 

It’s important that all of us become better informed about intimate partner violence as well. Julie Lalonde spoke to this as a witness at the inquest and talked about the importance of being a bystander who knows what to do when we see something happening that we know is gender-based violence. 

How can we offer help and support in a way that’s safe for the victim and for us? 

How can we be a disruptor when IPV is happening? 

What can we do after the fact? 

What can we do when we have seen things, whether it’s a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, a family member, that make us think-Well, there’s something not good going on in that relationship. 

It’s not hard to learn more about IPV. 

We also need to support the gender-based violence services in our communities, shelters, sexual assault centers and so on. 

And there’s lots of ways to do that. 

The way to start is to send them an e-mail or give them a call and ask what they need. 

They might need money. 

They might need donations. 

They might be looking for volunteers. 

They might be looking for board members.  

You can get involved as much or as little as you want, but there’s almost always something pretty much all of us can do to support those services. 

One of the really, really, creative ideas that I heard in the community consultations that I’ve just been thinking about so much since the inquest ended, is this- all communities have things called something like community safety strategies. These are generally focused on criminal activity like car theft and break and enter. Why don’t we make IPV part of those community safety strategies? 

We can talk as communities about what we need to do to make our communities safer for women and children. And that is partly a strategy of talking to other folks in our community, but it’s also a matter of engaging our municipal governments. And Ontario has municipal elections this fall, so what better time than now to start talking to those folks who want to be our municipal representatives for the next few years about whether they’d be willing to do this.  

And finally we need to talk to our kids. This is not an adult topic of conversation. This is an issue that can be talked about, obviously in age-appropriate ways, with very young children, so they understand what is appropriate behavior and how they should respond when somebody is engaging in inappropriate behavior with them. 

00:28:08 Andrea  

Alright, now what? Pamela gives us great direction on how we can challenge gender-based violence every day in our own lives in simple ways. 

You can also read more about the inquest and the recommendations themselves at lukesplace.ca.  

Please listen, subscribe, rate and review this podcast and share it with others. If you appreciate this content, if you want to get in on the efforts to build a gender equal Canada, please donate today at canadianwomen.org and consider becoming a monthly donor. And thank you for being tireless in your support for gender justice. 





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