Limiting information about violence against women is dangerous — here’s why

Click to play video: 'A woman was killed every 60 hours in 2018'
A woman was killed every 60 hours in 2018
WATCH: How has violence against women changed since the École Polytechnique massacre in 1989? A look at the numbers – Nov 28, 2019

In September 2015, an Ontario man picked up a shotgun and drove to the cottage of his one-time partner, Carol Culleton.

He didn’t end up using that gun on her, according to his statements to police. Instead, he broke the window with his elbow, unlocked the door and strangled the 66-year-old former public servant with a piece of cable.

He then drove to another home in Renfrew County, outside of Ottawa, and shot and killed Anastasia Kuzyk, another former partner, while her sister was upstairs.

He killed one more woman that day: Nathalie Warmerdam, whom he chased through her farmhouse before shooting her at point-blank range.

“There is a huge hole in our lives and our family. Daily we walk under a black cloud,” Warmerdam’s mother, Maz Tracey, told the court at the trial of Basil Borutski, who has been sentenced to life in prison.

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A small memorial to Anastasia Kuzyk, Carol Culleton and Nathalie Warmerdam, photographed in 2016 at the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County. Leslie Young / Global News

In 1989, the École Polytechnique massacre propelled the issue of violence against women to the fore of the Canadian conscious, putting women’s rights and feminism under the microscope. Yet, 30 years later, to be a woman in Canada still means living with risk — to live knowing that, on average, a woman is killed every other day, that once a week a woman is murdered by her partner and that one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence over the course of their lives.

Data like this is hard to get, though, and getting harder. As more organizations seek to curtail access to basic information on gender-based violence, experts in the field are sounding the alarm.

Click to play video: 'What is violence against women?'
What is violence against women?

There is a lot we know about that Borutski’s violent rampage in 2015 and what led to it: the women’s names, their ages, how they were killed and that one of them was so afraid of Borutksi — who had been in relationships with all three women and gone to jail twice over accusations of threats and physical assault — that she slept with a gun under her bed.

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Warmerdam, Culleton and Kuzyk were three of the 178 women killed in 2015, according to Statistics Canada data.

We know a lot more about the 2015 case, much more than just the fact that three women were killed.

Now, imagine if we didn’t know the murder weapons, the history or the fact that Borutski had already been to jail for violence against women. These are important details, researchers say, because knowing this information can help to identify patterns and, hopefully, prevent future gender-based violence.

“If you don’t have good data, then it’s impossible to have evidence-based policy and prevention initiatives,” says Myrna Dawson, professor at the University of Guelph and director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory.

“If we don’t have data that can suggest to us who are the individuals who are much more likely to be at risk of different forms of violence, who are those who are most likely to be at risk of potentially perpetrating different types of violence, what sort of system contact they had — if we don’t have good data, we don’t have prevention.”

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So what do we know?

Far more women than men are victims of intimate partner violence, according to police-reported data.

Yet this data is imperfect information that doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story.

Sure, police investigate homicides — how can they not? But the reality is that most people who experience domestic violence don’t actually report it, according to Holly Johnson, who recently retired from the University of Ottawa’s department of criminology.

“It’s pretty shocking to see that some very serious sexual assaults and some very serious cases of domestic violence aren’t reported to the police,” she says.

“And reasons that victims give for that is things like they’re terrified of the perpetrator, obviously. They don’t trust the police. They don’t want to get involved with the police and courts because they’ve heard horror stories.”

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Without an offence called “domestic violence,” Dawson says, even if something is reported, it’s up to the police to determine what does and doesn’t count, and their definitions and training can vary.

“There’s occurrences and there’s non-occurrences,” she says. “And non-occurrences usually mean that the police have been called out and they’ve deemed that there is no offence to be pursued.”

Even police homicide data might not show everything we want to know, Dawson says, especially details like whether the victim or the perpetrator had been in touch with the police before, if they had ever sought psychological help or help for addictions, or otherwise been in contact with a government department or service.

Click to play video: 'Broken: Global News series on Canada’s ongoing failure to end violence against women'
Broken: Global News series on Canada’s ongoing failure to end violence against women

Domestic violence death review committees (DVDRC), which are run by the coroner’s office in six provinces, take into account some of that extra information surrounding the death by examining domestic homicides in more detail.

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They provide more clues into what’s happening in these cases.

In cases of domestic homicide, according to the Ontario DVDRC, most victims are killed by cuts or stabbings. These victims can include women, children and men, though adult women make up the majority of cases.

Domestic homicides share a lot of things in common: most often, a prior history of domestic violence, a pending or actual separation and a perpetrator with depression or who displays obsessive behaviour.

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Data on violence against trans women and non-binary individuals is even harder to find. A 2013 report from the Trans Pulse Project, which surveyed trans people in Ontario, found that one-quarter of respondents reported being hit or beaten up because of their gender expression. Statistics Canada reported 31 hate crimes targeted at trans and asexual people between 2010 and 2017, noting that three-quarters of those involved violence.

“I think we’re largely concerned with preventing violence in our society,” Dawson says.

“Without data, it’s equivalent to me saying we have no knowledge. And how do you build prevention initiatives without knowledge?”

Recently, the Ontario Provincial Police stopped reporting the gender of homicide perpetrators and victims in media releases. The Edmonton police only began regularly reporting the names of homicide victims this June, which it hadn’t done for two years, after women’s shelters and other groups said withholding the names contributes to stigma around domestic violence.

“Women need to be more than statistics,” Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, said last February.

The OPP’s policy has been in place since May, says Staff Sgt. Carolle Dionne, a spokesperson for the force. Gender is not used as an identifier in media releases, she says, though gender-specific pronouns may be used at times.

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“Regarding victims of crime, for the most part, if we release their name, it will be indicative of their gender,” she says.

“If we do not release their name, we may refer to them by gender, such as ‘an elderly female’ or ‘female victim.’ We will also, of course, refer to gender when it is a necessary indicator, such as missing persons, threats to public safety, suspects, etc.”

Advocates shouldn’t rely on information from a media release, she says.

“Media releases do not represent an accurate picture of all the incidents involving domestic violence.”

Dionne recommends they instead request official data from Statistics Canada or through freedom-of-information requests.

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Dawson calls the OPP move “concerning” for more reasons than just how it affects research into domestic homicide prevention.

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“When we don’t identify the gender of the victims and the perpetrators in these cases, we miss a critical educational component that could help make people more aware of what’s going on in their communities and in their society,” she says.

The more information that’s out there, she says, the better chance people have of understanding violence against women and domestic violence and their attitudes towards it. Then, they can work to change things. Several researchers and organizations, including Dawson’s own, are studying the problem with the ultimate goal of preventing violence.

Some things have changed over the last few decades, Dawson says. We understand a little better some of the risk factors for domestic homicide — things like a woman recently leaving her abusive partner.

But women keep dying. And, Dawson thinks, we haven’t yet addressed the attitudes in our society that “continue to justify, condone and tolerate different forms of violence — particularly violence against women in the context of their relationships with men.”

The way to tackle this problem isn’t by hiding information away, she says.

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“It’s to help the public understand more about what’s going on in their communities so they can understand some of the dynamics they may come into contact with.”

Part of a monument to women killed in Renfrew County, Ontario, photographed in 2016. Leslie Young / Global News

In the Ottawa Valley, where three women were killed four years ago, there’s a monument to 23 women killed in Renfrew County. Their names and ages are carved into a stone, with three recent additions: Anastasia, Nathalie and Carol.

It’s a record, of sorts, a list written under the title “We Remember.”

The data shouldn’t just be written on stone.

— with files from the Canadian Press


To read the full Broken series, go here. For a list of resources if you need help, go here.

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Our reporting doesn’t end here. Do you have a story of violence against women, trans or non-binary people — sexual harassment, emotional, physical or sexual abuse or murder — that you want us to look at?

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