Ontario should declare intimate partner violence an epidemic, inquest jury says

Basil Borutski arrives in a police vehicle for an appearance at the courthouse in Pembroke, Ont., on September 23, 2015. A jury is set to present a verdict and recommendations at a coroner's inquest into the deaths of three women in rural eastern Ontario today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Nearly seven years after her mother was murdered, Valerie Warmerdam remains furious over systemic inaction on intimate partner violence and wants to see change.

A weeks-long coroner’s inquest examining the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Nathalie Warmerdam, as well as Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk, officially wrapped up Tuesday, with a jury sharing a verdict and a list of 86 recommendations aimed at preventing similar tragedies.

Warmerdam, Culleton and Kuzyk were killed on their properties in the Renfrew County area of Ontario on Sept. 22, 2015, by Basil Borutski, a man they were in previous relationships with and who had a known history of violence against women.

The recommendations are largely directed at the Ontario government, including formally declaring intimate partner violence an epidemic and establishing an independent commission dedicated to eradicating it.

“These recommendations are a good start — if they’re actioned. That’s a big if,” Valerie Warmerdam said at a press conference.

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Warmerdam said she wasn’t holding her breath going into the inquest because as previous inquests have shown, recommendations that come from them aren’t always adopted.

She particularly pointed to one recommendation made in a 1998 inquest that never came to fruition. It called on the Solicitor General of Ontario to issue a directive encouraging police to use their authority under the Criminal Code to search and seize weapons and firearms acquisition licences from an individual for safety reasons in domestic violence cases.

The inquest heard that Borutski was banned for life from owning weapons of any kindin 2014, but he still had his firearms possession and acquisition licence card that may have allowed him to purchase the gun he used to kill two of the three women.

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“There are so many changes we need to make, but seeing that the one thing that I’ve thought should be simple enough, that even among all of these complex things, we should be able to action that, seeing that it had been requested as a recommendation by an inquest 24 years ago and still didn’t seem to have seen great action,” said Warmerdam, who participated in the inquest.

“I am furious, and I want change.”

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Among the inquest recommendations were several the jurors proposed, in addition to the suggested recommendations that lawyers and Warmerdam shared with the jury last week.

Kirsten Mercer, counsel to End Violence Against Women Renfrew County, praised the jury’s recommendation to declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic.

“This jury is screaming and they’re screaming on behalf of the families who we acknowledge, they’re screaming on behalf of the women whose voice is lost or silenced by the fear and the violence they live with,” she said.

“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 also recommendedthat the province establish a 24/7 hotline for men to prevent them from engaging in intimate partner violence, establish an emergency fund to help women seek safety from this form of violence, and create the role of an advocate for survivors regarding their experience in the justice system.

As well, thefederal government should implement the National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence in a “timely manner” and explore adding the term “femicide” and its definition to the Criminal Code, the jury recommended.

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Pamela Cross, a lawyer and expert on violence against women, praised the jury for the femicide recommendation.

“When women are killed because they’re women, that’s different than first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, or the general term homicide,” she said.

“As my old friend and colleague said to me many years ago, … ‘If we don’t name the problem properly, we will never find the right solution.’ And we have to do that.”

In their verdict, the jurors determined that Culleton, Warmerdam and Kuzyk all died by homicide. Culleton’s cause of death was upper airway obstruction, while Kuzyk and Warmerdam both died of shotgun wounds in the chest and neck, they noted.

Presiding officer Leslie Reaume thanked all those involved in the inquest process, including witnesses who “gave so generously of their time,” along with the women from the anti-violence community in Renfrew County and beyond.

“I sincerely hope that this inquest will lead to real and lasting change,” she said.

Cross echoed that remark.

“The script has been handed to all of us, not just those of us who do this work every day, but all of us, every member of every community in this province and country, everyone who’s engaged with legal systems, policing systems, social service systems, survivors, their families, neighbours, friends and families, … the media, politicians and decision makers,” she said.

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In a written statement, the Ministry of the Attorney General said it would “take time to review and properly consider these important recommendations.”

“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,” the ministry said.

“We thank the jury and all participants for taking part in this difficult inquest.”

— with files from Sarah Ritchie

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