Inquest juries in Ontario are required to answer five questions after listening to the evidence presented to them. Those questions are:
- Who died?
- What was the manner of death? (natural causes, accident, homicide, suicide, undetermined)
They are also permitted, but not required, to offer recommendations for change.
In the inquest into the murders of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam, the jury heard a great deal of evidence, presented to them by witnesses as well as in the form of written documents. The jurors, like the lawyers for the parties, were able to ask questions of any witnesses. They did so, often with very pointed questions that left those witnesses squirming.
The jury provided its verdict on Tuesday. The answers to the five questions had never been in doubt, so those were quickly read into the record by Leslie Reaume, the presiding officer. She then turned to the recommendations. As I wrote here earlier in the week, the parties and their lawyers presented 72 recommendations for consideration to the jurors last Friday. They incorporated all of them, some slightly tweaked, in their verdict, but also added 14 of their own.
Usually, the chief presiding officer would read the recommendations but, in yet another demonstration of how collaborative this inquest has been, Leslie Reaume invited the jurors to read them into the record. They did so, slowly and deliberately, as they passed the microphone from one to another.
The first recommendation, one of the 14 developed by the jury, calls on the Government of Ontario to
“formally declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic”
The ripple of excitement that moved through the room as this recommendation was read by the jury foreperson was palpable. That excitement is justified. An official declaration that IPV is an epidemic will formally and publicly acknowledge the extent of this problem. It will validate for those who have been or are being subjected to it that what has happened/is happening to them is real. It will open the door to institutional action to address and end IPV, because it will make it more difficult for those institutions to deny that the problem exists.
Bringing it to a close
The inquest began with a vigil at the women’s monument, and we returned there Tuesday evening for a closing vigil. This time, we were joined by two of the jurors. Emotions were high after an extremely intense three weeks.
I was one of the speakers. Here’s what I said:
We’ve been on a lengthy journey; one that started long before September 22, 2015, and one that will continue long after today. It’s a journey that women around the world have been on since the beginning of time: a journey from a place of misogyny, sexism, inequality and violence to a place free from all of them.
It has been an enormous honour for me to accompany you on part of this journey, and I want to thank you for inviting me to walk with you. I plan to continue to accompany you as we move into the future.
It’s a future that I have hope will include change. Too many women and children have died – here, across Ontario and Canada and around the world – for us not to start getting it right.
There have been inquests before; inquests that have produced hundreds of recommendations, many of which have not been implemented. The same can be said for recommendations that have come from the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee. And for legislative bills that have not passed into law.
But this inquest has felt different to me from the beginning. Prabhu, in his role with the Coroner’s Office, has gone out of his way to create a process that was inclusive and expansive. The parties, through their lawyers – and in Valerie’s case, through herself – have worked collaboratively rather than adversarially. Leslie, the chief presiding officer, provided the process with firm direction, doing so gently and respectfully. The witnesses worked hard to educate the jury and assist in the process.
And the jury: really, what can any of us say about these five people, selected at random, plucked from whatever they may have had planned for the month of June, who sat and listened attentively, asked thoughtful and challenging questions and never wavered in their focus?
They are members of this community and are now ambassadors in the work to end intimate partner violence. I suspect their lives have been changed forever by their experience.
They have left us – individuals, this community, the province, the country – with 86 compelling recommendations, leading with the powerful call to the Government of Ontario to declare that IPV is an epidemic.
While the inquest is over, the next step is waiting to be taken: creating the political will to see that these recommendations are implemented.
I have hope, which I find, not in Doug Ford, Justin Trudeau or any other politician, but in us. We have made change happen in the past, and we can do it again.
“Do your best, then do a little better. And, then, don’t beat yourself up.”