Death sentence for mothering

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Montreal massacre, and the misogyny-caused deaths of women continue. Here is just one story.

On November 5th, Michele Messina (MM) killed herself in Quebec’s Leclerc Prison. She was a woman fleeing abuse who, like so many others, had to take matters into her own hands to keep herself and her children safe.

Hers is a long story, which has been covered extensively and respectfully by Matthew Behrens in I am going to provide only a brief summary of the facts leading up to MM’s decision to end her life; a decision that she would not have had to make if Canadian governments and courts had done the right thing.

More than a decade ago, MM left her highly abusive husband in Georgia (U.S.). She initially had custody of their three pre-teenaged children. She entered rehab to deal with her alcohol dependency, no doubt developed as a coping response to the severe abuse she had been subjected to for two decades and, while she was there, her husband was able to get an order granting him sole custody with no contact to her.


The children, already highly traumatized by being exposed to years of their father’s abuse of their mother, reported to her as well as to various state authorities that their father abused them physically and emotionally. They begged to be allowed to live with their mother and often ran away to be with her. She was frequently involved with the courts for allegedly breaching the custody order, and eventually refused to have any contact with her children.

In 2010, the three children ran away from their father and lived for a short period of time in an abandoned house. They contacted their mother, but she refused to take them in because she feared the consequences of doing so. Eventually, she relented because of her concerns for their well-being.

MM and the children were all dual citizens of Canada and the U.S., and her adult daughter from a previous marriage as well as her mother lived in Montreal, so she and the kids fled to a women’s shelter there.

Despite repeated findings by child protection authorities in Quebec that the children were in good hands with their mother and clear evidence that she had not abducted them, the American court system was determined to have her returned to the U.S. to face criminal charges.

Legal collusion

MM was arrested from the shelter where she and the children were living, the kids were put in foster care and she spent six months in jail awaiting bail. During this time, the father made no attempts to see them, was almost impossible for child protection authorities to reach by telephone and provided no indication that he wanted the children to live with him. He never referred to the children by their names.

The legal battle raged from 2010 until MM’s death in November, ending when Canada’s Supreme Court declined her leave to appeal a lower court decision approving her extradition to the United States. MM was living in the community on bail for much of this time, free from any alcohol dependency, raising her children, all of whom are now adults, and caring for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s.

Institutional femicide

MM may have ended her own life, but her death is an act of femicide:

“Michele’s final, desperate act might be more accurately described as the result of a years-long, slow-drip act of institutional femicide.”

Had the institutions she turned to understood violence against women properly, she would be alive today. Instead, the laws and those who make and interpret them, chose to ignore the realities of abuse against women in families and, instead, to see MM as a bad mother who abducted her children from their loving father.

To protect MM and her children would not have required a new law or even a novel interpretation of the existing law. Section 285 of the Criminal Code states that no one shall be found guilty of parental abduction charges:

“if the court is satisfied that the taking, enticing away, concealing, detaining, receiving or harbouring of any young person was necessary to protect the young person from danger of imminent harm or if the person charged with the offence was escaping from danger of imminent harm.”

This is a legal defence not available in the United States so, had MM been extradited, there is little doubt she would have been found guilty of abducting her children and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

Four Ministers of Justice – both Conservative and Liberal — as well as both the Quebec Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada had the opportunity to do right by MM and her children, and every one of them failed.

First mourn, then act for change

December 6th offers us an opportunity to remember the ongoing deaths of women at the hands of men and take action to end those deaths. We need to understand this to include MM and other women, who like her, end their own lives because of both individual and systemic violence.

We need to call on the new government – not just the Liberals, but the Bloq and the NDP who hold the balance of power – for real accountability. The recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls must be implemented now. It is past time for Canada to develop and implement a National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence.

Why? Because it is 2019, and because 30 years of white ribbons and roses is enough. The time for serious government action is now.

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