The inquest into the September 22, 2015, murders of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam is drawing to a close. It brought me to Renfrew County on Sunday June 5th, and I have been here ever since. I’m going home tomorrow, but I’ll be returning next week when the jury shares its recommendations.
For the past 20 days, my world has consisted of little more than my hotel room (fortunately, I had the foresight to book a suite with a kitchen, so I’ve had some space to spread out and have been able to make most of my meals), the hotel where the inquest is being held and the route between the two.
Very quickly, the inquest fully occupied my mind and soul, leaving me with almost no idea about anything going on beyond the four walls of the inquest room.
Most evenings, I manage to make my way through the emails that accumulated during the day, throw together something to eat and prepare for the following day, before I indulge myself by pouring a glass (or two) of wine or tequila and escaping into an episode (or two) of Downton Abbey. After one particularly difficult day, I stared at four episodes before I felt removed enough from the proceedings to head for bed.
Bed, but not necessarily sleep: it’s been rare that I have not spent a couple of hours in the middle of the night reading and, on a few occasions, I have abandoned the notion of sleep altogether by 3 am.
It’s hard work
If that’s what it’s like for me, an outsider, I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for those much closer to this story. Nathalie’s daughter, Valerie, for example, has standing at the inquest. She is representing herself, poring through hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of disclosure – much of it about what happened to her mother – listening to testimony day after day and questioning witnesses with precision, persistence and, usually, compassion. Her courage and tenacity are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Every day, I sit with the community workers who supported Nathalie and Anastasia, coming to know and care about them. Their caseload did not go on hold for these three weeks, and they often have to leave the room or tear out of the parking lot at lunch time to assist a client who has an immediate need, but they have been here day in and day out.
We’ve heard from survivors of gender-based violence, who have appeared as witnesses to share their stories, reliving some of the most traumatic events of their lives. Because of their courage, the jurors have had the opportunity to feel the reality of intimate violence. These five people – three men and two women from this community — are having what is, in effect, an intense IPV course as they listen to witnesses and review evidence. That’s not easy. Even for those of us who work with this issue every day, much of what we hear is painful.
I have nothing but admiration for the jurors. They appear every day with a pleasant hello for the presiding officer as they are walked into the inquest room. They listen, take notes and ask questions: smart, challenging questions through which their disappointment or frustration at how systems fail women seeps. I suspect their lives will be changed forever by this experience.
The lives of others have been changed by this inquest, too. Yesterday, before proceedings got underway, the young woman and man who have masterfully managed the technology that has allowed this inquest to operate both in person and virtually told us how much they had learned and made plans with local service providers to provide tech support to their clients.
The women’s community in Renfrew County and beyond has done an amazing job supporting those of us directly involved with the inquest. They booked a room in the hotel across the street where there was always food, drink and human company for anyone who needed a break from the inquest. They made sure there were allies in the room every day of the proceedings, even as they also kept their own services running. They gave peace lilies to the witnesses and brought homemade snacks and treats most days.
At some point during the second week, a colleague from whom I had not heard in years emailed to ask if members of the public could attend. Of course, I said, and since then she has driven almost two hours to get here on five different occasions. Her quiet presence and the conversations we have shared over lunch have given me much needed hope and energy.
Today, the Executive Director of the shelter in a neighbouring county, who has been a witness herself, brought four staff so they could see what an inquest is like.
The hybrid format of the inquest has allowed people who couldn’t travel to Pembroke to attend virtually. There have been between 90 and 100 viewers each day, which means the important information we are hearing in the room is being shared broadly. More lives changed; more people inspired to insist on changes.
All of us, whatever our roles at the inquest, are bearing witness to the lives and deaths of Carol, Anastasia and Nathalie, and to the thousands of other women and their children whose lives are torn apart by men who abuse them.
It’s been a tough three weeks, and I will be very glad to go home tomorrow. I can’t speak for anyone else, but there hasn’t yet been a day when I didn’t cry at some point. I’ve also been angry a lot; angry that we still have not made ending gender-based violence a societal priority.
As a result, women continue to die. In a one-week period during the inquest, three women in Ontario — Kay Kriston, Henrietta Viski and Vanessa Virgioni – were killed by their former partners. In at least two of those cases, there had been a documented prior history of IPV, including police involvement.
As the jurors head into their own room later today to formulate the recommendations they will present early next week, I have only one thought:
This time, we can – indeed, we must – make sure those recommendations don’t sit in a binder on a shelf gathering dust. This time, they must be meaningfully implemented. This time, it is time to make the changes that are needed so women do not continue to be killed by men who say they love them.