“No concern for public safety”

When the story of a family of four found dead in their home in Harrow – a small community in southwestern Ontario — broke on June 20th, police described the situation as an “unimaginable tragedy.” They indicated they did not know the cause of the deaths and would be conducting a “sudden death investigation.” The victims were described initially as an adult male, an adult female and two children and, later, as two parents and their children.

The police also said that there was “no broader concern for public safety.” This phrase and others similar to it have become code – to those of us who work with victims and survivors of family violence and no doubt to many others as well – that the story involves family violence.

Over the next two weeks, the family members were identified, first unofficially and then officially. Media coverage told us about the mother and her children, but nothing was said about the father.  When details about the funeral arrangements were made public, we learned that they were for the mother and children but not the father.

And yet, it was not until July 6th, 16 days after the bodies were found, that police said the deaths appeared to be a triple homicide/suicide; an act of intimate partner violence. We learned officially what many of us had already figured out: Steven Walsh shot and killed his wife, Carly, their 13-year-old daughter, Madison and their eight-year-old son, Hunter, before shooting and killing himself.

Why the delay?

There’s a better way

There’s a different way to handle these situations. On October 23rd of last year, a mass shooting in Sault Ste. Marie left one woman and three children dead, the children’s mother injured, and the shooter dead from self-inflicted injuries. When police chief Hugh Stevenson spoke with the media that day, he immediately identified the situation as one of intimate partner violence. Names of the victims and perpetrator were not released until proper notifications were made, and the police conducted a thorough examination in the following days and weeks, but Stevenson named what had happened for what it was and did so right away.

We’re not going to end intimate partner violence, including homicide, if we don’t name what we know is going on. As the Sault situation showed us, this can be done in a way that is respectful to survivors, victims and family members and that does not interfere with a proper police investigation.

Other police forces should pay attention and learn.


See It Name It Change It (SINICI) is an ongoing public education campaign initiated by Lanark County Interval House and Community Support that developed out of a series of community forums held in 2016/17. The forums were held in response to seven family-violence-related deaths in seven months between September 2015 and February 2016, all of which took place in rural communities. Those deaths included women killed by their partner or former partner, a woman killed by her son who then killed himself and a man killed by his daughter’s former partner, who intended to kill her, and then killed himself.

The forums provided a space for survivors, family members, legal professionals, community workers, politicians at all levels of government and members of the communities where the deaths had occurred to come together to share stories, talk about the impact of the deaths on them and their communities and think together about what changes were needed.

I had the honour of facilitating those sessions. They were moving, powerful and inspiring. While there was little to no pick up on the ideas that were generated by the provincial government (we provided them with a report and recommendations), there was lots of pickup at the community level.

SINICI is one example of that. Through a number of initiatives, it aims to raise public awareness about violence – in families, at schools, in workplaces and in the community – but also to encourage people to name what they are seeing and to take action to disrupt it. The campaign video is a powerful public education tool, and the tip sheets for teachers and community members provide helpful and practical suggestions for what people can do, as do the five Ds of being an active bystander.

Getting started

Communities and municipal governments have engaged in seeing and naming intimate partner violence at an unprecedented level since the CKW inquest, which are the first two steps in ending that violence.

The provincial government has been slow to implement important recommendations made by the CKW inquest jury. However, it is presently studying Bill 173, which would name intimate partner violence as an epidemic. Over the summer, the Standing Committee on Justice Policy is holding hearings with experts to assist it in deciding how to move forward with the bill. Apparently, it will also be travelling to different communities to hear from members of the public.

Bill 173 is important both symbolically and substantively. One thing you can do as an individual is to contact your MPP, encourage them to support the Bill and indicate your interest in speaking if a public meeting is going to be held in your community. You can use the Luke’s Place advocacy tool for some tips, if advocacy is new for you.

As SINICI says:

“Once you name it, the conversation about changing it becomes possible.”

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