September 22, 2015: A day that began like any other late September day for most of us. In Renfrew County, where the morning was cool but sunny, the day exploded into horror, as news of the murders of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam spread throughout the community and then across the province and country.
Basil Borutski, a man with a long history of violence against his intimate partners, was arrested that day and has been in custody since. He has declined legal representation and, other than a letter he wrote in response to a request from the Ottawa Citizen for his side of the story and for an explanation of his anger, he has been almost entirely silent, even during his many court appearances.
History of abuse
Given Borutski’s history, it wasn’t long before people started asking how this could have happened. After all, here was a man who had been charged many times with domestic violence related offences. He had been released from jail less than a year before the September 22nd killings and was on probation to stay away from one of the three women (although he had refused to sign the probation documents).
Not all of us asked how this could have happened. While the extent of Borutski’s violence is certainly extreme and, thankfully, uncommon, the legal framework around him is the norm in the world of domestic abuse, and it provides the perfect breeding ground for men who believe they have the right to control the women they claim to love.
Borutski had been in relationships with the three women he killed. His abuse in two of them led to criminal charges being laid against him. Most often, those charges were dropped, although he was eventually found guilty of some and spent 3 months of a 19-month sentence in jail.
He had also been abusive to his wife, who had divorced him some years earlier. According to family court documents she filed with her divorce application, he had engaged in a “steady regimen of domestic violence,” destroying her spirit through the use of “relentless threats and abuse.” He stalked her and “constantly pestered” her to recant the allegations of abuse, eventually threatening to take their daughters so she would “never see them again.” She believed him and so capitulated, withdrawing her allegations about his abuse of her.
All too common
We see women in this kind of situation every week – sometimes every day—at Luke’s Place: women who start a family law case with an expectation for a reasonable outcome, but who eventually walk away with custody and access orders that force them to have ongoing contact with their ex-partner, inadequate support orders and unequal division of the family property. Why? Because, like Borutski’s ex-wife, they succumb to the ongoing harassment and threats by their former partner.
We also see women who don’t report the abuse to the police because they are too afraid; because they are ashamed; because they know there is no way the police can keep them safe. Other women report, but then become too afraid to testify, so charges get thrown out.
In a rural community like Renfrew County (a third of Ontarians live in rural or small communities), keeping a woman safe from an abuser, even after they separate, is a challenge. It is much harder to be anonymous and to get to help or to get help to you quickly than it is in larger urban areas. Women know this, so they often don’t reach out for help at all; no one may know that their partner/former partner is abusing, harassing or threatening them.
And yet women are asked, in a tone of voice than implies the abuse is their fault, “Why did you stay?” “Why didn’t you call the police?” “Why did you go back to him?”
To remember and honour
Today is September 22, 2017. Two years has passed since the murders in Renfrew County. The memorial to murdered women in Renfrew County, pictured above, has three more names on it now.
Let us take today and the days and weeks ahead to change the questions we ask. Let’s start asking questions that focus on the abuser’s responsibility for his actions and that call for accountability in the legal systems women turn to when they leave abusive relationships. There can be no better way to remember and honour Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam.