We hope (part one)

Almost seven years after the September 22, 2015, murders of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam, the inquest into their deaths began yesterday morning in Pembroke.

About two dozen members of the community as well as folks directly involved with the inquest gathered at the Women’s Monument before the official proceedings began. Located along the Petawawa River on the Emerald Necklace Trail, with the sound of the rapids providing a background melody, the monument is a beautiful spot to reflect on the not beautiful harm caused to women by men’s violence.

Those in attendance were asked to share their fears and hopes about the inquest, and there were lots of both. Some people spoke about their fear that the inquest would be re-traumatizing for the community, which is just beginning to heal from the horror of the murders, but the most commonly expressed fear was that nothing would change.

This is understandable: there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of recommendations made in Ontario alone – some from inquests held 20 and more years ago, some from the province’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee – few of which have seen meaningful implementation.

Despite the fears, there was hope: hope that this inquest might be different; a belief in the solidarity and strength needed to make change; a refusal to let fear stand in the way of hope; a hope that the inquest would allow those most profoundly affected by the murders to rest.

Whether we carried fears or hopes – or both – with us as we left the vigil, we all carried power and energy from our quiet time together into the first day of the inquest.

Getting started

As I wrote earlier this year, inquests are held to examine systemic factors that may have contributed to particular deaths. They are overseen by a presiding officer appointed by the Coroner’s Office, whose role is akin to that of a judge, although the process is more inquisitorial than adversarial and is somewhat less formal. Lawyers from the coroner’s office represent the presiding officer and the public interest. People and organizations can seek standing at the inquest and they, too, often have lawyers. A jury of seven people is selected from the community, with five serving and two available as alternates. The jury does not make decisions about guilt or innocence but, after listening to all the witnesses and evidence, makes recommendations for system changes.

The purpose of this inquest is to look at the circumstances of the deaths of Carol, Anastasia and Nathalie with an eye to preventing such deaths from happening again in the future:

“This inquest will explore the circumstances of their deaths with a focus on the dynamics of gender-based, intimate partner violence and femicide in rural communities. The inquest jury will be asked to consider recommendations directed at preventing future deaths and protecting victims of intimate partner violence in rural communities.”

Much of day one was spent setting the stage for what will follow over the next three weeks. The media were briefed, the jury was prepped, inevitable technical hitches were sorted, and we got underway.

The chief presiding officer, Ottawa lawyer and mediator Leslie Reaume, opened the formal proceedings by reviewing the scope of the inquest and its focus on “broader social issues” rather than on guilt or fault of individuals; pointing out that the man responsible for Carol’s, Anastasia’s and Nathalie’s murders has been found guilty and is in prison.

She introduced the three parties – End Violence Against Women Renfrew County, Valerie Warmerdam (Nathalie’s daughter) and the Province of Ontario – and their lawyers.

The jury consists of three men and two women, all from Renfrew County.

In his opening remarks, chief counsel to the presiding officer, Prabhu Rajan, who chairs the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, apologized for the stress and trauma that the inquest may cause for those most affected by the murders. But, he said, 111 women have been murdered by men in Ontario since the Renfrew County murders, so it is important that we make every effort to find ways to make real change. He also noted the need for systems and institutions to learn more about the unique realities of rural communities in the context of intimate partner violence.

Making it personal

The jury heard from two family members yesterday. Anastasia’s sister, Zou Zou, shared stories and photographs of her youngest sister, describing her as a loving person who always had confidence in the goodness of other people. She said it never would have crossed Anastasia’s mind that systems could fail so spectacularly as to lead to the events of September 22, 2015, and that she would have welcomed the inquest as an opportunity to make change.

Nathalie’s daughter, Valerie, talked about her mother’s involvement in the Renfrew County community as well as her work as a palliative care nurse. She also, powerfully, encouraged the jury to understand the complexities of men who harm and kill women. As she said:

“You have to build a system that is not just for catching monsters.”

She described her complicated relationship with the man who would eventually kill her mother, sharing stories of happy times in the family as well as an eerily prescient incident in which he came out of the house, BB gun in hand, to warn a young man with whom she was going on a date to “treat her right.”

Valerie’s testimony vividly described the increasing fear that she, her brother and her mother had of Borutski and the many steps her mother took, after she ended the relationship, to try to keep herself and her children safe. She questioned the value of calling the police, cautioned that causing more harm to abusers does not keep victims safe and concluded by commenting that help for Borutski was needed 40 years earlier to be of any use.

What’s next?

The final witness yesterday was retired OPP Inspector Mark Zulinski, who was the case manager of the investigation following the murders. He walked the jury through the events of September 22nd, from the policing perspective.

Over the next two weeks, the jury, presented with an enormous binder of materials yesterday morning, will hear from a wide array of experts. They, along with the parties and their lawyers and the chief presiding officer, will have the opportunity to ask questions of any witnesses and then will have the task of crafting recommendations.

Will their recommendations be implemented? We have to hope so. As I said at the vigil, if we can’t hope for positive change, what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning?

Stay tuned for ongoing reports.

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