We hope (part two)

Many of the violence against women advocates and others attending this month’s inquest into the September 22, 2015 murders of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam in Renfrew County are doubtful that positive change will result from this most recent examination of intimate partner violence and homicide.

It’s easy to see why: this is not the first look at IPV and IPV homicide. The jury in the Arlene May inquest in 1998 made a staggering 213 recommendations for systemic change; four years later, the Gillian Hadley inquest jury made 58 recommendations; many of them overlapping with those made in 1998.

In response, Ontario established a Domestic Violence Death Review Committee (DVDRC) in 2002, with the purpose of assisting the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario in “investigating and reviewing deaths that occur in the context of domestic violence and form recommendations to help prevent similar tragedies in the future.” In each of its reports, the DVDRC makes dozens of recommendations for change.

Despite the hundreds of recommendations made by these three bodies alone, intimate partner homicides have not come to an end. They have not even decreased in number; rather, they have increased over the two years of the pandemic.

“How many women have to die?”

Last week, the jury heard about more than 30 years of coroner’s inquests, government commissioned reports, parliamentary reports and commissions of inquiry related to IPV and IPV homicides. Recommendations from these various proceedings covered a wide range of topics and often echoed previously made recommendations. Some contained recommendations to implement previous recommendations.

The Hadley inquest recommendations of 20 years ago began with a recommendation that the government establish an implementation committee with proper funding that would be “not time limited” and would run until it was “satisfied that all recommendations have been implemented.”

More recently, in its 2021 Roadmap for the National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Gender-Based Violence (NAP), Women’s Shelters Canada called for the establishment of an independent oversight body, arm’s length from government, with community-based anti-violence expertise, to track and evaluate progress on all efforts to end VAW. Such an entity, says Women’s Shelters Canada (WSC), would create accountability, transparency and structural support. It would also ensure that the work would survive election cycles and different government mandates.

“Does anyone really care?”

During her 30 years as a columnist for the Globe and Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti has written much about women’s equality and violence against women. In her final column – what will we do without her? – she wrote this about the inquest:

“We know the answers to stopping this kind of crime; we just lack the will to make it happen.”

That feeling is certainly shared by a number of the participants in the community consultations I held throughout Renfrew County in April and May. They talked about a lack of political will to make meaningful change and worried that even excellent recommendations would be relegated to a back burner.

Despite these doubts, more than 50 people took the time to talk with me or send me their thoughts in writing. They did so despite the pain and re-traumatization it caused them. They did so because, even though they still feel ongoing grief, anger and shame that something this terrible could happen where they live, they want to be part of building the solution.

Seizing the moment

It’s really only in the past 40 years that Canadian society, including government, has even begun to think about intimate partner violence; before that, we didn’t even admit to the existence of the problem. When the Royal Commission on the Status of Women released its final report in 1970, not one of its 162 recommendations dealt with violence within the family. In 1982, a month after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into being, uproarious laughter greeted MP Margaret Mitchell when she rose to ask Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau what his government planned to do to assist battered women.

Maybe I’m just stubborn, but I refuse to give up hope that we can make change. To this end, I suggested to the jury in my testimony last week that Ontario needs some kind of independent body similar to that proposed for the NAP to provide an oversight function with respect to the implementation of IPV inquest recommendations. The precise details of what that body would look like, who would sit on it, who would be accountable to it and what its mandate would be are questions to be answered through a collaborative and consultative process.

During my conversation with CBC podcast Front Burner host Jayme Poisson last week, I talked about why I feel hopeful. I believe this inquest is taking place at a critical time; in part, because the pandemic, while causing the rate of IPV to shoot through the ceiling, has also shone a light like never before on the problem. Governments, the media and people generally have more awareness of the seriousness of IPV. The federal government says it’s committed to implementing a national action plan; last year’s changes to the Divorce Act provide a thorough definition of family violence and make it mandatory for judges to consider it when making decisions related to children; new gun control legislation is before Parliament and Bill C-233, which would require judges to receive education about IPV, is before the Senate.

None of these is the magic wand answer we need; indeed, I don’t think there is such an answer. But they are all part of moving us forward in developing better responses to IPV and, ultimately, to ending it altogether. As a colleague and friend texted me during the inquest proceedings last week:

“The time is now, because if not now, then when? This is the moment and opportunity.”

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