We remember (part two)

Spring was slowly unfurling all around us as my partner and I made our way up Highway 41 last Friday. The sun was out, bunches of daffodils bloomed on the hillsides, horses were testing their spring legs and white caps danced on the many little lakes strung out along the highway.

We were headed to Renfrew County, where I would spend the next four days facilitating community consultations in advance of June’s inquest into the 2015 deaths of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam. Knowing the work ahead of me would be challenging, I soaked up the beauty as we drove.

I also reflected on one of the key issues the inquest would examine: the realities of life in Ontario’s rural communities that have unique impacts on both intimate partner violence and systemic responses to it.

All that space

Renfrew County is a big place, covering more than 7,000 square kilometres. Spread over that distance are 106,000 people, which is about 14 people per square kilometre. (If you take out the small urban centres of Pembroke, Petawawa, Arnprior and Renfrew, the number of people per square kilometre drops dramatically.)

Compare that to Kingston, where I live: 450 square kilometres, a population of 132,000; which translates into 34 people per square kilometre. Or, the city of Toronto, where so many decisions about laws, policies and services related to intimate partner violence are made: 630 square kilometres, 6 million people, 9,500 per square kilometre.

The implications of the differences between living in a place where there are only 13 other living souls within a square kilometre compared to  9,499 other folks within that same distance are staggering. They should be obvious, but based on many public policy decisions, they don’t seem to be.

Here’s a glance at just some of the realities of those differences for women being subjected to intimate partner abuse.

Because of the small population, there is just one women’s shelter in the county. This means that it might take a woman an hour or longer to get there, assuming she has a car or someone to drive her. With no public transportation system throughout the county, that leaves a lot of women with no way to get to a safe place.

The same is true for other services: there aren’t a lot of family law lawyers, and family law is often the most urgent need for a woman with kids who is leaving an abuser. Not all of those lawyers take legal aid certificates, which means many women go to court without a lawyer. Or, perhaps her partner has, in his ongoing attempts to maintain control, met with all the lawyers in the community, meaning none of them can represent her. Lawyers tend to be congregated in the larger communities, so women who don’t live there have to figure out a way just to get to an appointment with a lawyer. Only one courthouse handles family law cases beyond the administrative stage.  

Calling for help

I was reminded – as I am on every one of my frequent drives to and from Renfrew County – of another key rural reality: the lack of secure cell phone service. Less than 45 minutes after we turned north from the 401 at Napanee on Friday, as I was racing to finish and send an email, we hit the first cell blackout, which lasted for about an hour. We had one brief connection shortly after we passed Denbigh, then lost reception again until we got close to Eganville.

For some, this may be a small price to pay for the opportunity to live in the rocky beauty of the Canadian Shield, but for a woman who needs to call for help, the price is far too high.

Across these 7,000+ square kilometres, there are just four OPP detachments (Pembroke, Renfrew, Killaloe and Arnprior). Police response time can be slow for someone who doesn’t live close to one of those locations; too slow for a woman calling for help when the abuser is still close by. Those women just don’t bother calling.

There’s a lack of anonymity in small communities that stops some women from reaching out for help of any kind. Maybe one of the shelter workers is the woman’s friend; maybe the OPP officer responding to her 911 call plays hockey with her partner; maybe she’s afraid her partner’s mother would see her car parked at the lawyer’s office.

Gotta get a gun

I can’t write about intimate partner violence in rural communities without mentioning guns. We hear a lot about urban gun violence, as we should: it’s a serious problem, and gun control is needed.

But guns in rural Canada are a very different story. Lots of people have them – mostly long guns of one kind or another – often for legitimate uses. They may hunt for meat that their family eats throughout the year. They may use the gun to shoot varmints in the barn or yard.

And, they may use those firearms to threaten and terrify a partner and, sometimes, to kill her. We know that rural women are at higher likelihood of being killed by a gun than urban women.

(In Renfrew County, there is an especially high number of guns, because of the presence of Canadian Forces Base Petawawa and its 5,000 soldiers.)


I’ll be writing regularly about Renfrew County and the inquest over the next two months. What was clear to me as soon as I arrived last week was that, almost seven years later, people here continue to mourn the loss of Carol, Anastasia and Nathalie.

Many hope the inquest will provide answers to their question: How could this happen here? There is also hope that it will result in changes so that nothing like this happens again, here or in any other rural community.

The Women’s Monument in Petawawa lists the names of 23 women – including Carol, Anastasia and Nathalie – killed in Renfrew County by men. The names of three other women will be added once their deaths are confirmed to have been acts of femicide. The monument is a beautiful, peaceful place, on the Emerald Necklace Trail, overlooking the rapids on the Petawawa River.

It exists thanks to the never-ending dedication of the small but mighty (and tireless) women’s organizations in this beautiful place and the support of many members of the community.

It provides a permanent way of saying “We remember” all of these women whose lives were ended by male violence.

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