We remember

On September 22, 2015, Basil Borutski killed Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam; all women with whom he had been intimately involved. Borutski, who had a history of violence towards women dating back at least 30 years, is now serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole for at least 70 years; a very heavy sentence in Canada, where those given life sentences for murder can often apply for parole in 20 years.

The harm done by Borutski does not end just because he will be spending the rest of his life in prison. Most immediately, the family members and close friends of the murdered women will feel the impact for the rest of their lives. The same is true for the Renfrew County community generally. The tentacles of what happened that day in 2015 extend even farther because of systemic and structural problems that are almost always present in cases of femicide. While Basil Borutski is, of course, responsible for his actions, they did not occur in a vacuum.

For this reason, the Coroner of Ontario will be conducting an inquest into the deaths of Carol, Anastasia and Nathalie, with the goal of preventing future deaths. The inquest will take place in Pembroke in June and is expected to run for three weeks.

What’s an inquest?

Inquests are held to look at systemic factors that may have contributed to the death/s being examined. 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 somewhat less formal and more inquisitorial/less adversarial than in a criminal trial. 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 – the first to focus on violence against women in rural communities — 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 a preventing future deaths and protecting victims of intimate partner violence in rural communities.”

Inquest scope

Last fall, the Coroner’s Office set out eight public policy issues that will frame the inquest:

  • Common risk factors related to intimate partner violence (IPV) and femicide in rural communities
  • Unique challenges for IPV victims in rural communities
  • Possible systemic changes to police and justice system policies and practices in rural communities
  • Barriers to safety planning in rural communities, including challenges with electronic monitoring and victim notification
  • Community attitudes about IPV and femicide
  • Alternatives to traditional criminal law responses to IPV that might be helpful in rural communities
  • Role of firearms
  • Appropriate ways to share information about perpetrators’ prior histories of violence and police involvement

Community involvement

EVA Renfrew County, a coalition of organizations supporting survivors of gender-based violence, has been granted standing at the inquest. In addition to its own role at the inquest, EVA, with funding from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, has hired me to develop and lead a community engagement process so as many members of the Renfrew County community as are interested can have input to the inquest process.

We will be holding in-person community meetings, at which participants will be asked to share their thoughts and ideas about the eight public policy issues listed above. Those not comfortable making their contribution in person can participate through an online forum.

After these processes are completed in early May, I’ll be writing a report that includes background context, a summary of our methodology, an analysis of what was shared through the consultations and recommendations for systemic change based on what we heard, which will then be presented at the inquest.

There’s one more element to the community engagement project: An art collaboration through which people can participate in workshops where they will create individual mosaics that will become part of a permanent public artwork in Barry’s Bay.

Meaningful change

There’s reason to feel hopeful about the possibilities presented by this inquest. Prahbu Rajan, Chief Counsel at the Ontario Coroner’s Office and new chair of the province’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, is also co-counsel to the inquest and says he hopes it may lead to recommendations for innovative and meaningful change as well as systems to ensure recommendations are implemented.

Nothing can undo the harm that Basil Borutski caused when he killed Carole Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam, but the community consultation and art project can help people heal from their collective trauma and the inquest can give all of us a greater insight into gender-based violence in rural communities and what is needed to end it.

Stay tuned for regular updates as these processes unfold.

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