We still remember

On February 10th, the government of Ontario, the Office of the Chief Coroner and the Information and Privacy Commissioner provided their responses to many of the 86 recommendations made by the jury in the June 2022 inquest into the September 22, 2015, murders of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam in Renfrew County. The federal  government and the Chief Firearms Officer have yet to provide their responses.

The inquest process in Ontario does not require parties to whom recommendations are directed to respond, but they are encouraged to do so within six months of being informed about those that apply to them, and February 10th was that date.

Both the Chief Coroner and the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) have accepted the recommendations directed to their offices, and work is underway to implement them.

In the case of the coroner, a commitment has been made to have a newly constituted, more diverse Domestic Violence Death Review Committee (DVDRC) in place by March and to modernize its processes. The coroner’s office has already, following the inquest, added new resources and supports to the DVDRC.

The IPC team will be working with community and justice partners to develop a plain language tool to help demystify privacy legislation to allow for richer cross-sectoral community-based collaboration and information sharing in IPV cases.

Mostly underwhelming

The response by the province, perhaps not surprisingly given its (lack of a) track record on gender-based violence generally, is, at best, underwhelming. While there are some potentially positive indicators, the response overall lacks in passion, vision and commitment.

Only 39 of the 68 recommendations directed to the province are addressed in this response; the other 29 are listed separately as “recommendations requiring further analysis.”

Not surprisingly, among these 29 are many of the most substantive recommendations, including:

  • To declare intimate partner violence an epidemic
  • To establish an independent IPV Commission
  • To create a survivor advocate role
  • To immediately institute a provincial implementation committee to oversee  comprehensive consideration of all the recommendations

Also included in this list are many of the critically important recommendations aimed at addressing perpetrators, such as proposed changes to the Partner Assault Response (PAR) program, improving pathways to and increasing coordination of services for perpetrators.

Set aside for further analysis are recommendations about enhancing second-stage housing for survivors, professional education about IPV for justice-system personnel, a review of mandatory charging and many more.

This is more than frustrating – not only has the government been aware of these recommendations since June of last year, most of them have been made before by other inquests, by the DVDCR and in reports. The study and analysis have been done – it’s time for action.

Vague and lacking in substance

Those recommendations that the response does address are accepted, accepted in part or rejected. The status of those that are accepted is identified as pending, in progress or completed, and an update of the steps taken and planned is provided.

All very tidy, but pretty short on details, on my read. Phrases like “exploring opportunities,” “commitment to engage,” “commitment to undertake,” “”opportunities will be explored,” and “will consider” abound, but there are few active verbs and no timelines.

There’s a self-congratulatory tone to the response, with long lists of policies and programs already in place and actions already undertaken that bear only a vague resemblance to the actual recommendations.

Perhaps the most troubling are the responses to the probation-related recommendations. This program was examined closely – and critically – at the inquest, and the jurors made several hard-hitting and substantive recommendations that would increase offender accountability and survivor safety. The government accepts all five of the recommendations aimed specifically at probation and, even better, says all five are complete.

While they may be correct that policies and program standards are in place, it was clear at the inquest that those are not always being followed on the ground. To claim that work in this area is complete in the face of evidence that perpetrators are neither being properly supervised nor facing appropriate consequences when they fail to follow their terms of release is, at best, disingenuous. Policies that sit on a shelf are meaningless; they must be living documents, and those responsible for administering and implementing them must be held accountable for doing so.

Some positives

While the province’s response is disappointing overall, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the odd bright spot. The government has acknowledged the need for an all-of-government approach to properly address IPV, which gives some hope that we will see less silo-ing and more collaboration across government ministries. Would it be too much to also hope we might see some cross-party cooperation?

As well, it has indicated it will continue its work to identify ways to streamline funding and reporting requirements, which has the potential to relieve a considerable administrative burden faced by small organizations in rural communities.

However, by and large, the response leaves many of us who were involved with the inquest and who work in the IPV field wanting more: more commitment, more certainty, more timelines. One of the most common fears people shared during the community consultations I facilitated prior to the inquest last year was that it would all be for nothing; that people would re-open wounds that were just beginning to heal and then those with the power to make change would do nothing. Those individuals can be forgiven if they want to say “I told you so,” this week.

Finding hope elsewhere

The inquest meant different things to different people. For some, it brought a sense of closure. For others, it was a chance to be heard. Others found it an important learning experience. Everyone found it powerful and life altering.

I went into the process hoping that it would have meaning: for the families of Carol, Anastasia and Nathalie, for the Renfrew County community and for survivors and victims of intimate partner violence throughout the province.

Despite the weak response from the provincial government, I think my hopes may not have been entirely misplaced. The responses from the coroner’s office and the information and privacy commissioner are sincere and substantive. The changes they make will be important and helpful. Now that we know where the government stands on various recommendations, we have a starting point for further advocacy and activism.

More than anything, though, my hope stems from the response to the recommendations in mostly small and rural communities across the province. Individuals and organizations have embraced them and undertaken advocacy and activism that has already led to important changes at the local level: declaring IPV to be an epidemic, re-invigorating high-risk teams and committees, reactivating coordinating committees, lobbying for the inclusion of IPV in community safety and well-being plans.

Grassroots democracy and engagement – that is cause for hope!

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