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Helen Naslund suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her husband on their Alberta farm, and her 18-year sentence for his death sent shock waves through the legal system. From prison, she tells her story for the first time

In the fall of 2020, Helen Naslund was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the death of her abusive husband. Even with only the sparest details made public, her case and the lengthy sentence she received sparked outrage around the country, and exposed serious issues with how the justice system treats abused women.

Through multiple interviews and letters from prison, Helen is opening up for the first time about life on the farm, what happened that night 11 years ago, and everything that came after.

At the end of this article, listen to feature writer Jana G. Pruden explain Helen’s story in an episode of The Decibel, and sign up for news about a Globe podcast series coming in 2023.

Wes Naslund says growing up with his father was hell.

The golden fall

Wes Naslund’s phone rang early. It was the Labour Day weekend of 2011, the golden fall in central Alberta. The most important time on the farm, those precious, contracting days when the work of the whole year pays off or comes to nothing.

“We don’t know where the father is,” Wes’s 19-year-old brother, Neil, was saying. Wes could hear their middle brother, Darrell, talking in the background. “He went to cut hay and his gun is gone. His wallet’s here, and the car is gone.”

To Wes, the implication was clear. Their father had been talking about shooting himself for years, and, from what his brothers were saying, it sounded like he’d finally done it.

Wes was 26, and he’d been imagining his father’s death most of his life. He pictured it, planned it, even. Thought about how easily he could steer the truck off the road some night, speed straight into a power pole with his father in the passenger seat. And it hadn’t been long since Wes had downed a bottle of whiskey and drove to the Holden Hotel, where he stalked into the bar and raised a loaded rifle to his father’s forehead, telling him: “Either you do it or I’m going to.”

That’s the way it was with them then, everything always teetering on the brink of life and death.

Miles Naslund had held his sons at gunpoint more times than they could count. He’d punched and hit them, threatened them, beat them with boards and tools and belts from the time they were little children. He’d smashed Wes’s head through the windshield of a truck once, ramming it into the glass until there was a hole big enough to fit through. But whatever hell Miles had inflicted on his sons, the things he’d done to his wife were worse.

No matter how hard she tried to hide it, even people outside the family knew something was happening to Helen Naslund. There were stories that went around, bruises people noticed. She was 46, and you could see sorrow and pain in the lines of her face. But it was also how she wouldn’t meet your eyes, how she didn’t laugh or speak unless someone spoke to her, the feeling of fear that came off her.

Among the various scenarios Wes had been playing out in his mind since childhood, his father going off to shoot himself was the best one he could imagine. But after Wes hung up the phone, it struck him weird. He hadn’t expected his father to actually do it. He didn’t trust it. It seemed, in a way, far too easy an ending for what they’d all been living through.


Helen Naslund is opening up for the first time about what she experienced in the years before and after her husband's death.


Helen and Miles

Helen Speed was 17 when she met Miles Naslund. She was working at a mall cafeteria in Camrose, a small city about an hour south of Edmonton. It was 1981, and she’d been on her own about a year by then, having bolted from the family farm like a colt through an open gate as soon as she turned 16, wanting to get away, get to work, make a life of her own.

She was the youngest of eight, and had spent most of her life moving farm to farm with her family. Her only involvement with boys had been one little fling in school. Miles was 20, just three years older, but a lot more experienced than Helen. It wasn’t even really accurate to say Helen met Miles. It was more like Miles decided he wanted to get to know her, and started following her around until she agreed to go out with him.

Within a few weeks, she was spending most nights at his trailer. Soon, he sold it and moved into her apartment in town. It was there Helen began to feel uneasy. She’d just gotten out on her own, and didn’t really want to be tied down with a man. She was enjoying working and figuring out who she was. She dreamed of being a paramedic, of one day having a farm of her own.

Her manager at the café became a friend, and after work one day, the older woman cautioned Helen to take it slow. She must have sensed something off between them, and Helen felt it herself, too. But when Helen tried to break it off with Miles, he blew up, then guilt-tripped her that nobody cared about him and he had nowhere to go. He’d just come out of a relationship that turned out badly, and Helen could see the bitterness and hurt when he talked about it. He scared her, but she felt sorry for him, too. She tried to tell herself that day was just a hiccup, not anything near as bad as it felt.

They married at a little country hall, with just their immediate families alongside. Helen knew they weren’t a perfect match, but there were things they had in common, most of all that they wanted to get out to the land and farm.

They found a place not far from his parents, between the towns of Holden and Daysland, outside Camrose. There was a little house and a big red barn, a boundless panorama of fields and a vast, ever-changing sky.

They had their first son, Wesley, in 1984, not long after Helen turned 20.

Corleen LeClercq, the Naslunds' former neighbour, became a friend and got Helen involved in barrel racing.

Their closest neighbours, Corleen and Floyd LeClercq, started coming by for coffee in the mornings. Corleen and Helen became fast friends, and together, the women started barrel racing at some of the local rodeos. Helen loved working with a horse, hooves pounding into dirt as she turned a tight cloverleaf around the barrels, then raced at full speed to the finish.

On their way home from the Hardisty Rodeo, the women stopped at the lake with the horses for a swim, and Helen got home later than expected.

Ever since they married, Miles had become increasingly controlling. That day, he exploded.

Helen was just over five feet tall and maybe 90 pounds, barely bigger than a girl. Miles was six feet tall, strong and thick, more than twice her size. It was the first time things got really physical. His rage surprised her, and she knew then she was in trouble. After that, Miles made her get rid of her horse, and she wasn’t allowed to race any more.

Helen would later think that’s when she should have left. But she was young and scared, and they had a baby. She’d been raised with old fashioned ideas of marriage, and her vows were important to her. Even if she could put all that aside, she didn’t feel like she could reach out to her family, and she didn’t know where else to go.

They had Darrell in 1988, Neil four years after that. Helen loved children, and she thought having more might make it better. But Miles had very little to do with the boys, and as he pushed to expand the farm, he increased her workload until she was handling almost everything herself. It was Helen in the bitter cold checking the cows every hour when they were calving in January, coming in to nurse the baby Neil and tend to the older boys, then doing it all over again.

The violence was too bad and too frequent and too brutal to list. But it was the threats, the humiliation, the domination, that got so deep inside. Any minute Helen or the boys were away from the farm had to be accounted for. Miles made it known they had to do as they were told, or the consequences would be severe.

It had been a gradual escalation, and by the time it got really bad, it felt to Helen like it was already too late. By then, she had three little kids. What was she going to do, grab the boys and start walking down the highway? And walk to where? Everything she had and everything she knew was on the farm.

She thought about calling the police, but she couldn’t imagine how they could keep her and the kids safe even if they believed her about what Miles was doing. Sometimes she wasn’t even sure herself. She wondered if the way Miles treated them was all, somehow, her fault.

Helen Naslund's sister, Sharon Heslop, with Zeus the cat. She, too, survived an abusive relationship.

Helen’s sister, Sharon, had escaped her own abusive husband. But she had friends and a plan and a bit of money, a place to hide, a restraining order against him. Still, it had taken years to get away, and Sharon knew she was lucky. A woman at her daughter’s school was choked to death by an ex around the same time Sharon was leaving, and it wasn’t hard for Sharon to see how easily that could have been her.

If Sharon had known what Helen was living with, maybe she could have helped. But Helen didn’t speak to her sister or anybody else in those days. Nobody knew how bad things were, and it was impossible for Helen to find the time and space and words to tell.

At some point, even Corleen stopped going to the farm. She knew a bit of what was going on in the house, and she didn’t like being around it. She wasn’t one to put her nose in someone else’s business, and she wouldn’t have known what to do about it anyway. It seemed like intervening would just make it worse for Helen.

But sometimes she could hear Miles yelling, the sound of his fury carrying across the fields more than a half mile, all the way from the Naslund farm.


Ms. LeClercq tends to a horse at her property near Clive, where a framed photo commemorates her barrel-riding days with Helen. Ms. LeClercq stopped coming by the Naslunds’ farm, unsure of what she could do that wouldn't make the abuse worse.
The Naslund farm now belongs to Helen’s friend Guy Turnbull, owner of the rental business where she worked. As the farm struggled, Miles allowed her to go away for work, but it exacerbated his paranoid, possessive tendencies. Dustin Delfs/The Globe and Mail

Harvest

Through the years the farm grew to hundreds of cows, laying hens and lambs, grain spread across 3,000 acres. But Miles pushed things too much, always wanting more and better. Even toiling night and day, Helen and the boys couldn’t keep up. They hobbled through foreclosure by the bank, most of their equipment sent to auction, their land sold piece by piece. By the summer of 2011, they were down to just the home quarter, with a little bit of hay and a few cows. They could lose that, too, with a bad harvest.

Money was so tight Miles let Helen go to work at A-1 Rentals in Camrose. In a way, it was almost worse to leave the farm. At least when they were together, she knew what Miles was thinking, and could try to keep him pacified. But when she was at work, he’d be stewing, growing angrier and more paranoid the longer she was away. He called her constantly and checked her phone when she got home, demanding almost a minute-by-minute account of the time she’d been gone.

Miles was drinking a lot, and he seemed to be growing more erratic and violent. His health was poor and he’d gotten a head injury in a fight outside the Holden bar a few years earlier, which seemed to have exacerbated his swings of mood and temper. Helen was worse, too. She’d tried to kill herself multiple times, and she felt increasingly broken and hollow. To Wes, she seemed like a ghost. Barely recognizable, as though she wasn’t even herself any more.

People outside the family had seen the gun Miles kept beside his chair and how casually he would play with it, twirling the revolver wild-west style. Sometimes training it at his wife or one of the boys, finger on the trigger.

What was happening at the farm felt like it was escalating, dangerous and unstoppable.

On the Saturday of the Labour Day weekend, Helen worked at the A-1 Rentals location in Wetaskiwin, then headed out to the fields as soon as she got back to the farm. Wes lived away by then, but Darrell and Neil were home, and Miles was drinking and furious. He threw wrenches at Helen and threatened her when the tractor broke. When she made dinner, Miles swept the entire meal onto the floor, food and dishes flying as he screamed that it wasn’t fit for a dog. It continued like that for hours, until he finally passed out in their bed.

And then, for a time, everything was quiet.

The gunshot cracked through the house like thunder. The dog was barking wildly, and the shot had startled Helen, too, brought her out of whatever dense fog she’d been lost in, and snapped her back to herself. She was screaming, hysterical.

Miles lay on the bed in his underpants, blood spreading crimson on the sheets beneath him.

Why didn’t they call the police and tell them what happened? Helen would ask herself that for years to come. But that wasn’t so simple, either. Miles had a deep hatred and mistrust of police, and he’d instilled that in his sons. There was no record of what had gone on at the farm all those years. Helen thought no one would believe them.

And so, there was the plan.

Drag the body outside and pack it into the big metal toolbox from the back of the truck. Drill holes in the box, weigh it down, weld it closed. Then take it to the deepest dugout, paddle to the middle in the fishing boat, and dump it into the water.

Bury Miles’s car with a backhoe. Toss the guns. Report him missing in a way that sounds like suicide.

When it was all done, Helen hauled the mattress and bedding outside and lit it on fire, watching as flames licked up toward the dark September sky.


Lawrence Weppler and Patricia Hogue, shown at top with Leah the Yorkie, own the Holden Hotel. A copy of a picture they sent to Helen reads ‘happy smile.’ A poster in the women’s bathroom offers support for people living with domestic violence.

The missing man

The strangest thing about the disappearance of Miles Naslund was that nobody seemed overly concerned he was missing.

Lawrence Weppler and Patricia Hogue, who owned the Holden Hotel and had once been as close to Miles and Helen as anyone, thought he probably went up north and killed himself in the muskeg. Helen’s sister, Sharon, was just glad he was gone. Helen’s boss and friend, Guy Turnbull, had his suspicions, but he left it at that.

Even the police didn’t come out to take statements for two days. There were no searches, no posters, no community efforts to find him. A lot of people around Holden had their opinions about what went on at the farm, and when Miles disappeared, it seemed to some folks that whatever happened to him, well, it was something like justice.

“Nobody cared. I don’t think anybody in the whole country cared,” Corleen would say later. “Maybe his mother.”

It was clear things were better for Helen without him. In so many ways, she seemed happier. She even got two horses and started barrel racing again.

But although Miles was gone, Helen still wasn’t free. She was drinking a lot, memories of that night clinging to her like a ghost. Sometimes she called the RCMP and pushed them about why they hadn’t found him yet.

Guy Turnbull caught the look that passed across Helen’s face when a rumour came up Miles’s body had been found. Guy saw it all right there, clear as anything. But he kept that to himself, never told a soul, not even his wife.

It went on for six years like that. A calm and decent life, if an uneasy one.

Then, on a scorching hot day late in the summer of 2017, Helen looked up from her work at A-1 Rentals and saw two men walking toward her. They showed her their badges, and Helen felt like all hell broke loose again.


Guy Turnbull, Helen's boss, began to have his suspicions about what had happened to Miles but said nothing.Dustin Delfs/The Globe and Mail


‘Why didn’t you leave the farm?’

“Helen, you’re not a bad person. You’re not,” Constable Derek Carlson said. They were inside a small room at the RCMP detachment in Wetaskiwin. He was with major crimes, one of four men working on Helen’s interrogation. It was six years, almost to the day, since Helen reported her husband missing.

After approaching Helen at work, the officers had taken her to their car, where they told her a witness had come forward in Miles’s disappearance. As they spoke, Helen sat with her leg hanging out into the sun, too afraid to be locked inside. They didn’t arrest her then, but police were already swarming all over the farm, taking pictures of the house and outbuildings, getting ready to search the grounds and dugouts.

Helen knew right away it was Darrell who’d talked, and that her middle son had told them everything – or at least a self-serving version of it. The RCMP found Miles’s crushed Chevrolet Cavalier buried behind the shop, a .22 revolver and Miles’s favourite .357 Magnum in the water near the house.

The big metal toolbox was at the bottom of a dugout on Miles’s mother’s land. Inside was Miles’s body. There was a plastic bag over his head and two bullets in his skull.

When the RCMP had everything they needed to lay charges, Helen and Neil turned themselves in at the detachment in Camrose. Police arrested Wes at work.

“We can’t go back in time,” Constable Carlson told Helen. “We can’t give you that lifeline to say, ‘Helen, here’s an out. Helen, here’s a safe house. Helen, here’s a family member you can live with.’ I want to know why. Why you didn’t leave the farm?”

“I tried,” she said.

Wes was 16 then, and he had his driver’s licence and a rusty old Chevy truck they could leave in. It happened suddenly. Miles was out of the house and Helen started throwing a few things into bags. She was rushing the kids out when he returned.

That would be one of the times she would put away in her mind and try never to think about again.

Neil would remember his father choking Helen until she was blue. Miles locked her in the bedroom for more than a day, a special kind of torture because her kids were on the other side of the door with Miles and his loaded gun.

From then on, Helen understood without question that if she left Miles, many people would die. She would die, the kids would die, and others – police or neighbours or whoever else Miles could take down – would die, too. Of that, she had absolutely no doubt.

The RCMP had it all wrapped up tight. Helen had known that as soon as they started outlining the evidence against her. They played parts of Darrell’s statements, but she already knew they had everything. All they wanted to know was who pulled the trigger.

Darrell had always been the closest to Miles, but Helen didn’t believe he went to the police because he felt guilty. If that was it, she thought he would have come to her, or at least told the police the whole truth, not a version of it where he had no part in anything. No, she suspected Darrell was trying to get himself out of some trouble he’d gotten into with drugs, and using his family as a bargaining chip. Knowing he would put his brothers’ lives in jeopardy hurt her most of all. That was the part that was unforgivable.

But in a way, Helen was relieved everything was coming out. Maybe that’s why she’d been pushing the police to look for Miles. To be carrying that secret all those years, to be lying to people she cared about, had been a burden even greater than what happened on the farm that night.

“I think you did what you had to do because it was necessary. It was an escape. The suffering had to end,” Constable Carlson said. “You’re not a cold killer, Helen. And tell me if I’m wrong. Am I wrong, Helen?”

“I am a good person,” she said. Three men were interrogating her, one after the other.

“I just wanted everybody’s hurt to stop,” she said.

She said Neil and Darrell were sleeping. Wes wasn’t home. She got a .22 and walked back to the bedroom. There were so many guns in the house.

“I shot him in the back of the head,” she said.

They had their confession. Helen asked to lie down, and the officers took her back to her cell.

Wes, who had figured out what really happened to his father soon after the call from his brothers, was charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact. Helen and Neil were charged with first-degree murder.


An old family photo at Sharon Heslop's house outside Camrose. Helen is in the back row second from left, and Sharon in the front row, at far left. Their parents are in the middle of the bottom row.

Sharon and Helen didn’t talk about the abuse Helen was living with.

A reasonable person

Domestic homicides aren’t uncommon in Canada, but women are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. In 2011, 76 women were killed by their domestic partners, accounting for more than 40 per cent of the country’s female homicide victims. Of the 422 men who died by homicide that year, 13 were alleged to have been killed by their partners, or 3 per cent. And of that group, an even smaller number would have been killed by women in potential acts of self defence.

The case that established what is known as the battered woman defence in Canada dates back to the summer of 1986, when 22-year-old Angelique Lyn Lavallee shot her husband, Kevin Rust, in the back of the head after an altercation at their house in Winnipeg. Though shooting someone from behind wasn’t considered self-defence under the law, a jury of 11 men and one woman found her not guilty of both murder and manslaughter because of the abuse she’d suffered.

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the verdict. Bertha Wilson, the court’s first female justice, wrote in her 1990 decision that the “reasonable man” standard for self-defence – which asked if a reasonable person would act the same way in the position of the accused – didn’t apply to a woman killing her abuser because of the unique factors in domestic violence, including the history of abuse and the limits of a woman’s ability to escape safely.

The case remained the standard 25 years later, when Helen Naslund would stand accused of a nearly identical crime.

Helen’s case was tough. She’d been charged with first-degree murder, and if a jury could be convinced the shooting was planned – even if that meant getting the gun and loading it moments before – she’d spend 25 years in prison before she could even apply for parole. Her conduct after the shooting, in disposing of Miles’s body and reporting him missing, wasn’t particularly sympathetic. And despite being a victim of severe physical and mental abuse for nearly 30 years, a psychologist who assessed Helen didn’t diagnose her as having battered woman syndrome. Her memory could be poor, and it was difficult – even impossible – for her to open up about the things she and her sons had endured.

The first-degree murder charges hung heavy over the case. When Helen’s lawyer came to her with a deal, she decided to accept it. She’d plead guilty to manslaughter, and, in exchange, the murder charges against her and Neil would be stayed.

An agreed statement of facts composed by the Crown and defence acknowledged Miles was physically and emotionally abusive and controlling, and that Helen genuinely feared for her safety.

“The accused was unhappy in her marriage,” it read, “but, due to the history of abuse, concern for her children, depression and a learned helplessness, she felt she could not leave.”

The statement said Helen shot Miles while he slept, killing him instantly, and that she and Neil then took steps to dispose of the body, the gun and the car.

The charge against Wes was stayed. Darrell, who’d co-operated with the RCMP and maintained he didn’t have any role in his father’s death or in disposing of the body – despite some indications to the contrary – never faced any charges.

Appearing in court in October of 2020 for sentencing, Crown prosecutor Dallas Sopko said it was an aggravating factor that the victim was Helen’s husband, and that Miles had been killed with a gun in his home, “a place where he’s entitled to feel safe.” He likened Helen’s actions after the shooting to those of Michael White, an Edmonton man who stabbed his pregnant wife to death and then reported her missing.

Helen’s lawyer, Darin Sprake, acknowledged “difficulties in the home,” but didn’t make any argument related to the battered women defence.

Together, they proposed Helen be sentenced to 18 years in prison for killing Miles. Neil would get three years for his role in disposing of his father’s body.

There were no victim impact statements filed with the court. Helen didn’t speak during the proceedings.

Justice Sterling Sanderman took a short adjournment, then returned to the courtroom.

He said most people who end up in the justice system aren’t evil, but make mistakes because they are overwhelmed by their personal difficulties and “react poorly when other options are open to them.” He described Helen and Neil as examples of that: Hard-working, law-abiding people “who haven’t been able to deal with problems in their lives.”

“This was a callous, cowardly act on a vulnerable victim in his own home, so his domicile, by a partner,” he said. “That is summarizing it, but I think it summarizes it quite nicely.”

He sentenced Helen to 18 years.

Those first nights in prison were some of the worst of Helen’s life. She was still in that darkness weeks later, when she was summoned for a call. On the phone was a lawyer in Vancouver, who said she wanted to appeal Helen’s sentence.

Helen was blindsided. She had no idea who the woman was, how she’d heard about Helen’s case, or why she cared.

Helen had gotten one of the longest manslaughter sentences an abused woman ever received in Canada, and local news reports had sparked outrage across the country. Even with spare details about what happened on the farm, the idea of a 56-year-old mother and grandmother getting 18 years for the death of her abusive husband struck many people as a travesty.

A petition started by Ontario community advocate Matthew Behrens to have Helen’s sentence overturned swelled to more than 27,000 signatures. In comment after comment, those who signed expressed solidarity with Helen, shared their own stories, and called for laws to be changed to better recognize the experience of abused women.

On social media, women’s shelters, activists, and others expressed their support with the hashtag #StandWithHelen. Some posted pictures of themselves with messages like, “Helen Naslund should not be in jail for surviving.”

But in the isolation of prison, Helen didn’t know where the reaction to her sentence was coming from, or what it meant.

Her first lawyer had wanted to go to trial, and even met with her in an empty courtroom so Helen would be comfortable there when she testified. But when he had health problems, Darin Sprake took over her case. To Helen, he seemed less confident in her ability to testify, and when he came to her with the manslaughter deal, she decided to take it.

There were good and practical reasons to accept the plea bargain. For a woman Helen’s age, having to serve 25 years before parole would likely mean the rest of her life in prison, and a trial could have put Neil at risk as well. She didn’t care about her own life, but she wouldn’t gamble with her son. People she trusted, like Guy Turnbull, advised her to take the deal.

But now Helen worried she’d done something wrong.

Kim Pate is a senator and advocate for survivors of intimate partner abuse.

The calls and messages did not stop. Senator Kim Pate, a longtime advocate for incarcerated women, urged Helen to consider appealing the sentence. So did Dr. Elizabeth Sheehy, one of the country’s foremost experts on battered women and the law.

In Helen’s story, Dr. Sheehy saw many things she’d studied and written about in her book, Defending Battered Women on Trial. In many ways, Helen’s case was unsurprising, both in the way she acted before and after the shooting, and in how police and the justice system had responded to her, acknowledging the violence she’d suffered but finding it totally irrelevant to what she did.

The attention felt strange for Helen, and she wondered why such important people cared about her. She kept telling herself not to hope for anything, but she also knew it couldn’t get much worse. As more people contacted her and showed their support, Helen allowed herself to imagine maybe it could get better. She agreed to speak with a new lawyer, to see if anything could be done.


Defence lawyer Mona Duckett holds a stack of papers at her Edmonton office, including Elizabeth A. Sheehy's book Defending Battered Women on Trial. Dr. Sheehy was one of the experts who urged Helen to appeal her sentence.


Mona

At the office of Dawson Duckett Garcia and Johnson Criminal Law in downtown Edmonton, Mona Duckett and her colleagues brainstormed approaches to Helen’s appeal.

Mona was a senior and highly respected lawyer in Edmonton, but overturning a sentence that had been agreed upon by the Crown and defence was a challenge. The lawyers and judge were competent, and the appeal period had passed. She knew almost any defence lawyer would have recommended the manslaughter plea, because of the gamble of going on trial for first-degree murder.

But there were strong feelings in the public that there had been an injustice, and Helen had nobody else to help her. So Mona thought she should try.

Mona had worked on about a half-dozen battered woman cases, and had come to appreciate their unique elements. The psychological effects of long-term abuse were well-documented, including cognitive issues from brain injuries and trauma, and learned helplessness after years living under control.

Mona knew an abused woman may be less willing to fight the charges against her, and she saw that the grinding gears of the justice system didn’t accommodate the time and support required for a severely traumatized woman like Helen to open up to a lawyer or a psychologist.

Helen had been interrogated by male officers, represented and prosecuted by male lawyers, sentenced by a male judge. Like most defence lawyers, the vast majority of Mona’s clients were male, and she saw how the system was still, in many ways, geared toward men.

But in some cases Mona had worked on, and in others around the country, battered women had received significantly lighter sentences than Helen for killing their abusers. Others had their charges stayed altogether.

In May of 2021, Mona filed an appeal on the grounds Helen’s sentence was contrary to the public interest, and brought the administration of justice into disrepute. Summarizing the case in her written filing, Mona said: “It is about the gendered lens through which the justice system continues to evaluate the conduct of battered women who kill to survive.”

Her material included an affidavit from Dr. Sheehy, pages of Matthew Behrens’s petition, and letters of support he’d obtained from organizations including the Canadian Femicide Observatory and the Camrose Women’s Shelter Society, which asked whether women’s safety should depend on “how fast she can run through the pasture.”

It was a longshot, but speaking before the Court of Appeal in June, 2021, Mona thought the lone female judge on the panel seemed to be connecting with her arguments. The question remained whether at least one of the other judges could be convinced as well.


Corleen LeClercq says Helen will have ‘the best life ever’ when she gets out, because she will finally be free.


Freedom

Helen Naslund rarely sleeps fully. She thinks it was her body’s way of protecting her from Miles, always keeping her half aware. When she does let herself fall into slumber, he is waiting there in her dreams, ready to kill them all.

She spends her time at the Edmonton Institution for Women trying not to get too anxious, trying not to get too frustrated. She doesn’t want or expect much. Just to spend time with her grandkids, to be out in the country, and work hard until she can’t any more. She misses the land and the animals and the open sky.

She spends a lot of time writing letters, mostly to women who have survived domestic violence themselves and felt compelled to reach out to her. It helps to know she isn’t alone in what she went through, and it’s why she decided to share her story. She doesn’t like talking about herself. But even if it could help one other person, she thought it would be worth it.

The decision on her appeal arrived by e-mail in January. Mona called the prison right away, reading aloud from the beginning then skipping to the final pages, because Helen was only being given a short time for the call.

The panel split two to one.

In the majority decision, Justice Sheila Greckol wrote that the 18-year sentence was the product of outdated thinking and stereotypes about battered women. The court cut Helen’s sentence in half, to nine years.

Some people didn’t understand why Helen had to serve any time at all, but Mona knew it was about the best they could have hoped for. She’d been bracing to go to the Supreme Court.

Plans are already being made for when Helen gets out on parole. She’ll live with Sharon, in a little room at her sister’s house in a town around Camrose. Guy Turnbull kept her job waiting at A-1. He supported Helen every way he could, even paid for her defence, because he understood what she’d been living with, and he didn’t blame her for what she did.

Corleen wants to get Helen a horse, something small and tough like the one Helen had before. Then, the two of them will go racing again.

“I think she’ll have the best life ever,” Corleen says. “She will finally be free.”

Helen knows some people in her life still don’t believe she killed Miles. They don’t think she’s capable of it. They can’t imagine her hurting anybody. She still has a hard time believing it herself. It’s one of the worst parts, she says. The not understanding how or why she got to that point.

“I guess for the years of abuse, you could only take so much and you snap,” she said. Tears streamed down her face. “I guess I just had enough.”

She says she wishes it could have been different, that there must have been some other way out. But even after all this time, after everything that happened and everything she knows now, she still can’t find it.

Helen Naslund’s story: More on The Decibel

Feature writer Jana G. Pruden spoke with The Decibel about Helen Naslund’s case and the obstacles that victims of intimate partner abuse can face in the justice system. Subscribe for more episodes.