Ontario will not declare intimate partner violence an epidemic, rejecting the first recommendation from a coroner’s inquest that examined the deaths of three women murdered by a mutual ex-partner in a rural area of the province nearly eight years ago.
Declaring an epidemic was the first of 86 action items put forward by the coroner’s jury a year ago this week, after a three-week inquest into the murders of Carol Culleton, Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk in Renfrew County. The three women were killed at their homes during a shooting rampage across the Ottawa Valley on Sept. 22, 2015.
In a document sent to the province’s chief coroner this week, signed by six deputy ministers and deputy attorneys-general, the government argued the term epidemic is reserved for the spread of disease: “In this regard, intimate partner violence (IPV), would not be considered an epidemic as it is not an infectious or communicable disease.”
The decision was condemned by anti-violence advocacy groups. Although declaring an epidemic is largely symbolic, they say doing so would be a signal of an intent to address the crisis.
“Seeing that recommendation with ‘rejected’ beside it, I think just really knocked the wind out of some people,” said Kirsten Mercer, a lawyer who represented the group EVA (End Violence Against Women) Renfrew County at the inquest.
Ms. Mercer criticized what she described as a “narrow, legalistic interpretation” of the term epidemic, which she said diminishes the systemic nature of the crisis.
The inquest heard that the killer, Basil Borutski, had a long history of violence against women. He had been deemed high-risk in multiple assessments, was well known to local police, and was on probation at the time of the murders. Despite that, he flouted court orders without consequence, continuing to own weapons and skipping the group counselling program he was mandated to attend. He was ultimately convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder.
The inquest included testimony from family of the victims, local police and probation officials who were involved in the case, as well as experts on gender-based violence, who said the murders were part of a systemic crisis and emphasized the increased dangers for women in rural communities.
A woman is killed by a current or former intimate partner every six days in the country, according to Statistics Canada. Including attempted murders, that stat becomes one almost every other day.
The coroner’s jury’s recommendations also included better funding for IPV resources; enhanced education in schools and continued training for law enforcement personnel; and the exploration of justice-system reforms. The document released this week included the government’s final planned responses to each of them.
The document showed the government accepted – in full or in part – the majority of the recommendations, but rejected several, including an independent Intimate Partner Violence Commission, the appointment of a survivor advocate and the creation of a committee to ensure the inquest’s recommendations are implemented.
Ms. Mercer said it was dispiriting to see the province reject those calls for accountability.
“Those are all about folks outside of government being able to hold government to account … for what they do and don’t do,” Ms. Mercer said. “And those were also rejected.”
The non-binding recommendations were hailed by experts last year as a “gift of solutions” to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Of the 86 recommendations, 68 were directed at the province.
Anti-violence advocates noted that in many of the cases where government accepted recommendations, they cited policies or programs that were already in place, rather than outlining new funding or commitments.
“If all of those programs and all of those systems were working, then we wouldn’t be sitting in this room, talking about the need for change,” said Erin Lee, executive director of the Lanark County Interval House, a shelter for women and children fleeing violence.
Ms. Lee said the government’s response was appalling and disrespectful, especially after all of the time the victims’ families and survivors of intimate partner violence put into the inquest.
“When you have the World Health Organization talking about violence against women being of pandemic proportions, then why are we not acknowledging the epidemiology of intimate partner violence?” she said.
Hunter Kell, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Solicitor-General, sent an e-mailed statement that defended the government’s work on intimate partner violence, pointing to more than $250-million and its focus on bail reform “to make sure that repeat, violent offenders stay off the streets.” The statement did not address the call to declare an intimate partner violence an epidemic.
On a local level, more than two dozen individual towns and cities across Ontario have declared intimate partner violence an epidemic, with Lanark County – a neighbour of Renfrew County – leading the charge. Brampton was one of the latest to do so.
“If city councils can see what’s happening, if they can identify this as a public health emergency, as an epidemic, then it does sort of lead you to ask why Ontario can’t see that in exactly the same places,” Ms. Mercer said.
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The Globe and Mail