Janine Benedet and Isabel Grant are professors of law at the University of British Columbia.
We know that the home continues to be a dangerous place for women, and that an average of one woman in Canada every week is killed by a current or former male partner. And so, as a society, we are supposed to be taking domestic violence seriously. The Criminal Code has a provision that makes violence against an intimate partner an aggravating factor in sentencing, and another that states that where the victim is vulnerable because of age or personal circumstances, the primary sentencing objectives are denunciation and deterrence.
And yet, in Edmonton last month, a man who killed his wife in 2018 through a lethal injection of insulin was sentenced to just two years of house arrest after pleading guilty to manslaughter.
Why was the deliberate killing of 69-year-old Christiane Belzile by her husband Francois, then 73, treated so leniently? We believe the reason was simple: she was a woman with disabilities.
In 2011, after Mrs. Belzile had a stroke, her husband decided that he would be her sole caregiver, preventing her from receiving care from professionals. But she developed diabetes and dementia and, after a fall in 2018 that led to an infection, Francois told her they had “reached the end.” After the injection, when she stopped breathing, he tried to end his life.
If she had been a woman without disabilities, these actions might have been seen as examples of coercive control in an abusive relationship; instead, a combination of sexism, ableism, and ageism appears to have obscured the fact that she was exactly the kind of vulnerable victim the law must protect.
Instead, the judge accepted that Francois Belzile was suffering from “caregiver burnout” in imposing house arrest, even though Mr. Belzile had already received significant mitigation when the Crown reduced a first-degree murder charge to manslaughter.
After his arrest, Francois Belzile referred to himself as “Latimer Two,” in reference to Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan father who murdered his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, who had severe cerebral palsy, in 1993. Mr. Latimer went on to be sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Belzile’s lawyer told the sentencing judge that “the world has changed since Latimer, at least in Canada” – an argument that we believe sounded plausible because of the rapid expansion in Canada of medical assistance in dying (MAID) to persons with disabilities considered to be suffering intolerably, but who are not at the end of their natural lives.
When MAID was legalized in 2016, Canadians were assured that the law would protect vulnerable people from outside pressure, including from family members, and that it would be limited to those who could express a settled, informed choice to die after exhausting other options at the end of their lives. We were told MAID would protect against the possibility that individuals claiming to be acting out of mercy would take matters into their own hands. But by expanding MAID to those whose death is not imminent, with few safeguards and only a façade of monitoring, we have reached the point that killing can now be passed off as an extension of caregiving in a Canadian court.
Providing care to another human being is demanding work, mostly done by women. It should be better supported and better compensated, with options for assistance from professionals when needed. But a man who chooses to access none of those supports, and makes a unilateral decision that his wife is better off dead, should not be given a lesser charge and a considerable sentencing discount just because she was physically and verbally unable to resist.
Helen Naslund is among the Canadian women who have received lengthy penitentiary sentences because, after receiving no state protection from men who were abusive to them for years, they killed their male partners in a desperate bid for freedom. That such crimes are apparently considered by the law to be deserving of more denunciation than the killing of a woman who was disabled by a stroke and injured in a fall tells us a lot about the relative worth of people’s lives.
Disability activists and scholars across Canada have warned in recent years against the expansion of MAID to disabled people who are not dying but are experiencing “intolerable suffering.” They worried that people with disabilities would seek MAID because they are denied the social and economic resources to live decent lives. They feared that people with disabilities would feel pressure to end their lives, and that non-disabled people, including doctors and other professionals, would undervalue disabled lives and normalize the premature deaths of people with disabilities. The legal system’s treatment of the killing of Christiane Belzile signals to us that they were right.