The killing of Marylène Lévesque has moved and outraged people across the country, as it should. If you’ve been near a TV or a computer, you’ve likely seen her picture – she was a 22-year-old woman with a life and a future, both now gone.
Canadians are outraged because the man charged in Ms. Lévesque’s death, Eustachio Gallese, was out on day parole when the crime took place. Her body was found in a hotel room in Sainte-Foy, Que. Mr. Gallese had turned himself in to police, and was charged with second-degree murder.
Nothing good comes from a violent death, and the only possible solace is that something is learned from it, some wisdom passed on, which helps prevent more violence in the future. What are the particular threats faced by marginalized women and sex workers? How do we identify patterns of abusive behaviour and stop them before they escalate? How do we teach men that they are not entitled to women’s bodies – and certainly not their lives?
We don’t seem to be learning those lessons from Ms. Lévesque’s death. Instead, the killing has turned into a political football. In the House of Commons this week, a debate over an investigation into the parole board’s decisions became an opportunity for grandstanding on who is tougher on crime, and whether sex work is an appropriate career choice (we have Conservative MP Arnold Viersen to thank for that new low in parliamentary discourse, after he asked NDP MP Laurel Collins if she had considered that line of work).
I’m sure there are valid questions to be asking about parole decisions, but these discussions are also a giant misdirection. There is an enormous problem involving violence against women in this country, and most of it is not committed by men on parole. Much of it, in fact, is committed by men who face no legal or criminal sanction for their violence because it is directed at women, in private. Sex workers are among the most vulnerable in these situations. In the worst cases, when it escalates to murder, there has already been a clear pattern of abuse, coercion and threats.
Instead of getting sidetracked into political point-scoring about which party is tougher on criminals, we need to look at how women are being failed, constantly, when they need to escape violent situations, first through a lack of awareness, and then through a lack of support in terms of housing and legal protection.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Police forces in Calgary and Peel Region in Ontario have sounded the alarm about soaring rates of intimate-partner violence (in Calgary last year, half of 14 homicides were domestic; in Peel, it was 13 of 31). In the provincial legislature, Premier Jason Kenney acknowledged “there’s a crisis of domestic violence against women in Alberta.” Peel Region’s deputy police chief, Marc Andrews, noted that domestic killings “don’t traditionally get the same sort of attention in the media that the more dynamic gun or gang-related homicides do.” In Quebec, vigils were held last month to draw attention to something overlooked by the media and the public: that four women had been killed in the province in the preceding five weeks.
One thing we could learn from Ms. Lévesque’s death is how lousy we are at taking men’s histories of violence seriously. Mr. Gallese was on parole after he’d received a life sentence in 2006 for killing his former partner, Chantale Deschênes, with a hammer and a knife. Prior to that, he’d had a history of assaulting a romantic partner. He’d reportedly been banned from the massage parlour where Ms. Lévesque worked, which is why she had to meet him in a hotel.
It’s alarmingly easy to find stories about red flags being ignored until a woman’s corpse turns up, sometimes with her children alongside. In 2017, Tharshika Jeganathan’s estranged husband was charged with assaulting her, but he was acquitted at trial. Less than two years later, she was killed in a machete attack in her Toronto driveway; her husband, who was the subject of a peace bond, is charged with her murder.
In Nova Scotia, there’s currently an inquiry into the murder-suicide committed by Lionel Desmond, in which he killed his wife, Shanna, his mother, Brenda, and 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah. Mr. Desmond, an army vet, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He had also been having marital troubles, the inquiry has heard, and was fixated on thoughts of his wife’s supposed infidelity. Two nights before he killed his family, he’d had a bitter argument with his wife and she’d told him to leave the house. Now the inquiry is meant to examine whether the Desmonds had adequate access to domestic-violence services, and whether Mr. Desmond – who’d previously had his guns taken away by the RCMP – should have been able to purchase the weapon he used to kill his family. The answers, if they come, will be too late for Shanna and Brenda and Aaliyah.
There are stories like these all over the country. Women’s pleas ignored, systems that fail, or that are inadequate to begin with. There are also some good news stories, such as the improved training of some police services, and their integration with women’s advocacy groups to provide outreach. Alberta and Saskatchewan have introduced Clare’s Law, so that a person at risk of domestic violence can search her partner’s criminal past. New Brunswick is finally implementing a domestic violence homicide review committee, to study and learn from these crimes.
If in fact we do learn from them. On some days, when another woman is buried, it feels as if the cycle will never end.
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