Members of a community in eastern Ontario, rocked by the deaths of three women at the hands of a former roommate, did more than mourn the victims during a recent coroner’s investigation — they gathered around participants to help them through to assist.
As witnesses to the inquest shared harrowing details about the ravages of intimate partner violence throughout the month of June and how it contributed to the deaths of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam, supporters from Renfrew County and beyond showed up every day in an effort to protect the limit the emotional toll of the process.
The women were murdered on September 22, 2015 on their local properties by Basil Borutski, a man with a long history of violence against women, with whom all three had previous relationships.
While witnesses testified in a conference room at a hotel in Pembroke, a very different scene played out at a similar facility nearby.
“They booked a room at the hotel across the street where there was always food, drink and human companionship for anyone who needed a break from the investigation,” reads a blog post by Pamela Cross, a lawyer and expert in the field. of violence against women who testified in the investigation. “They made sure there were allies in the room every day of the proceedings, even though they were running their own shifts.”
Such actions by allies, as well as the nature of the inquest itself, made Cross feel the trial was as hopeful as it was solemn.
“There were a lot of people who were cynical about the possibility of the inquest, and I’m not an idiot. We’ve seen recommendations before — hundreds, if not thousands — and often very few are implemented,” Cross, who held community consultations prior to the study, said in an interview.
“It’s hard not to be cynical, but the way this research was set up in such a collaborative way and brought so much to the community from day one, I also felt hope. And I have never lost that hope.”
Local advocacy group End Violence Against Women – Renfrew County decorated the courtroom with peace lilies and handed out wands with messages of hope. Community members brought homemade treats for those who witnessed the trial, and mental health care was available to anyone who needed it.
Lisa Oegema of Renfrew County’s Victim Services, one of several organizations that make up the EVA-Renfrew County coalition, said these small details filled the room with a “positive, caring, nurturing energy.”
“With all of that put together, all those bits and pieces, the energy in the room … the hope for change, that’s what you went through every day,” said Oegema, who testified and attended the study in person on several other occasions.
When the Renfrew County community was first approached about the possibility of the inquest three years ago, Oegema said people were clear about what they wanted from the start.
“Please don’t come in and tear the plaster of our community unless there is a change,” she recalls residents said as she pondered the 86 recommendations presented by the five-member jury last Tuesday.
They include one for the Ontario government to formally declare intimate partner violence an epidemic. The Ontario Attorney General’s Department has said it will “take time to review and properly consider the recommendations”.
Oegema states that the research does not disappoint.
“However long the days were and there was much sadness in listening to the testimonies of many witnesses, I think it was for the greater good. And I do believe that change will happen,” she said.
Many witnesses told the jurors that Borutski’s writing was on the wall. A review of the case found that the perpetrator had been involved in the family and criminal justice system for 40 years, with repeatedly documented concerns about domestic violence and threats to harm others.
Culleton, Kuzyk and Warmerdam had been mistreated by the perpetrator and told several people that they lived in fear of him. They told friends, family or people working in the criminal justice system about the depth of those fears.
Oegema said EVA – Renfrew County will meet again in September to review the jury’s recommendations and identify areas for improvement to continue the fight against violence against women.
“When we sit down to look at these recommendations, we can say, ‘Yes, our agency can do that,'” she said.
Erin Lee, executive director of Lanark County Interval House and Community Support, also testified during the inquest and expressed solidarity with her staff.
She said it was refreshing to see that the investigation into the deaths of Culleton, Kuzyk and Warmerdam focuses specifically on intimate partner violence in rural communities.
The survey found that support service providers in more remote areas generally have limited financial resources to support their work, while victims in those communities face many barriers in seeking support.
While some of the recommendations emerging from the survey require “political will,” Lee said anti-violence agencies in Ontario will continue to “lean on and work to continue and create change” within their communities.
“We are not giving up. We will continue to fight the good fight. We will embrace the recommendations and try to move them forward,” she said. “Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam will not be forgotten. They will be remembered and their names will be mentioned.”
The Canadian Press