Pembroke –Renfrew County council has declared intimate partner violence (IPV) an epidemic, following a request from a group working to end violence against women.

Joanne Brooks, spokesperson for End Violence Against Women (EVA), and Lisa Oegema, Human Trafficking Program Manager for Victim Crisis and Referral Service (VCARS), delivered a powerful presentation to council last week, sharing some staggering statistics on IPV both locally and in the province. They were accompanied by Faye Cassista, also of VCARS.

Ms. Brooks explained she was there on behalf of the EVA committee in Renfrew County, noting that Ms. Oegema is a member of the board of that organization.

She turned everyone’s attention to four candles that had been placed on the Warden’s dais for the presentation. Three of them had images of each of the women who were murdered on September 22, 2015 by their former partner, Basil Borutski. The fourth candle had no image on it. 

“We are here today to talk about the inquest recommendations that were released on June 28, 2022,” she explained. “The inquest was for Carol (Culleton), Anastasia (Kuzyk) and Nathalie (Warmerdam), who some of you may have known, and I’m sure that we all remember where we were on September 22, 2015.

“We also brought another candle which is for ‘Jane Doe’, which is for all the other women that we’re here to talk about today,” she added. “The women that sometimes are in the news because they have been killed and for many of the women who never report or don’t come forward to anyone.”

She showed council a heart-shaped “magic wand” which they had taken to the inquest and distributed to all the jurors and members of the inquest.

“It says, ‘We, Knew, Can, Carol, Anastasia and Nathalie’, because we want to work for change,” she said of the inscription on each wand.

Ms. Brooks said the purpose of EVA is to work to eliminate violence against women in the county and to advocate for personal, systemic and community change that will end violence against women. She said a monument on the Emerald Trail in Petawawa honours the women who have been murdered by men in Renfrew County and as of September 2015 it bore the names of 23 women.  

“By this summer, once the rocks have thawed, there will be 29,” she noted sadly.

She explained EVA, which previously existed under the moniker Renfrew County Committee For Abused Women, has been around for more than 38 years.

“Many service providers, survivors, advocates, come to the meetings to talk about working for change. And in the past three years, we were very heavily involved in the inquest preparation, and then for the whole month of June last year we were actively involved in that process.

“Some of us were expert witnesses for the jurors,” she added.

She gave kudos to jury members, noting there were five Renfrew County residents comprised of three men and two women, who released 86 recommendations for everyone in Ontario to consider. She reminded council she had distributed bookmarks for them earlier that contained a QR code that would take them to the 86 recommendations. They also received a key chain with a QR code that contains a list of different resources available in the county.

“Our intention is to pass those out to folks who might be in need and for anyone to be able to find Renfrew County resources if you are experiencing abuse, and if someone you know is experiencing abuse. The front of the key chain contains a picture of the stone pebble monument created by the  community that was unveiled on September 22 in Barry’s Bay of this past year.”

Public Education

Ms. Brooks said one of the big things EVA does is public education.

“What we’ve learned from survivors is that education makes a difference,” she stated. “To that end, EVA has become very involved in that.”

She shared how the following night in Renfrew, EVA was showing the award-winning film, “Women Talking”, which she promised would be a powerful evening. She admitted she was getting worried they might get more than 296 people, which is the capacity of the venue, as she had received numerous e-mails from people hoping to attend.

EVA also partners with the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre through events like Take Back The Night, and the December 6 vigil in Petawawa.

“We do community conferences and work to find grants,” she noted. “Our table receives $25,000  a year, which just kind of keeps us afloat.

“And it relies on volunteerism from all of the table members,” she added.

 Ms. Brooks said EVA has been instrumental in establishing several important protocols in the county which include the sexual assault response protocol, the child abuse response protocol, the protocol for the investigation, prosecution and management of cases involving persons with special needs, and the Anti-Human Trafficking (AHT) response protocol and care path.

Tip of The Iceberg

Ms. Oegema explained at the time of the inquest, she was with VCARS and had been working in the field of intimate violence against women for 35 years. At the time of the homicides in 2015, she was the executive director but has since shifted her attention to expand and develop the human trafficking program.

“That is what I brought as an expert witness to the inquest, at the time, to talk about what is the rural reality of individuals that live with intimate violence,” she explained.

She shared the statistics of those serviced and who had experienced intimate partner violence for the past two fiscal years of April 1 to March 31 from three organizations in 2020-2021 and 2021-2022.

She said there are six to 12 incidents of domestic violence reported weekly and at the inquest, VCARS supported 400 intimate partner violence clients.

“So that’s how many were charged and actually made it to the court process,” she explained.

Ms. Oegema said there was likely no one in the council chamber that day who did not know someone who has experienced intimate violence, be it as a child who witnessed or experienced it, their parents, other family members or friends.

“So this truly is something that happens all the time and everywhere,” she stressed. “And these stats are simply an attempt to bring real numbers to you of what we’re seeing.”           

She said one of the unique things about the inquest process was Toronto waited through COVID to bring it to Renfrew County where the murders had happened “because they wanted to take a serious look at the rural reality of individuals who are living with violence and who are fighting to end violence.

“And also the systemic barriers that were happening to allow this to continue in the way it was,” she added. “So it a was very unique inquest that had all kinds of added bonuses that don’t happen when it occurs in Toronto and we’re really pleased they were here.”

She noted the lawyers came back with 77 recommendations and the jury added nine more for a total of 86 for change.

“They accepted what the lawyers presented, but they also added to it based on what they heard as lay people sitting there for three weeks during that very difficult and emotional inquest.”

Ms. Oegema shared some positive changes that have occurred since the inquest, noting Lanark County was the first rural county to enact recommendation #1, which was to formally declare intimate partner violence an epidemic there. Ottawa followed suit on International Women’s Day, becoming the first urban centre to enact the first recommendation.  She said many of the other parties have come back with some type of a response, in varying degrees, to the recommendations that impacted them

“And we’re still waiting on more,” she remarked.

She said the pandemic resulted in increases in intimate partner violence due to the increase in isolation and the lack of ability to access resources.

“We’ve seen all of our numbers go up over that time period,” she said.

She added there has been a hard impact of front-line agencies that have seen a lot of staff turnover based on what occurred the day of the murders.

“We know there has been a lot of burnout and compassion fatigue. And we know in part due, to COVID, our workload has substantially increased, with next to no financial compensation to allow us to hire more people.

“We also know more women have died as a result of the past few years,” she added. “There’s been a lot of heartache and loss.”

On a brighter note, she noted the stone pebble mosaic created by the community was unveiled on September 22, 2022 in Barry’s Bay.

“Throughout the inquest, a grant was obtained to work with art to create a community-based art response to the many feelings that had occurred during the inquest process.”

She urged councillors to read the 86 recommendations and use their voices to help make a change for individuals in the community.

“We ask that you endorse and act upon recommendation number 1 to formally declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic. We know the numbers and we can gladly speak to that more afterwards.           

“And we ask that you lead the change with rural pride and build upon the foundation of which this inquest happened, to look at rural realities and systemic barriers for individuals who are living here, and make that change,” she concluded. “Renfrew County was actually the first county in the province of Ontario to create a domestic violence response protocol and we want to continue that legacy to be leaders in making a difference. And we want our communities to know this is a safe place.”     

Councillor Michael Donohue, Mayor of Admaston-Bromley, questioned just how little of the actual incidents were being reported in the stats presented.

“Do we have any notion of just how much of the iceberg we are seeing?” he asked.

Ms. Oegema said the Stats Can number previously was one-in-four of women experiencing some sort of violence, admitting that figure was a couple of years old. In terms of femicide, which is tracked from November to November, the past year recorded 52 women dead in 52 weeks in the province. In December, eight more were murdered and between January and February, 15 more lost their lives in Ontario.

Bonnechere Valley Mayor Jennifer Murphy offered her thanks to the coroner’s office in Toronto, noting they had encountered some personnel changes through COVID, which could have derailed the inquest process, but it was not affected, which she was very grateful for.

“Nathalie (Warmerdam) was one of my neighbours and a friend, and I couldn’t have hoped for more coming out of this inquest, I don’t think,” she said.

Ms. Brooks took the opportunity to acknowledge Mayor Murphy and the then council of the day in BV for agreeing to become the first municipality in North America to host a stone pebble, sexual violence survivor’s monument. She added other monuments were later created in Petawawa, Killaloe, Barry’s Bay and Pikwakaganan.

“There’s a deep caring about violence against women in this county,” she remarked.

Warden Peter Emon thanked the women for their service, guidance and support for the community. He noted prior to assuming office, he had read all 86 recommendations and he prioritized the list as one of the first things the new council would be presented with. He said he and Ms. Brooks discussed how to best bring it before council, and the idea of education sessions, as had just happened was agreed upon.

Later that afternoon, council took action on the first recommendation as suggested and unanimously supported the resolution declaring intimate partner violence a pandemic in Renfrew County.