Every time a case of domestic violence turns deadly, we hear the same remarks over and over:
“He seemed so nice.”
“He was always very friendly — he always smiled and said hello.”
“He just didn’t seem like the type to do this!”
These comments reflect a larger cultural myth: that violence comes out of nowhere; that it’s a case of a good guy having an isolated breakdown; that these deaths are unpredictable and unpreventable. And yet the findings of Ontario’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee have shown the opposite to be true.
Established in 2003 by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, the committee has so far reviewed more than 250 deaths. Based on its investigations and annual reports, it has compiled a list of 39 risk factors for intimate partner homicide. In 80 per cent of the cases reviewed, seven or more of these risk factors were identified — including obsessive behaviour by the perpetrator, prior attempts to isolate the victim, and unemployment — leading the committee to conclude that the incidents were “potentially predictable and preventable.”
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The committee was created after recommendations from inquests into the deaths of Arlene May and Gillian Hadley, two Ontario women murdered by their husbands. Each man was out on bail for assault charges against his wife, and had a restraining order forbidding contact with them. The same inquests recommended the creation of a procedural checklist based on the risk factors described by the committee, a checklist that is now used by Ontario police during interviews with victims of domestic violence. The Domestic Violence Death Review Committee has also made recommendations to courts, health care providers, victims’ services and those who work with perpetrators of violence.
Committees like this are considered to be best practice when it comes to intimate partner homicide. Since the implementation of Ontario’s committee, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Alberta have put similar programs into place, and British Columbia conducted a one-time review of domestic homicides that resulted in 19 recommendations on how to prevent such deaths. But Saskatchewan, the province with the highest rate of domestic violence and homicides by intimate partners in Canada, does not have any such panel or committee.
In an interview with the CBC last year, Saskatchewan’s chief coroner, Kent Stewart, justified the absence of such a panel by explaining “we haven’t had the numbers.” This, despite the fact that Saskatchewan experienced the highest intimate partner homicide rate in the country between 2000 and 2010. Stewart has served as the province’s chief coroner for 11 years, and has never once called for an inquest into any domestic homicide or made any recommendations on how to decrease gender-based violence.
In October of last year, things came to a head. After a spate of intimate partner murder-suicides over the course of eight months that left nine people dead, Saskatchewan’s provincial Justice Minister and Attorney General Gordon Wyant confirmed that the province would develop “a process to review deaths resulting from domestic violence.” It wasn’t until July, nine months later, that the program was launched. Now federal Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu has chosen to intervene. Hajdu flew into Regina on July 22, and will help the committee create a plan to address the province's domestic violence crisis.
Saskatchewan’s high incidence of domestic violence and intimate partner homicides is, unfortunately, not a rarity in the western provinces. Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan have the highest rates of domestic violences of all the provinces, and while it’s not known exactly why this might be, Statistics Canada says that their higher rates “may be related to a number of factors, including the population’s demographic profile, its socio-economic characteristics, the implementation of prevention programs to reduce individuals’ vulnerability, and the availability and extent of resources to assist victims and perpetrators.” Rates of domestic violence are also climbing: late 2015 saw a 40 per cent increase in reports of domestic violence in Alberta, shortly after the beginning of the province’s latest economic downturn. Domestic violence experts say that a sharp rise in intimate partner violence is common in times of financial stress, in part because layoffs and reduced hours at work mean that abusers are spending more time at home. As well, the stress of job hunting and trying to make ends meet in difficult times can worsen already violent living situations.
Andrea Silverstone, executive director of Peer Support Services for Abused Women and co-chair of the Calgary Domestic Violence Collective, compares domestic violence to a canary in a coal mine, saying in an interview with the CBC that in times of stress “it’s what gets worse first.” Given Saskatchewan’s current economic woes, perhaps the increase in violence would have been possible to predict — which makes the province’s lack of a domestic violence death review all the more appalling. If the province had implemented this best practice at the same time that Ontario did, it’s possible that the recent tragedies could have prevented.
However, prevention also comes in the form of policies to address the issues and circumstances that make it difficult for a person to safely remove themselves and their children from an abusive relationship in the first place, both physically and financially. In March, Manitoba passed a law offering paid and unpaid leave from work for domestic violence victims, guaranteeing them job security while they secure shelter, healthcare and legal counsel. If passed, Bill 204 in Alberta — a province that currently rivals Saskatchewan with a domestic violence rate that is twice the national average — will allow victims of domestic violence to terminate a lease early and without penalty. Both these pieces of legislation have the potential to make an enormous difference in the lives of those trying to leave abusive living situations, and yet still barely scratch the surface of what needs to be done to address the issue in Canada, where more than 3,300 women are forced to sleep in emergency shelters every night in order to escape domestic violence.
It is too soon to say what the findings of Saskatchewan's domestic death review might be, or whether any recommendations or legislation might come of it. But the province’s domestic violence victims finally have hope that the abuse they live with will finally be taken seriously, as it should be. If the past year has proven anything, it’s that when domestic violence is present, women and children’s lives literally hang in the balance.
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer and activist. She is the author of My Heart is an Autumn Garage, a short memoir about depression.