A tale of two terrors

Eleven months to the day Michael Zehaf-Bibeau went hunting for targets in Ottawa – killing ceremonial guard Nathan Cirillo at the national war monument – another lone gunman was on the loose in Eastern Ontario, murdering three women as Renfrew County was set to host its annual Take Back The Night march |MATTHEW BEHRENS

As happened during the Parliament Hill shooting, schools, courthouses, and other public institutions were on lockdown in a number of Ottawa Valley communities on September 22, 2015. Heavily-armed police searched for and eventually arrested a suspect (Basil Borutski) in the targeted killings of Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton. All were reportedly former partners of Borutski who, according to published reports, has a lengthy criminal record (including past charges involving two of the women).

Both gunmen caused panic. And both were banned from possession of firearms, although both managed to get their hands on weapons. But that’s where the similarities end.

After he emerged from the closet in which he had hidden last fall, Stephen Harper immediately invoked the Zehaf-Bibeau shooting — which, despite considerable disagreement, he insisted was a terrorist attack — as a rationale for introducing Bill C-51 and for bombing ISIS, both costly initiatives that most critics agree fail to address the root causes of terrorism.

Harper then used Cirillo’s funeral and subsequent Remembrance Day ceremonies as PR opportunities to further his fear agenda. Yet, in Renfrew County, where friends and neighbours continue reeling from the devastating aftermath of what anti-violence workers are calling “intimate terrorism,” there was no visit from the PM to join in the candlelight vigils, no prime ministerial eulogies at the funerals of the three women and no telegrams of condolence from the PMO condemning such acts of terror. There was no mention of the tragedy at all on the campaign trail.

The emotional damage to the rural area around Wilno, Ontario, where everyone knows everyone else — Kuzyk’s face was recognized on real estate signs throughout the county — was akin to that following a natural disaster. But the silence of leaders who would normally offer words of condolence or visit a stressed region (as Harper did earlier in the campaign during the BC forest fires and after the death of Alberta toddler Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette before one of the federal debates) was palpable.

Borutski’s rampage took place 12 hours after what was supposed to have been a federal leaders’ debate on women’s issues sponsored by Up For Debate, an alliance of more than 175 women’s organizations that was looking forward to the first such electoral gathering on the issue in 30 years.

But the debate was cancelled a month earlier when the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair refused to take part because Stephen Harper would be a no-show. In the end, Mulcair, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, the Greens’ Elizabeth May and Bloc head Gilles Duceppe each provided taped interviews. It was an unfortunate compromise given the powerful symbol of what could have been: federal leaders appearing on the same stage and publicly embracing the call for a national action plan to end violence against women and girls.

Such a plan was mandated by a United Nations in 2006, but despite a 2015 deadline for implementation, Canada has failed to move an inch on the issue.

The Harper government has been similarly recalcitrant on another UN recommendation related to violence against women: an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women (currently numbering at least 1,200).

The murders in Renfrew follow a similar targeting of three women in Winnipeg in July, in which a disgruntled man mailed letter bombs to his ex-spouse and two lawyers involved in their divorce proceedings. One of the packages blew off lawyer Maria Mitousis’s right hand, causing other serious injuries to her chest, face, and thighs. Combined with annual reports on femicide in Canada, they are gut-wrenching reminders of how little has actually been done on the issue of violence against women.

Indeed, when the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses prepared its own action blueprint earlier this year with input from organizations across the country, it reminded us that “the current response to violence against women has failed to significantly lower the levels of violence” over the past two decades in Canada.

The statistics they cite bear this out. On any given night, 4,600 women and 3,600 children are forced to sleep in emergency shelters due to violence. During one single day snapshot of shelters across Canada, some 379 women and 215 children were turned away from already full shelters, according to the report.

It also notes that of some 460,000 victims of crime seen by victim services organizations in Canada in 2011-12, 84 per cent of women were receiving treatment because of a violent offence, 30 per cent were related to sexual assault, with 61 per cent reporting violence at the hands of a current or former spouse or other family member. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg since only about 10 per cent of such assaults are reported.

The Alberta Council for Women’s Shelters asked the federal parties to outline how they would establish a national action plan to address issues of violence against women. Predictably, the Conservatives did not respond. The NDP, Greens and Liberals all endorsed platforms that appear to have taken note of the blueprint. The Greens provided the most detail, including a promise to increase shelter and sexual assault centre funding, while the NDP, short on specifics, nonetheless committed to “dedicated funding and clear benchmarks.”

The blueprint lamented that responses to violence against women in Canada are “largely fragmented, often inaccessible, and can work to impede rather than improve women’s safety.”

Those words certainly ring true in Renfrew, where many locals have publicly stated their belief that better coordination and communication could have prevented September’s targeted killings.

Indeed, Borutski has a lengthy record of assault, breach of parole, and stints in jail.

One of the women victims carried a panic button used by survivors of intimate partner violence, and all had expressed their fear of Borutski.

Significant questions remain unanswered: were the women warned when he was released from prison last December? Why was it so easy for him to return to the very community where his presence prompted real fears? Why, as CBC reported, was he released despite refusing to sign a probationary order not to contact Kuzyk? Why was it so easy for someone with such a lengthy record of violence to obtain a gun?

Some of the answers to these questions may come out in a trial, but they will be too late for three women who were simply trying to go about their daily lives.

Whether their loss will be a factor that propels the next Canadian government to a clear plan on ending such violence may become clearer after the ballots are counted on October 19, but based on their disturbing silence after the Wilno shootings, it seems doubtful.

(Originally published in Now Magazine, October 4, 2015)

Matthew Behrens is a writer and social justice advocate who coordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network.

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