WARNING: This story contains graphic details of violence.
As people gathered in Renfrew, Ont., for a Dec. 6 vigil commemorating 14 women killed at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989, another woman was on the minds of many: a local mother who was the recent victim of a violent death.
Candles flickered and roses wilted in the bitter cold as dozens of people gathered for the vigil about 100 kilometres from Ottawa.
“We felt if we were present here, that we could share resources if folks wanted to reach out,” said JoAnne Brooks, co-ordinator for the Ending Violence Against Women Committee of Renfrew County.
Police are still investigating the Nov. 15 deaths of the local mother, who was found dead with her partner in their home. CBC News is not naming either of them because the case is still under investigation.
At the vigil, organizers handed out 23 roses, each with a tag bearing the name of a woman killed in the county in cases of intimate-partner homicides stretching back to the 1970s, along with one more for those who have not yet been named or identified and another for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“Women are killed by men at such a high level and with such frequency in Ontario that sometimes it it feels almost like, ‘Oh, here we go again,'” said Pamela Cross, a lawyer who works with a number of violence against women organizations across Ontario.
WATCH | Why victims of domestic violence may face more challenges in rural areas
For 16 months, a CBC News investigation compiled and analyzed intimate partner homicide data across Canada between January 2015 and June 2020. CBC found one in four cases of intimate partner homicide was in a rural, remote or northern area of the country.
“The lack of housing and lack of access to financial support is a big barrier … especially in rural, remote communities,” said Peter Jaffe, psychologist and director emeritus of the Center for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University in London, Ont.
“When it comes to domestic violence, if you’re a woman, you’re at much greater danger in a rural community.”
He suggested several other factors are at play in rural communities, including isolation, lack of transportation, poverty and access to guns. Those unique circumstances require approaches that don’t necessarily work in big cities, he said.
‘A very raw wound’
Renfrew County, an area thousands of kilometres larger than P.E.I., is home to the Algonquin community of Pikwàkanagàn, Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, and small cities including Pembroke, Renfrew and Arnprior.
There are vast areas of rural farms, fields and forests.
It was in these more remote stretches of the county where Basil Borutski drove country roads on Sept. 22, 2015, killing Carol Culleton at her cottage, then drove several kilometres away to kill former partner, Anastasia Kuzyk in her home. Finally he drove to the farmhouse of another former partner, Nathalie Warmerdam, and killed her. Police arrested him hours later on the outskirts of Ottawa.
Borutski was sentenced to life in prison in 2017 with no chance of parole for almost 70 years.
His rampage traumatized a community and left people searching for answers.
“It feels like there’s a bit of scar tissue over top of that very raw wound,” said Brooks.
A much-delayed coroner’s inquest is now expected to begin in Pembroke, about 60 kilometres from Renfrew, this coming spring.
There’s a long list of issues for rural and remote residents Brooks expects will be explored: long distances for police or others to reach someone who needs support, a lack of public transportation, spotty or non-existent wifi services, as well as access to guns.
The community has sought a way to have their concerns brought forward to the upcoming inquest, she said.
“Because it happened in a community that was small and where people knew one another in a way they don’t in large cities, those murders resonated extremely quickly,” remembers Cross who travelled to the county in the hours after the tragedy.
“It was for me incredibly moving to spend time with some of the family members of the women who were murdered.”
The Ending Violence Against Women Committee of Renfrew County recently secured a grant to hire Cross as a community engagement facilitator leading up to the inquest.
Over the next few months, Cross plans to meet with community members in small settings or at organized town hall meetings to find out more about continuing issues that leave women at risk, six years after Bortuski stole three lives.
“Do people still think about it? What are their fears? What do they think needs to change or how have they put it behind them? Or do they want to put it behind them?” asked Cross.
Her goal is “to make some systemic changes that really, really speak to the realities in rural communities.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made conditions worse for people in high-risk situations, according to Brooks.
In the case of Renfrew County, which has a population of more than 100,000 throughout its vast area, there is only one 16-bed women’s shelter. It’s been reduced by half during the pandemic.
“Definitely COVID has heightened, in our experiences, violence against women,” said Brooks. “But the lack of housing, the number of women that say to us that they would like to leave this abusive relationship, however … there just is no housing.”
Creative solutions need to come from the communities themselves, according to Peter Jaffe.
“It means much greater public education,” he said. “The things that work in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal or London, Ontario, are not going to work in rural communities, so it’s being able to have, more resources, more diversified to have a network of support across the region.”
As Cross sets out to talk to people in Renfrew County about a painful and still raw situation, she says she is hopeful.
“That despite the terrible reason that we’re having these conversations, that they will happen and that they will be rich, people will be open and honest, and we’ll be able to take a report to the inquest that offers some real meat about how things can change at a system level,” said Cross.
“I’ve been doing this for too long to say, ‘so it never happens again’, but to reduce the likelihood to increase opportunities for women to get support before it’s too late.”
Support is available for anyone affected by intimate partner violence. You can access support services and local resources in Canada by visiting this website. If your situation is urgent, please contact emergency services in your area.