News Provincial

'If someone has a gun and wants to kill us, we will die': One year later, is Wilno any safer?

By Blair Crawford, Postmedia Network

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
A crowd hundreds strong turned out on the Friday night following the murders to remember the lives of Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton at a candlelight vigil in Wilno's Heritage Park.

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
A crowd hundreds strong turned out on the Friday night following the murders to remember the lives of Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton at a candlelight vigil in Wilno's Heritage Park.

As threats go, it’s hard to imagine one more chilling.

“We’ve heard from women who live in an abusive relationship and their abuser has said to them, ‘If you think that you’re leaving — don’t’,” said JoAnne Brooks, director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County. “He’ll say, ‘I can pull a Basil Borutski just like he did’.”

Any woman at risk would recognize that name, the man now charged with three counts of first-degree murder in connection with the horrifying rampage of Sept. 22, 2015. And she would recognize three other names, too — Nathalie Warmerdam, Anastasia Kuzyk and Carol Culleton — the three women who died that day, allegedly at Borutski’s hands.

A year later, experts concede women at risk of violence in rural regions like Renfrew County aren’t any safer.

“It’s really hard to bear that reality — that you could potentially die in your own community,” said Brooks. “Even though we have police, even though we have a court system, at the end of the day if someone has a gun and wants to kill us, we will die.”

The vast distances and isolation of Renfrew County pose a particular risk, Brooks said. It’s the largest county in Ontario — 30 per cent larger than Prince Edward Island — and has a population of fewer than 108,000. It’s a two-hour drive from Arnprior in the east to the county’s western boundary.

Calling 911 isn’t much help if it takes police an hour to get to your door.

But those distances pose other problems as well. Services like the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre and other agencies can provide counselling, emotional support or guidance though the legal system, but not all women drive and there is no public transportation available.

And then there’s the difficulty of overcoming the social conservatism of rural Eastern Ontario.

“A lot of folks are tied to faith-based communities that have real social norms and mores around relationships,” Brooks said. “It’s, ‘You’ve made your bed, you lie in it. We don’t want to hear your stories about abuse’.”

Erin Lee, executive director of Lanark County Interval House, is hopeful those ways are changing. Lanark, at least, is becoming more and more of a bedroom community for Ottawa and that’s having a liberalizing effect.

“These communities are ready for change. People are ripe. They just don’t know what that change looks like,” Lee said.

In April, Lee helped organize four “Rural Forums” in response to the Wilno killings, and other crimes of domestic violence, including murder-suicides in both Lanark and Lennox and Addington counties.

Lee said the forums brought together community leaders, social agencies, victims of violence, the police and legal representatives and others to ask: “What do we know? What have we experienced? What do we need to do differently?”

Education plays a vital role to teach children to see the signs of an abusive relationship, to work with offenders to reduce the risk they pose, and to change attitudes in the community. Since services can be hard for people to get to, there’s a need to bring those services to them, Lee said. If a woman can’t get to a sexual assault centre, maybe she can be reached even when she’s shopping.

“We really do need to think about empowering our grocery stores and empowering our bars and our salons and our spas and our gyms, because those are places they are frequenting even if they’re not engaged in our services,” Lee said.

The tight-knit nature of rural communities can also pose a problem: It’s hard to keep information confidential and some women might find their stories aren’t believed.

“People know each other in a different way in rural communities,” said Pamela Cross, a lawyer in Durham Region who is a leading advocate in preventing violence against women.

“Not speaking about this case specifically, but there are many cases where the assailant is someone who is well-known and recognized in the community and it takes a really long time for people to recognize that that person is a threat rather than someone who is a neighbour or someone they see at the grocery store. It can be harder for a woman to ask for help or support when she knows the partner is well-known.”

Even in cases where the abuser has been charged — in Borutski’s case, even convicted — the system can fail to protect victims. Borutski refused to sign a court order that he stay away from Kuzyk after he served a 19-month jail term for assaulting her in 2013. The conditions were in effect whether he signed it or not, but Cross said his refusal should have been a warning.

“I think the refusal to sign should be seen a fairly big red flag that this individual is not ready to be out in the community,” Cross said.

The government should also do a better job of notifying victims when their abuser is released from custody, Cross said. Victims have a right to be notified, but must ask first. Cross would like to see that reversed, so that they would be notified automatically, unless they choose not to be told.

“That wouldn’t be a law change. That’s just a policy change,” she said.

Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski wants to see better monitoring of potentially dangerous offenders on parole by forcing them to wear electronic bracelets to track their movements. Yakabuski’s private member’s bill died when the legislature was prorogued, but he hopes to reintroduce it this week.

“My bill didn’t try to fix the whole world, but it did work to try to protect them from someone who’s been released from prison and who poses a very real threat to them,” Yakabuski said. Borutski’s refusal to sign his conditions was a clear indicator he still posed a risk, Yakabuski said.

But electronic monitoring isn’t a perfect solution when police are an hour away and poor cellphone coverage makes tracking electronic bracelets difficult in the first place.

“It’s very well-intentioned and has some potential, but we need to go a lot farther than just putting bracelets on people,” Cross said. “There’s a danger that we say, ‘OK, that’s solved the problem.’ We need to make our communities safer.”

So, are they safer? Would Nathalie Warmerdam, Anastasia Kuzyk and Carol Culleton stand a better chance today?

“I’m not sure that I would say things are safer,” said Lee of Lanark’s Interval House. “But we have increased our level of awareness. We are increasing the profile of the issue. And we are continuing to dialogue about making a difference. Are we 100 per cent safer? No. But those three things contribute to making things safer.”


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