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Council declares intimate partner violence an epidemic, demands province do the same

‘The city will never be the same’: Sault Ste. Marie passes unanimous motion, joining 63 other communities in the province calling on Ford government to make the declaration

Two local fathers who each experienced the loss of a daughter to violence were assured by a unanimous vote that Sault Ste. Marie City Council will do what it can to pressure the Ontario government to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

Brian Sweeney is the father of 41-year-old Angie Sweeney, who lost her life last week in a mass murder-suicide that claimed the lives of four people, including three children aged six, seven and 12. Sault Police told media on Wednesday that officers had responded to a call of intimate partner violence (IPV) against gunman Bobbie Hallaert in the days before the killing.

Last year, Dan Jennings reunited with his 22-year-old daughter, who in July was killed by her 50-year-old partner, according to charges by London Police.

The two men appeared Monday at city council to speak in favour of a motion to implore the Ontario government to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

Mayor Matthew Shoemaker noted members of the public do not usually speak to motions by council, but an exception was made under the circumstances. The mayor also extended his condolences to both men on behalf of the community.

The motion was brought forward by Ward 3 Coun. Angela Caputo and seconded by Ward 2 Coun. Lisa Vezeau-Allen. Symbolically, because IPV is an issue that disproportionately affects women, Ward 1 Coun. Sandra Hollingsworth was also noted as a mover for the motion.

The number one recommendation of The Renfrew County Inquest, which investigated the killing of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam by their former partner in 2015, was for the province of Ontario to declare IPV an epidemic in the province.  

In his comments about the recent killings, Shoemaker called last week one of the most challenging and heartbreaking in Sault Ste. Marie’s history, adding to the heartbreak of events over the last several months.

“Sault Ste. Marie is a strong and caring community. I have witnessed or heard about many examples of this recently, and I encourage people to continue looking out for one another and offering support during this incredibly challenging time, especially to those directly affected by the recent violence,” said Shoemaker.

Sweeney was the first to address council in support of the resolution, introducing his wife of 45 years, Suzanne, and son Brian Jr. 

“My daughter Angie was my honeymoon child. She was born exactly nine months after we got married. We spent our time in Niagara Falls, it was beautiful,” said Sweeney. “She was made out of pure love and believe it or not she was pure love. The city will never be the same.”

Sweeney spent the bulk of his time at the lectern speaking about the problem of IPV and his ideas on how to address it head on.

“This IPV scenario we are dealing with is definitely an epidemic in my eyes. It’s been going on and on and on and no one seems to be paying real attention to it. From what I see, you would have to be both blind and totally uneducated to not realize this is what it is,” he said. 

The problem occurs throughout all facets of society, said Sweeney.

“Everyone suffers with this but not enough is being done simultaneously. Everything is pushed down the road so that maybe sooner or later we can get to it,” he added. “Well, we don’t have time for that anymore, we have to get right on the ball as soon as things happen. Police have to be instantaneous, there’s got to be a new way for police to handle these things, scenarios, so this never happens again because the pain is so overwhelming I wouldn't wish it on anyone.”

Sweeney offered more specifics of his plan in a interview with SooToday about his daughter Angie.

Renee Buczel, a longtime friend of Angie, took to the mic to share a little about her friend.

“Angie was the best damn mom, the most loving daughter and sister, she was the type of friend that every girl deserves. She was authentic, genuine and kind. I was blessed to have her by my side for the last 20 years — through motherhood, marriage and everything in between,” she said.

Buczel said she is going to channel Angie’s strength for the work that lies ahead to change the laws around dealing with IPV offenders.

“Every six days in Canada a woman is killed by her intimate partner. That is an unacceptable number because even one life loss is one too many,” she said.

Buczel also had some criticism on how Angie’s killer was able to continue owning firearms, even after a conviction for assaulting an officer and a history of IPV calls.

“What we are trying to understand is how can a man with a history of intimate partner violence, assaulting a police officer and substance abuse be lawfully able to own a firearm?” said Buczel. “Furthermore, when a call is received by local authorities of a violent act against a woman why isn’t more serious action taken? Things like a mandatory 48-hour hold.”

In closing, Sweeney said the children are our future but now those children are being lost to IPV.

“It’s no longer acceptable. It has to happen and it has to happen now. And I mean just like an eagle flies through the sky,” he said.

Ward 1 Coun. Sonny Spina said he was shocked by Sweeney’s presentation, in a good way.

“What I heard from you is a true community leader who was incredibly selfless in this moment in trying to tell us how we need to make our community better,” Spina told Sweeney. “You stood there in front of us and not once worried about yourself, you’re worried about our community and what our leaders can do to make things better, and what you were asking of us was to make things better for people here in our community."

People need to stop acting shocked when these violent attacks happen, said Spina.

“This is not new information. We have now known this for a long time,” he said. “We need to demand action from our government in order to change laws and put laws in place that can help hold offenders accountable and help keep our streets safe. It’s not enough for us to bury our heads in the sand.”

Spina promised Sweeney he has the backing of the whole community.

“I don’t believe you need a voice, you have 11 of them here and you have roughly 77,000 more,” he said, referring to mayor and council and the population of Sault Ste. Marie.

Jennings also addressed council in regards to the recent death of his 22-year-old daughter Caitlin. He called her his millennium baby.

“She was supposed to be 23 in the year 2023. She didn’t make it to that point. She was found dead in her home on July 5,” said Jennings.

Police were called to her home seven times in the months leading up to her death, said Jennings.

“There were times that she was living in shelters. She didn’t open up about how bad things were to me. I got text messages from some of her friends at the end of May saying you have to get away, this guy is going to end up killing you. Six weeks later those words came true,” he said.

Jennings agreed with Sweeney that the Criminal Code needs to be changed and the Ontario government has to do more, starting with declaring IPV an epidemic.

“This has to change,” said Jennings. “The one thing I really want to stress is I am not looking for vengeance, I am looking for justice and that’s what Caitlin deserved.”

Caputo, who introduced the motion, said the real call behind it is to Premier Doug Ford, whose government has so far been reluctant to name IPV an epidemic in the province.

“I ask us to join the 63 municipalities who have already declared intimate partner violence and I ask Premier Ford to recognize that our community is shattered,” said Caputo. “I want it to be very clear, the horrific events that led to the femicide of Angie Sweeney and the murder of three children we lost are not isolated incidents.”

“I ask Premier Ford to reconsider the stance this government has taken. Angie Sweeney deserved better. Those three innocent children deserved better. Women in this province deserve better,” she added.

Caputo cited the statistic of 1,351 IPV calls to Sault Ste. Marie Police in 2022, juxtaposed with Statistics Canada saying 80 per cent of IPV incidents are not reported.

“That means there are very likely approximately 6,755 incidents of intimate partner violence in Sault Ste. Marie in 2022,” she said.

Ward 2 Coun. Lisa Vezeau-Allen served on the local police services board between 2019 and spring of 2023. She said IPV was in a blind spot when it came to the issues the board considered.

“There was never that point of discussion of IPV and I take responsibility for that and we should all take responsibility for that. As people that sit on boards and committees to help steer decisions and to raise issues because it’s not what’s in the data, it’s what’s not in the data,” said Vezeau-Allen. “The data just gives us a snapshot, it doesn’t give us the true picture of the realities of who we are missing.”

The motion was accepted unanimously.

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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