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‘Enough is enough’: Event shines light on local victims of femicide

Province continues to refuse to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic; 'People are dying in this province and we’re going to play a game that is about language?'

EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared on SooToday on Nov. 28. It is being republished here for readers who may have missed it.

The woman who drafted the first resolution calling for the province to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic was in Sault Ste. Marie last Monday, urging concerned citizens to continue to put pressure on the Ford government to do that and the other recommendations from the Renfrew County Commission.

Erin Lee was speaking at an event at The Water Tower Inn supporting the local families recently affected by femicide. She is the executive director of the Lanark County Interval House women’s shelter and a member of the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee. 

About 60 people were in attendance, including police chief Hugh Stevenson, Social Services CEO Mike Nadeau and councillor Angela Caputo. Among the other speakers were Dan Jennings and Brian Sweeney, who each recently lost a daughter to intimate partner violence (IPV).

A total of 62 lit candles were on display in the room, with each candle representing a woman or child who died in Ontario as a result of femicide since November of last year. The names Angie Sweeney, Abbie Hallaert, Ally Hallaert, Nate Hallaert and Caitlin Jennings were each written on a folded card in front of a candle, as were the names of the other 57 victims.

“We don’t track how many survivors we have, we don’t track how many people find their courage and get out. We don’t track how many people silently move on and never acknowledge it. We don’t track those numbers on the other side, we track femicides because we know our systems are broken and we want to fix them,” Lee said of the deaths.

Lee noted the Oct. 23 intimate partner killings in Sault Ste. Marie, which claimed four victims, had some parallels to the 2015 killing of Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton in Renfrew County, including the fact the crimes were committed on the same day at multiple sites by a single abuser known to police.

“There are intersections that we can’t ignore. We need to make those connections with each other, with ourselves to understand this is not only happening in the Sault where these kinds of incidents don’t happen, it’s happening in multiple communities across this province and across this country,” she said.

Just like in Renfrew County, the tragic and senseless killings in the Sault have had far-reaching impacts in the community.

“All of us know that one murder impacts hundreds and hundreds of people, when you think about the series of murders that happened in your community, it impacts everybody,” said Lee. “It impacts the kids in the schools and the communities and the playgrounds, the grocery store, everywhere.”

She said it’s important to gather and remember, but it’s also important to unite and take action.

When the Renfrew County Inquest was completed in June of 2022, the first of its 86 recommendations was for the province to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

“One might think that the jury’s number one recommendation should be simple for the province of Ontario to embrace, but the province of Ontario did not embrace the recommendation, it rejected the recommendation and continues to reject the recommendation,” said Lee. 

She said the province has said it rejects the term epidemic because the definition of that word suggests a disease that is passed from person to person.

“People are dying in this province and we’re going to play a game that is about language? Instead of acknowledging that people are dying?” said Lee.

A few months after the inquest in which jurors made the recommendations, Lee presented the idea of passing a resolution at Lanark County community services committee. It was later adopted by the county as a whole, the first community in Canada to do so.

“I didn’t actually think they were going to do it. I thought they would entertain it and, as sometimes it does in municipal politics, it would be tabled and we would have further discussion and we would have staff do a report — but they wanted the motion,” she said. “I was shaking in my car because I was like: I don’t think they know what they have done. But guess what? I’m not going to tell them what they have done, I am just so stunned that they had done it.”

Since then, a total of 72 communities in Ontario have made a similar declaration, including Sault Ste. Marie.

”That’s what happens when local communities get together and decide we’re taking action,” said Lee. “It applies pressure and it sends a message.”

So far that message has still not been picked up by the provincial government. It has yet to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

“The reality is [they] are afraid to make that declaration that IPV is an epidemic because they think it’s going to cost them a lot of money,” said Lee. “It costs billions of dollars to the health care system every year to deal with intimate partner violence. It costs billions of dollars to deal with the justice system that we know doesn’t entirely demonstrate true justice for women and children.”

“It costs nothing to make the declaration, but what it does is it tells every survivor that we hear them. It tells every person who is enduring that they matter. It tells every person on the list that we don’t forget and that we are seeking change and justice. It tells systems that they need to change and they need to do better,” she added.

Making the declaration should be easy for the government to do, she said, but it is still only the first step.

“Why wouldn’t we pass it? Then let’s get to recommendation nine about restorative justice, and let’s move on to recommendation 23 about public education, and let’s move on to the recommendation about the justice system, and let’s maybe move on to recommendation 21 about second-stage housing and let’s move on to the recommendation that talks about working better with perpetrators and let’s figure out how to get upstream so we stop picking out bodies out of the water,” she said.

Women in Crisis Algoma is currently showcasing its 16 days of action on its Facebook page, said director of community relations and finance Norma Elliott.

“We want the community to come together and hold each other accountable for our behaviours and our actions and to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone," said Elliott. “Not anyone in the Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma District, not anywhere. It’s time we say enough is enough and we need our politicians to say the same thing."

Greiving father Dan Jennings spoke about his daughter, Caitlin, who was killed in July at the age of 22 in her London, Ont. home. Her 50-year-old fiancé has been charged with her murder.

Jennings and his then-fiancée Michelle went to London for the bail decision hearing and, earlier in the day, got married at city hall.

“We had been waiting since September 9 for that decision and we decided if things didn’t go our way, at least something good will come out of it so we decided to get married,” he said. “Our best wedding present was bail was denied."

Jennings said he focuses on the good memories of his daughter as he works through his grief.

“She had a life full of potential and a life unfulfilled. It’s something I have to deal with and there’s no question when she died, as a parent, a part of me died with her. Part of my heart is gone because of this,” he said of Caitlin.

“She didn’t know where to turn or how to get out. That is a big focus of why we are here tonight,” said Jennings, who has created a Facebook group called Caitlin’s Heard in memory of his daughter and to seek justice for her murder.  

Brian Sweeney took to the microphone with his wife Suzanne by his side to speak about his daughter Angie. Her killer died by suicide on the same night she and three children lost their lives.

“Unlike my friend Dan here, we can’t see justice,” said Sweeney. “The only way I see us getting justice is making change so that nobody else goes through this again.”

Sweeney has promised to push the provincial and federal governments for change in how women are protected and how suspected IPV perpetrators are dealt with. A Facebook page called Angie's Angels has been set up for people who want to get involved or track its progress.

“These doors have to get opened up and we just have to push our government people to do what is right for the people,” he said. 

“For us, our only justice is going to be that no other people suffer like we have. I’ll never stop fighting for this, ’til the day I die, because that’s what I’m going to do,” said Sweeney.

At the conclusion of the remarks, all 62 candles were put out one by one as the name of each victim and where they died was read aloud. It took over six minutes to complete the list and ten of those names were read only as Jane Doe. In the place of the light of the 62 candles, a single candle was lit.

“Although we blew out 62 candles, tonight we end by lighting one. For it is only one single candle’s flame that can ignite a thousand more," said Sarah Paciocco, a Women In Crisis sexual assault and abuse crisis counsellor. “Let this flame represent a spark of hope for today, for tomorrow. Hope for a better future for our sisters, our daughter, our aunts and our mothers because they deserve better."

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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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