By: Professor Elizabeth Sheehy*
“Feminists have this nasty habit of counting bodies and refusing not to notice their gender,” Catharine Mackinnon wrote in 1987.
Along with the family and friends of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk, and Nathalie Warmerdam, I mourn these women’s deaths. All were killed within hours of each other on September 22, 2015 in the Ottawa Valley of Ontario. Basil Borutski, their former intimate partner, has been charged with three counts of murder.
There are tragedies upon tragedies here. It is tragic that it takes a mass homicide of women to get the kind of local media and soul-searching that has ensued, while the everyday killing of women—one every six days nationally—marches on with barely a comment. For Indigenous women we seem to need even more blood to pay attention—only a monstrous accumulation of lost lives of girls and women tallying into the hundreds and thousands will make us blink. Even though we are in midst of an election campaign and these most recent killings took place the day after the so-called leaders’ “debate” on women’s issues, which included violence against women as a topic, the candidates have eschewed comment—as noted by Sadiya Ansari here. No leadership to be found here.
It is tragic that media coverage has barely moved beyond the contradictory messages that leave us in stalemate. On the one hand, the same old, tired interviews where members of the community express their surprise and describe Borutski as a nice guy. On the other the headlines that suggest that men like Borutski are “unstoppable”. Are men like Borutski benign individuals who have inexplicably snapped? Or are they raging madmen whose actions are predictable but unpreventable? We are left again without leadership: ought we simply give up—nothing to be done?
It is tragic that this is the first time the criminal charges—first-degree murder—seem commensurate with the actions of the accused. After all, the criminal justice system had years and multiple opportunities to get this right for Borutski. He was convicted of causing property damage, assault police and failure to provide a breath sample. But charges for threatening his ex-wife with death and assaulting her, for assaulting Warmerdam, for criminal harassment of a fifth woman and for assault against a sixth, were all stayed by Crown prosecutors.
Yes, the newspapers report that he was convicted of “choking” Kuzyk, but the truth is we have no such crime. Like Bonnie Mooney, whose terrible experience at the hands of her ex-partner and the criminal justice system I describe in my book, Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts it seems he was convicted of simple assault—not attempted murder, assault endangering life, or likely even assault causing bodily harm. The criminal justice system completely failed to appropriately condemn Borutski’s violence or to capture the acute endangerment his victims faced. And without convictions for serious crimes of violence he could not have been designated the “dangerous offender” that he appears to be. Borutski could not have been kept in jail without that determination. No leadership here either.
It is tragic that we are not also mourning the half-lives these women lived in dread, some for decades. They had to engage in a charade of what others take for granted as normal life—working, caring for their children, trying to move on into hopeful lives, all while fearing that their worst nightmare would come true, living in hyper-vigilance and looking over their shoulder. They used monitoring devices and safety plans, and probably healthy doses of denial, every day of their lives. We know that these weren’t the only women whose lives were derailed by Borutski, because at least three other women turned to police for aid. The life of his ex-wife—Mary Ann Borutski—was spared on September 22nd, but her health has not been, as the crippling sequelae of domestic terrorism continue to wreak havoc on her.
We don’t know how many other Ontario women will now re-live the trauma Borutski caused them as they wonder whether they too were on his list. Or how many women, on the run from violent men, whose blood ran cold when they heard this terrible news. We seem prepared to accept such vast human wreckage—and I’m not here even counting the children of the women—and we will not countenance battered women who kill rather than die themselves, if our media is any reflection of public sentiment. Where to turn for leadership, for something we can do?
Feminists are still “counting the bodies”—and we have to if we are to save women’s lives. Only the independent women’s movement has fought shoulder-to-shoulder with women escaping male violence for more than forty years, using the knowledge they have gained to identify factors and patterns that put women at acute risk; bearing witness to women’s suffering and providing counseling and support; accompanying them to police and to court, arguing with police, prosecutors and sometimes even judges; creating and sustaining shelters for them and their kids; helping women plan safe exits and create new lives; and advocating tirelessly for changes to social welfare, family law, social housing, health care, policing, prosecution practices and to the criminal law itself. The first ever 70-country study that evaluated change over four decades has concluded that the most important factor in predicting positive and enduring policy shifts to combat violence against women is feminist mobilization.
ELIZABETH SHEEHY, LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. (Honoris causa), FRSC, is Vice Dean Research and Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. She teaches Criminal Law and Procedure, Sexual Assault Law, and Defending Battered Women on Trial.