Winnipeg City Councillor serving Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood
It was a quiet September 22nd Sunday evening, a long, long time ago. But that particular Sunday evening is one I remember as if it happened yesterday.
On this specific Sunday night, my teenaged brother had just left the house for his part-time job at Shoppers Drug Mart, and our younger brother was on a school trip. I was at a hockey game hundreds of miles away.
What makes this night different than any other?
It was the night our Mom was strangled to death by her husband, Bob.
Every week in Canada, three women are killed by their partner or former partner. Fifty-one percent of women and more than a million children are affected each year by domestic violence, no matter their financial status, ethnicity, or education.
I am one of those children. As a young adult, my life changed so much more than I realized at the moment. I lived with a secret pain stored away deep in my memory and locked away for years. But I'm just one of a million children impacted by Domestic Violence every year in our country.
My Mom was murdered by her husband, who is no longer in jail. He served under eight years. Today is the loneliest and painful days year after year. I take time to imagine what life would have been like if my Mom had been with us all these years. I still miss her every day that goes by.
I choose to talk about Domestic Violence to honour my Mom, keep her memory alive, be a voice for those afraid to speak, and give another child courage to talk about how they feel and know it's not their fault.
My Mom, Joanne, was a beautiful and caring lady who worked a full-time job, took care of her three boys for many years on her own, and went back to school in her very early 40's to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.
She was the strongest woman I knew.
She was always there when we made a mistake. She taught us how to get back up every time we fell. Life for us wasn't easy, but she always made us feel special and grateful for what we had, each other. To me, there were no barriers in this universe that could stop her. She taught us to have strength, to go after our dreams, and make them happen. Giving up was not an option. My Mother, like all moms, was the rope that kept our family tied together.
I hear her voice often, reminding me that a family is a safe place. "Your safe place" that statement is ironic because it was in her safe place where her life ended tragically one September evening.
Years ago, I was in a federal prison board room, sitting less than 10 feet from my Mother's husband, Bob, the man who ended my Mom's life and a large part of ours.
I can't explain the emotions, the questions running through my head. But, I do know it was then when I woke up to the reality of what this man did with his bare hands. It was as if the room I had locked all my memories and emotions in just burst open. My brothers and I sat there and listened to him describe what he did and why it wasn't his fault. The feelings were hard to hide, but we were told that we would have to leave the room if we didn't.
I realized the full impact of his actions that day. I saw how we protected ourselves from thinking about what happened. Ever since then, it's been hard for us to sit down together and talk about the past. We never did, not even about fond memories.
The parole board asked him to talk further about what happened and why he took her life. The board revealed his past domestic abuse on partners, which we weren't aware of.
Each time, his abuse became worse — it started with shoving a girlfriend, then pushing his first wife, and then punching her. That relationship ended, but his pattern continued until finally, he took a life. Sadly it was my Mom's life.
I also learned that day she had previously called the police about his abuse. She even spent time at a women's shelter on a few occasions. She never told us, but then again, we never asked. Like most people in the world, we were blind to the signs, but we were young, and she did everything to shelter us from that part of her life.
My brother told me there is a sentence that haunts him to this day. He said one night, talking to Mom before he went to bed, she apologized for the yelling he witnessed earlier, and as she walked out the door, my brother asked her, "Will you be OK?" to which she replied, "Sleep with one eye open…love you."
I see now this is how she lived her life with him every day, sleeping with one eye open, and there are thousands of women that do today.
My Mom was living in a personal hell, just as thousands of women are doing right now. The reasons she went back are similar for all women in these situations — fear of survival, fear of being unable to provide a home for their children, and sadly, fear of what would happen if they spoke out and told others, even their family members.
Nobody wants to talk about domestic abuse. It's too personal. Nobody wants to admit to it - because of fear from their abusive partner and fear of what the community will think about them. I never wanted to tell anyone because of what they may think of me.
I've experienced mixed emotions from people; even one person negatively labeled me. After all, he was our step-father. Imagine how a young child must feel, one who is afraid to go to bed, a child who sleeps to the sounds of yelling or glasses breaking. Where do they have to return? Who do they call for help? The pattern of hiding your emotions for safety begins.
I believe that all children who witness domestic violence feel the same, no matter their age, financial status, or education. They feel like my brothers and me — it was our fault.
I'm the oldest; I should have done something. I should have seen the signs. It was harder for my teenaged brother. He left the house that night for work even though my Mom asked him to stay for supper. "Just stay and eat with us," she said. How do you overcome that? How do you stop thinking things may have been different if only he stayed home for supper that night.
What's the message?
My Mom's murderer spent less than nine years in jail. What message are we sending with such light sentences for a horrific crime? They know most men who murder their partners are released before serving 12 years. My Mother's husband — her murderer — was granted parole that day. The reason for his release? He doesn't pose a threat to society, no not at all, just the women he dates.
My Mom lived with abuse because she wanted to provide for us, her boys. She had just become a nurse for a short time before she was murdered. But, how could she tell the new people she worked with, professionals, that she was a victim of abuse? What would they think?
How could she tell other people she was afraid for her life? She called the police and was told, "if he does anything again, call us, and we will make him leave." She never had the chance to make that call.
The options for victims, both women, and men are limited. When I think about how all government levels hand out money and tax breaks to the powerful, I'm disappointed only a small fraction are given to shelters in this country, embarrassing and shameful.
My Mom, Joanne, did leave that house, but not the way she wanted. Her husband/murderer — explained at the parole hearing what he did, how it all happened, and how he was the real victim. The abusers all start the same way — the woman makes the man angry, and they lose their temper. There is a little yelling, then some shoving. That night, that pattern was being repeated, but this time it ended in my Mom's death.
After he killed her, he told the board he felt bad, so he went to the couch and had a drink to calm down. Once finished, he called the police while my Mother's lifeless body lay on the master bedroom floor during this time.
Our system treats him as the victim, provides treatment while in prison, and gives him passes to attend events, but for the real victim's children, nothing.
About a week after my Mom was killed, the court granted him bail and he returned to work and back home, yes that home, until his trial date. The Judge said, "he poses no threat to the public". What? My Mom was not considered part of the public? Was the court telling us, it's not bad if you kill someone close to you? My Mom couldn't go back home.
Did they offer to help us? No. I had to go to the house where my Mom's life ended and gather up personal items, as well as hers. While doing this, I had to step around the marks of death on her bedroom floor, all under a time constraint as her murdered would be home, and we were not allowed to be there.
Imagine a man who committed murder sits in a hospital because of stress. At the same time, the children of the victim are in a funeral home selecting a casket, and then being told that they had to decide how to deal with the bruises on their Mother's neck, because the make-up couldn't hide them.
As the man who committed murder applied for and received bail, our lives changed forever while his life returned to some form of normal.
End domestic violence
Sadly, our story is not special. Maybe ours is a little better, if that's possible, because this happens too many children much younger than we were. We must end domestic violence. We spend so much money on trivial projects that don't help people, but we can't find ways to support the one million children of domestic violence.
We'll protest that the city has few bike paths, but nobody protests when a murderer is released to our communities' streets after killing his wife.
Domestic violence affected my brothers and me in many ways. But, it didn't end with us. My youngest son walked up to me, upset, a few days after my return from the parole hearing, and asked me if his grandmother would have loved him. He looked so sad. He never met his grandmother. He'd only seen a photo of her. Of course, I told him, she would have loved you very much.
My son then said he was scared. "Of what?" I asked. He replied: "that man got out of jail, right?" When I said yes, he looked at me and asked, "will grandma's husband come and kill us now?"
Domestic violence impacts generations, and it's a problem in our city, province, and country.
Another shelter is not the fix for domestic violence. Stricter punishment, more significant community support, and reducing the victims' fear of public perception are critical elements of a solution.
It's time to end the silence. Let's stand with and help all victims. Tell them their not alone and make them feel safe.
We can make a difference together. We need to talk to young people so they will come forward. We need to share stories, so people better understand the impact of domestic violence. We need to end the silence, and we will save lives.
I know that women are not the only victims of domestic abuse. There are male victims. If you're in a violent situation, call for help now. Please don't wait until it's too late.
I love you Mom.