A most violent year: 2015 saw changes for domestic abuse victims

EDMONTON -- The crooked middle finger on Maria Fitzpatrick's left hand is a reminder of the secret she didn't share with many people.

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There were other broken bones, black eyes and bruises that healed. There were the times her husband raped her and threatened to kill her and their two daughters.

Three decades after escaping her violent marriage, Fitzpatrick -- a newly elected Alberta politician -- stood up in the legislature and told her story to the world.

It was time.

With a knot in her stomach, the 66-year-old grandmother brought many to tears with her speech in November. She ended it with an appeal for support of a new law allowing victims of domestic violence to break housing leases without penalty.

In the '70s, an apartment Fitzpatrick shared with her abusive husband was rented in her name and she feared that if she skipped out she wouldn't be able to rent anywhere else. The women's shelters she fled to only let her stay for two weeks. Then she and her children would have to go home again.

"I will be horrified if anybody in this chamber votes against this bill," Fitzpatrick said.

She received a standing ovation and the bill passed.

Several high-profile crimes in 2015 shone a light on the scourge of domestic violence in Canada. Provincial governments across the country have proposed changes to better protect domestic abuse victims and advocates hope that push continues in the year ahead.

Manitoba has introduced new legislation to make it easier for courts to grant protection orders and -- in what it calls a first in Canada -- will confiscate guns from anyone named in such orders. It also plans to change its Employment Standards Code so victims of domestic violence can take time off work without losing their jobs.

The changes came too late to help two women killed in Winnipeg this year.

Selena Keeper had applied in the spring for a protection order against her boyfriend. And, although she told court he regularly beat her -- even when she was pregnant -- she wasn't granted one because it was determined she was not in imminent danger. She was beaten to death in October; her boyfriend is charged with murder.

Camille Runke did get a protection order against her estranged husband, a gun owner. She called police 22 times to report violations of the order and was shot in October outside her workplace. Her husband later committed suicide.

In Saskatchewan, the government decided to start reviewing deaths linked to domestic violence, a process already in place in other provinces.

One of the reviews is likely to be the case of Latasha Gosling and three of her children, who were slain in April in their mobile home in Tisdale, Sask. A friend reported that Gosling had just broken up with her boyfriend, who others described as controlling and jealous with mental issues. Relatives of the woman said her killer took pictures of the bodies and sent copies to the children's biological father before taking his own life.

The worst mass murder in Edmonton's history left eight victims. Phu Lam gunned down his estranged wife, son and others before killing himself last December. Court records revealed that Thuy Tien Truong previously told police her husband had threatened to kill her after finding out his son was not his biological child.

The crime had police and community groups calling for more public awareness of domestic violence.

The latest statistics available show 126 people were killed during domestic violence in Canada in 2013. Alberta's Family Violence Death Review Committee, which is examining the Edmonton mass murder and other cases, counted 97 domestic homicide victims in the province between 2008 and 2014.

"Every time I hear about a homicide related to domestic violence, it saddens me and shocks me," said committee member Debra Tomlinson, head of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Centres. "At the same, I feel encouraged that we're recognizing the death was related to domestic violence."

Tomlinson has seen more awareness of the issue in recent years, and hopes that will lead to more people recognizing abusive relationships and more victims seeking help.

Fellow review committee member Lana Wells, a University of Calgary researcher, said the answer starts with gender equality.

She's recommending Ottawa increase parental leave and make it mandatory for fathers to take it. Men who do more parenting and housework may better appreciate their spouses, she said.

Wells also wants to see more support for fathers and education for boys about healthy relationships. She said Alberta is the first province to specifically include an "engaging men and boys" strategy in its domestic violence plan, which she recently presented at the United Nations.

"When you have healthy dads raising healthy children, they usually end up in healthy relationships."

Fitzpatick, who has received countless messages since her speech, agrees that better parenting and gender equality are key.

"If we can do this, the entire world would be a different place."


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