This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.
Seven months after a murder-suicide devastated two families and a community in Pointe-Sapin, it’s still not clear whether New Brunswick’s domestic violence death review committee will examine the case.
Lisa Graves-Smith, a 30-year-old mother of three, was shot and killed by Christian Poirier inside their workplace on the morning of July 25, 2019.
Poirier and Graves-Smith had briefly dated, but she didn’t want to pursue a relationship with him, according to Graves-Smith’s mother.
A CBC News investigation found that Poirier had a history of violence and was prohibited from possessing firearms, but was still able to get his hands on a gun that day.
Lisa’s mother, Rose Marie Smith, would like to see the domestic violence death review committee examine her daughter’s death. Until she was asked by CBC, Smith didn’t know New Brunswick had such a thing.
“It’s not going to help Lisa at this point, but it could help another family not have to go through this,” Smith said.
“That would be great.”
Established by the chief coroner’s office in December 2009, the domestic violence death review committee defines a domestic violence death as “a homicide or suicide that results from violence between intimate partners or ex-partners and may include the death of a child or other familial members.”
The committee “helps identify systemic issues, problems, gaps, or shortcomings in each case and may make appropriate recommendations concerning prevention.”
But the committee’s current structure sees it work almost entirely in secret, sometimes even leaving the victim’s family members in the dark.
The annual reports include a list of recommendations but no context around why they were made, including whether the committee’s review found gaps or failings that may have helped prevent a death.
For Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, the context matters.
“If you don’t have the context, you don’t understand why,” Reimer said in an interview.
“And if you don’t understand why, you’re less likely to make a change.”
Few details about police investigation
The chief coroner’s office confirmed it’s still investigating the deaths in Pointe-Sapin.
In cases where intimate partner violence is deemed to be “a contributing factor in a death,” the chief coroner can refer the case to the domestic violence death review committee after the investigation is complete.
But even if the Pointe-Sapin case is reviewed by the committee, the public likely won’t know, because the committee’s recommendations aren’t connected to specific cases. A spokesperson for the chief coroner said the office can’t discuss specific cases because of privacy legislation.
Police also investigated the case in Pointe-Sapin but won’t publicly discuss their findings either.
RCMP have also cited privacy legislation, saying they can’t discuss the case because charges haven’t, and won’t, be laid.
Understanding cases of murder-suicide can help the public learn from what happened and to spot risk factors in the future, according to Cathy Holtmann, director of New Brunswick’s Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research.
“There are lots of places where we can learn from these situations, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that just because a charge or a conviction didn’t occur, that nothing can be learned from that situation,” Holtmann said.
Even if the domestic violence death review committee does analyze a case, and the public doesn’t get to see the findings, Holtmann argues the public may still benefit.
“From a research perspective, yes, individual information about this particular case may not reach the public,” she said.
“But the learnings from this case can be applied to public services and public education projects, public awareness-raising projects, that will benefit the general public.”
An internal review
For more than a year, New Brunswick’s chief coroner has been reviewing how its domestic violence death review committee works.
That includes looking at how other provinces review intimate partner homicides, “stakeholder consultations” and reviewing nearly a decade’s worth of domestic violence-related deaths.
“The review is expected to be completed in the coming months,” Coreen Enos, a spokesperson for the chief coroner’s office, wrote in an email.
“The results will be made public.”
Some other provinces provide more context for the recommendations, including details about the cases that have been reviewed.
For example, Ontario’s domestic violence death review committee provides a statistical picture of the cases it reviews, adding the number of risk factors present in each case.
Secrecy in N.B.
That’s not what happens in New Brunswick.
The committee’s most recent annual report, from 2017, includes 21 recommendations. It’s not clear which recommendations might be related to each other. Relevant government departments provide responses in the report, but it’s not always clear whether a recommendation was implemented.
Elsewhere in Atlantic Canada, neither Prince Edward Island nor Newfoundland and Labrador have specific committees tasked with reviewing intimate partner-related deaths.
Last year, Nova Scotia announced it would create a domestic violence death review committee. But that group will also work in secret and the government won’t be compelled to act on its recommendations.
In January, premiers of all four Atlantic provinces announced the Atlantic Domestic Homicide Review Network, which will see provinces share information on “existing system responses and prevention efforts,” as well as study trends in the region.
The network won’t review domestic homicide cases, instead looking at “aggregate data,” according to Valerie Kilfoil, a spokesperson for New Brunswick’s Women’s Equality branch. It’s not clear how much of that work will be made public.
“The network would complement the existing work of New Brunswick’s [domestic violence] death review committee, by allowing analysis of trends across the region to further help inform system responses,” Kilfoil wrote in an emailed statement.
Last year, former chief coroner Gregory Forestell said the internal review would include a look at the committee’s “transparency and accountability.”
New Brunswick revamped its child death review committee in 2017, after a CBC News investigation found the public is allowed to know little about how at-risk children die.
Now, the committee gives the public more information about the child when releasing recommendations, including the age of the child, cause of death and how the child was known to the Department of Social Development.
Forestell said it’s important for people to understand the circumstances surrounding deaths so the recommendations can be meaningful, but without opening “old wounds” for grieving families.
“We want to look at supporting those families and hopefully taking information that we learned from these tragedies to prevent other tragedies in the future,” he said in a 2019 interview.
“But we have to balance that with the privacy legislation.”
Deputy chief coroner Jérome Ouellette, who is acting as chief coroner, is now responsible for the internal review. He wasn’t made available for an interview.
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