Saskatchewan holds grim record for domestic violence - but glimmers of hope

In the week since a Regina woman was found dead and her husband charged with murder, a makeshift memorial of flowers, candles and stuffed animals has grown outside the family home.

Published on: May 29, 2016 | Last Updated: May 29, 2016 5:31 PM CST

Sandeep Kaur Tehara, a 38-year-old mother of two, is among three people allegedly killed by intimate partners in Regina over the past two years.

While few details have been released, within days of Tehara’s death, the RCMP’s major crimes unit was probing the deaths of a man, 58, and woman, 51, “known to each other” at a Canora home. And Tehara’s homicide comes nearly a year and a month to the day after the killing of Latasha Gosling and her three children in Tisdale at the hands of Gosling’s boyfriend.

Such tragedies drive the stark numbers that have given Saskatchewan a dubious distinction.

“Per capita, among the Canadian provinces, not the territories, Saskatchewan does have the highest rate of intimate partner violence, intimate partner homicide and sexual assault,” noted Jo-Anne Dusel, provincial co-ordinator for the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services (PATHS).

The why is mired in history, location and demographics.

“We have reasons why we’re at the top … I think they’re about having more isolated and rural and northern communities,” said Deb Fehr, a Saskatoon psychologist working in the field of intimate partner violence. “In rural communities, help is harder to get. And the pressures to stay are different,” she added.

According to Statistics Canada, Saskatchewan’s per capita rate of intimate partner violence is more than double the national rate.

Younger people are more likely to experience abuse, and aboriginal women are four times more likely to experience violence and eight times more likely to be killed — so the province’s demographics also come into play, noted Dusel.

One need only look at how residential schools broke down indigenous families, leaving generations of dysfunction, anger and substance abuse, said Fehr.

“We’ve got a lot of healing to do. As province, we have a lot of steps to take that are more supportive of families, particularly isolated, rural and northern families,” she added.

If there’s any glimmer of hope, Fehr notes that Saskatchewan, like all of Canada, has seen some, slight improvement statistically. Looking only at spousal homicides — those legally married, living common-law, separated common-law, divorced and same-sex couples — and not the larger category of intimate-partner homicides, Saskatchewan averaged about two a year between 2010 and 2014. A decade earlier, the average was five annually.

Fehr said the reasons for the drop are less clear, but she’s optimistic some policy changes have helped. In that time, Saskatchewan built up its specialized domestic violence courts, increased awareness, and opened new shelters.

“That’s the tough thing about domestic violence and working specifically in this role and in this city — we don’t know how many homicides we’ve prevented,” said Jen Renwick, a domestic violence worker at Family Service Regina.

They all hope more can be learned about what does and doesn’t work when the province’s new domestic violence death review panel gets to work next month. It will start by reviewing three to five completed cases.

When Fehr first began studying femicide in the province more than a decade ago, she similarly reviewed scores of individual cases going back to the late 1980s.

“When you look at it case by case, you can see where the gaps are … where were the mistakes made, which is a whole lot easier to see after the fact,” she said. “That can help to drive policy.”

For example, studies have shown that if police are called to a domestic violence and don’t lay any charge, aggression escalates. That has led to zero tolerance policies by many police agencies.

In Ontario, which has had death reviews for many years, one of the results has been a bystander awareness program, since many times, friends, family and co-workers recognize domestic violence is occurring but don’t know how to respond.

“The sad thing about spousal homicide, is that if people who are involved — if you can look at the signals, you can see it coming,” added Fehr.

Warning signs can include obsessive behaviour by the perpetrator, a history of depression by perpetrator, escalation in violence, stalking, and an attempt to isolate the victim. One of riskiest times for a victim is during an actual or pending separation. 

Fehr hopes the reviews might lead to more proactive approaches.

“When it comes to spousal homicide and intimate partner violence, we are taking the approach of trying to close the barn after the horse is out,” said Fehr. “That (education) starts in school when you teach about healthy relationships.”