On the morning of September 22, 2015, Basil Borutski drove across the vast rural expanse of Renfrew County, Ont., and killed three women.
First, he killed Carol Culleton, who had recently rejected his romantic advances. Then he shot to death Anastasia Kuzyk, a short-term ex-girlfriend. His last victim was Nathalie Warmerdam, a 48-year-old woman with whom he had shared a home and, for a short time, stepchildren.
Borutski is now serving life sentences for the triple homicide, the culmination of his long history with the criminal justice system related to intimate partner violence. He had been in and out of jail in the past for harming both Kuzyk and Warmerdam—experiences that only deepened his world view that he was the victim of his ex-partners. At the time of the murders, Borutski was on probation and subject to a weapons ban.
In June 2022, an inquest into these homicides released a verdict with 86 recommendations for how to prevent future deaths. Among those with official standing in the inquest, held locally in Pembroke, Ont., was Malcolm Warmerdam, Nathalie’s youngest child, who was just 18 when the murders occurred.
Local headlines after the inquest shouted the jury’s number one recommendation: that Ontario officially declare intimate partner violence an epidemic. But Warmerdam’s hopes for change run deeper and explore both pragmatic and transformative ways to protect victims of intimate partner violence.
Shortly after the inquest, Warmerdam sat down with Chatelaine to discuss what needs to change. Most pressing, he says, is a more caring, empathetic system that extends far greater compassion and support to perpetrators, too—a suggestion that is both sensitive and rare in the broader effort to end intimate partner violence.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to parse the timeline and details of the morning my mother died. There was a 25-minute period that September day between the time when a 911 call came in from Anastasia’s house, where Basil Borutski’s second murder was committed, and when Mom was killed. I wanted to know if, within those minutes, police might have been able to get a warning to Mom—one that might’ve saved her life.
She sent me an email at 9:14 that morning about a fermented food workshop she wanted us to attend. When she sent that message, Basil was likely already making his way up our long driveway—the same one I had ventured down that morning when I left for high school. Testimony revealed that police did not know with certainty that Basil had left Anastasia’s until after Mom had been shot. When I was clearing her voice mails after the police had left, I found a message from a former neighbour who knew about Basil’s abusive behaviour toward Mom, begging her to get somewhere safe. It was left 10 minutes after she died.
If there had been another half hour between Anastasia’s death and Mom’s, perhaps the local police officer on-call who knew Basil and his propensity for violence could have gotten information to Mom somehow, and there would have been a chance for her to escape. But it still would have only been a chance. In some ways, it was a relief to hear the local police testimony about how it happened. To actually give Mom a head start to grab a gun to defend herself, she would have needed a five-minute warning; to leave the property before he hit the driveway, probably 10 or 15. I got closure that this wasn’t a result of law enforcement failing to act on that day.
While I still believe in the usefulness of a system to warn people in certain situations that they may be in danger, there are other, more critical changes needed. It became clear from the inquest that many of the systemic responses before Basil murdered Mom, Carol and Anastasia were not functional or particularly thorough—areas like probation and other services designed to help prevent intimate partner violence from escalating are relatively siloed and insufficient to the task. The odds were stacked against everyone involved.
I heard about the potential for an inquest in the months after the murders. It would study the ways the systems involved in dealing with victims and perpetrators of intimate partner violence are supposed to respond, both in moments of crisis and more generally. It would be like a court case, with a jury—called in a similar way to criminal cases—delivering a verdict with recommendations for change. And there was a greater chance the inquest would occur if the affected families got behind the idea.
At first, I was hesitant to get involved, unsure what I could bring to the process. But I knew Mom, were she still with us, would use every lever available to make changes to the systems that allowed this to happen. I also thought it might help me make better sense of what had transpired. Had she lived, I don’t have any doubts Mom would’ve taken part in the inquest herself. So I decided to be involved; I didn’t want to watch from afar and then be left thinking, “God, they fucked it up; I should’ve taken part.”
When the inquest began on June 6, it was paramount to me that the jury got to know my mother and her life with Basil, who shared a home with my mom, my brother Adrian and me for two years.
We used to joke that Mom and I were twins separated at birth 30 years apart—we sounded so much alike and would finish each other’s sentences. As Basil isolated Mom more and more, I became one in a shrinking circle of people she could speak to regularly and openly. She sought my opinion and listened when I had something to say. She encouraged me in my endeavours. She was the kind of mom my friends felt safe opening up with.
Mom was a nurse, and she was really involved in the community. She worked in palliative care, helping people during their final days. Mom met Basil when she was caring for his dying father, and he moved in with us on our hobby farm in 2010. He was on bail at the time, subject to a weapons ban.
In the earlier days, there were a lot of good memories—how Basil taught me to pluck a chicken, how he’d walk around the house singing and how we’d goof off with him.
After about two years, Mom and Basil were fighting a lot more; they regularly had screaming matches. Basil also struggled with alcoholism and always cast himself as the victim. Things got really scary when he refused to leave. When Mom tried to end it and asked Basil to sleep on the couch, he refused. She slept in the guest room while he screamed and pounded on the door all night. That reaction made her realize the danger she might be in.
That’s when Mom decided to report his behaviour to police, doing so in a different jurisdiction, where she’d be far enough away from him to be safe. He once told her that if one of his exes succeeded in sending him to jail, he would kill her—a threat she relayed to police, fearing the same applied to her. Police charged Basil with assault and uttering threats.
At the inquest, I wanted jurors to know how complicated the situation was—that Basil had the capacity to show us both the good and bad in him. I knew if the jury made recommendations based on somebody they couldn’t see any good in, we would build a system that wouldn’t stop the people perpetuating these harms. We have to build a system that isn’t just for catching monsters, because most folks won’t see them as monsters until after tragedy strikes. That doesn’t do anybody any good. What we want out of this inquest, I told the jury, are recommendations that make everyone safer— even perpetrators.
As a party with standing in the inquest, I had the power to get up and ask witnesses questions, which I did often. I wanted to know about what’s currently in place for perpetrator rehabilitation—namely, the Partner Assault Response program Basil was ordered by a judge to attend in 2012, after he was charged with assaulting Mom, but never did. When I learned there are nearly 80,000 victims of intimate partner violence in the Ontario court system annually, my jaw dropped. The scale of the problem was beyond what I had imagined. I was also shocked to learn that there is zero funding in Ontario for programs that would help someone who is violent and concerned about their behaviour but hasn’t been placed under arrest. You have to be charged with a crime in order to access help.
Last, I wanted the inquest to examine the mechanics of the systems that are supposed to remove firearms from people who have weapons bans. Back when Basil moved in with us, Mom had taken a firearms safety course so she could legally keep the guns that had been in his family for generations. But Basil still had a firearms possession licence on him when he was arrested for the murders. That’s all he would have needed to show to purchase a firearm, and it would not be unreasonable for an individual to have sold him one. While we don’t know where he got the gun responsible for Mom’s death, there were plenty of ways for him to get a firearm in Renfrew County despite being barred from having one.
So many of Canada’s systems set up to deal with intimate partner violence are broken. Our carceral system is another one. Oftentimes, sending abusers to prison is like placing a hornet in a jar, shaking it up and then opening the jar and setting it free. Basil already had a twisted pattern of thinking his ex-partners were the source of his problems. But that twisted thinking couldn’t be fixed by throwing him in prison and then letting him out, angrier than ever. (After Mom’s report to police, Basil was convicted of uttering threats and sentenced to 150 days in jail, minus the 117 he’d spent in custody—the first time he was imprisoned for intimate partner violence.) If you actually want to rehabilitate somebody, you need to have a community around them who can hold them accountable and support them while they try to do better—a community they may still want to make proud. If you uproot them from their community and move them elsewhere, they have nothing. There should also be more work to help perpetrators while they’re in the corrections system, so when they do come out, they have some new skills to manage their anger and stressors in healthier ways, some new insights into their behaviour, and supports, so they don’t offend again.
Big picture, I learned that our systems are set up in reactive ways that aren’t working. If we can get proactive and deal with this in an entirely pragmatic way, we could systematically nip these behaviours in the bud. We heard repeatedly from inquest witnesses—experts in intimate partner violence, front line workers—that being able to escape an abusive situation is often impeded by lack of access to housing and money. We also heard how perpetrators’ own financial instability and other destabilizing factors, such as a lack of social and mental health support, can ramp up the intensity of their abuse.
Guaranteed basic income, for example, could help alleviate a lot of this stress and scarcity in people’s lives—for both victims and perpetrators. Basil was living on a disability support program, which did not provide much for his everyday needs. He frequently ended up living with other people, in part because living alone was financially harder. And there were people who didn’t want to kick him out when they didn’t feel safe with him because they knew he wasn’t financially stable. If we had something like guaranteed basic income, it could be a safety net that would reduce stressors for people like Basil and help keep everyone safer.
The inquest lasted 17 days and had four parties with official standing, including the Province of Ontario. Three of us—the coroner’s counsel, the lawyer for End Violence Against Women Renfrew County, a local group of violence against women advocates, and me—came up with a slate of 72 recommendations that we presented to the jury during closing statements. They were directed to the provincial and federal governments, as well as the coroner of Ontario. The jury accepted all of our recommendations and added 14 of their own. Their recommendation to call intimate partner violence an epidemic made headlines across the country. It gave me hope going through this process and hearing from people for whom eliminating intimate partner violence is their life’s work. It was clear from the testimony that there are enough ideas and expertise to rethink and rebuild the systems we currently use to respond to and prevent intimate partner violence.
I urge everyone reading this to teach themselves about the signs of intimate partner violence and look into what resources are available locally. It is so important to recognize red flags that might suggest there’s harm happening and think about what you would do if the person being harmed is a person you know—and what you would do if the person causing the harm is someone you know, too. In both cases, reaching out and connecting with resources could save a life.
I know if Mom were here today and had seen me go through this inquest and all of its related advocacy, her comment would be: “Goddamnit, rest.” I mean, she’d probably be proud of me, but her main thought would be, “You need some self-care.” There was a recommendation that inquest participants reconvene in a year to track the progress of the jury’s recommendations. I’m going to return with them then and I’m going to try to be involved long term in whatever form that takes, because there is still a fuckload of work to do.
I’m so tired. But, as a family friend said at the vigil held the morning the inquest began, how can we look to our children, to our nieces and nephews, and not continue?