June 19, 2018

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Silhouettes honour victims of domestic violence

Silent Witness Project advocates for change

In a room full of families wishing they had no reason to be there, Farnel McKay lays down a rose for his niece, Belinda.

“It still burns me to talk about the way she was murdered,” he says.

Belinda McKay is one of 24 Manitoba women represented in red silhouettes as part of the Silent Witness Project, an international memorial for victims of domestic violence.

They are a small fraction of the total number of women in Manitoba who have lost their lives at the hands of intimate partners. Their families — along with Manitoba Status of Women Minister Rochelle Squires, support workers and representatives from the RCMP and Winnipeg Police Service — gathered Wednesday at the West End Cultural Centre to remember the women they lost and to push for change during national Victims and Survivors of Crime Week (which runs through Saturday).

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In a room full of families wishing they had no reason to be there, Farnel McKay lays down a rose for his niece, Belinda.

"It still burns me to talk about the way she was murdered," he says.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Channel Barker holds a rose for her aunt, Noreen Lucinda Stevenson who died after a domestic assault, next to her aunt's silhouette at the Silent Witness Project Memorial, Wednesday. The life-sized silhouettes represent Manitoba women who were killed by their domestic partners at The West End Cultural Centre Wednesday.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Channel Barker holds a rose for her aunt, Noreen Lucinda Stevenson who died after a domestic assault, next to her aunt's silhouette at the Silent Witness Project Memorial, Wednesday. The life-sized silhouettes represent Manitoba women who were killed by their domestic partners at The West End Cultural Centre Wednesday.

Belinda McKay is one of 24 Manitoba women represented in red silhouettes as part of the Silent Witness Project, an international memorial for victims of domestic violence.

They are a small fraction of the total number of women in Manitoba who have lost their lives at the hands of intimate partners. Their families — along with Manitoba Status of Women Minister Rochelle Squires, support workers and representatives from the RCMP and Winnipeg Police Service — gathered Wednesday at the West End Cultural Centre to remember the women they lost and to push for change during national Victims and Survivors of Crime Week (which runs through Saturday).

Farnel McKay is one of many who have returned to the annual memorial service year after year, to make sure his niece is not forgotten.

Belinda McKay, a 38-year-old mother of two, initially came to Winnipeg from Cross Lake to access medical care. Her boyfriend stabbed her to death in her Edmonton Street apartment in March 2012. Her then-four-year-old son witnessed the attack.

"To this day, he doesn’t talk," Farnel McKay said. And while it’s difficult for him to keep sharing the story, McKay said it’s important for him to remember the quiet, loving person at its centre.

"For me, it’s healing... it’s hard to put into words," he said. "Just continue the healing journey."

On behalf of the provincial government, Squires said Manitoba is committed to ending violence against women and girls.

"We have made strides in the past, but as all of us in this room know, we will not be done our work... We will continue to fight against gender-based violence until we eradicate gender-based violence and until no more women and girls are senselessly and tragically killed," she said during the memorial service.

In a national study of intimate-partner violence, Manitoba had the second-highest rate of reported domestic violence incidents among the provinces, according to Statistics Canada.

The study looked at data from 1991 to 2011 and found rates were highest in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In Winnipeg alone in 2016, domestic-violence incidents dealt with by the Winnipeg Police Service increased by seven per cent.

Every year, there are more women’s names to include in the Silent Witness Project — which began 28 years ago in the United States — and more life-sized silhouettes to display in the travelling memorial.

For the first time Wednesday, Noreen Lucinda Stevenson was among them. Her common-law spouse beat her to death with a baseball bat in 1999.

Stevenson’s death in Swan River became the impetus for her niece, Chantell Barker, to go back to school, become a probation officer and work with domestic-violence offenders.

"I started helping other people in order to start healing," said Barker, who now works for the Southern Chiefs’ Organization.

She said she shared her aunt’s story as part of a program presented to inmates at Headingley Correctional Centre.

"Men started opening up about how they were using domestic violence in their relationships and how my story had shifted their thinking to stop those behaviours."

The local event has been running for more than a decade. It includes women whose killers have been convicted in court and those who were killed in murder-suicides in the province.

It only commemorates women whose families have granted permission. But this year, support agencies have begun distributing postcards to other families who want to be involved.

Organizers know there are many more whose families don’t yet know about the project or have chosen not to participate because their grief is too much to bear.

The memorial is part of a much wider cultural shift aimed at focusing on prevention, along with support for domestic-violence victims, said Mary Lobson, executive director of Ending Violence Across Manitoba and one of the organizers of this year’s event.

"There’s a recognition now in the importance of engaging men and boys. Ten years ago, we weren’t talking about that. We’ve started to have that shift in our thinking that will eventually bring about change," Lobson said.

"That’s important work that needs to be done, but today is about these women," and their families, she added. "It reminds us of the work that’s yet to be done and that we need to work with offenders.

"We can work with women all day long, but they’re not the ones who are going to stop the abuse."

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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