Threats of violence, abuse and harassment are what some women face online every day, but rarely does it lead to criminal charges.
Winnipeg gym owner Justin Peter Bodnarchuk, 39, was charged Tuesday with three counts of uttering threats to kill or cause bodily harm after allegedly posting menacing online messages against feminists and police officers.
The suspect also allegedly posted an online threat to kill a person who directly responded to his posts with disdain, city police said. Bodnarchuk remains in custody.
Such abuse is nothing new, said University of Guelph sociology Prof. Myrna Dawson, who also directs the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability.
"I don't think our (justice) systems are set up to deal with (online attacks) yet because its severity must be recognized first and we're not there," she said in an interview.
"It is a form of misogyny that has consistently been normalized in various ways. That can be done by diminishing its severity or impact on the targets because it's not face-to-face or it's just the work of fringe groups who are all bark and little bite."
Winnipeg police could not say Tuesday whether general online threats are increasing, but explained why one person could be arrested for alleged online threats while other abusive social-media behaviours don't merit charges.
"Words are really important. References such as to kill or specifically harm a person in a specific manner or words that would generate alarm or fear in a reasonable person, those are considered when investigating threatening comments," Winnipeg Police Service Const. Dani McKinnon said in an interview.
"Some other criteria is who the threat’s being made to... Is it to an actual person or is it towards an identifiable group as a collective? That would make the threat possible, as well."
McKinnon suggested social-media users report abusive accounts and contact police when threatened.
Anecdotally, Dawson said some women are frustrated with a lack of help from police when facing online attacks.
"I do see many women discussing this through social media, expressing frustration with being targeted with threats, such as men are going to come to their home and rape them or kill them. And when police are contacted, they are basically told there is nothing they can do, to change their account or don't use social media," she said.
"So, again, women and girls having to adjust their behaviour — which they already do considerably both off and online — rather than target the perpetrators or make it more difficult for this abuse to occur online."
In Tuesday's case, Dawson said it's encouraging police pursued charges.
"Hopefully, that would have occurred even if they had not also been targeted," she said.
Some will argue, rightfully, it's not possible to know if those who perpetrate online abuse will escalate into real-world violence, she said.
"But that doesn't mean that the criminal justice system and the online providers are not responsible for determining how we begin to address issues of online abuse, which is not going to go away and which does impact women and girls, in particular," Dawson said.
"The biggest obstacles to the prevention of violence against women and girls are attitudes that condone and facilitate it — and these attitudes are currently flourishing online relatively unchecked and... impressionable youth, particularly boys, are witnessing it."
Court records show two women had secured protection orders against Bodnarchuk: one in 2018, the other in 2019.
"He has stated he had visions of smashing my face with a kettleball in my sleep. He has kicked in my front door and wished harm on my children," a former romantic partner wrote in her 2019 protection order application.
In May, Bodnarchuk was sentenced to 10 days time served and 18 months of probation after he admitted to breaching a protection order in place against him.
— with files from Dean Pritchard
Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.