Murder victims' families 'surrounded by death' as connections to homicides and overdoses detailed

At the conclusion of the triple murder trial in Lethbridge this week, court heard from the victims' families about connections to other homicides, overdoses and deaths.

Families explain in victim impact statements how other losses compounded their grief

From left to right, Clarissa English, her brother Dakota English and her boyfriend Kyle Devine had just moved into a Lethbridge apartment together when they were stabbed to death in 2015. (gofundme.com/Facebook)

It was only a few years ago that Kyle Devine was marching in an annual walk in Calgary to remember his slain mother, whose murder has never been solved. This week, Devine's own killer was sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing three people.

There was no more poignant example of the catastrophic and sometimes fatal legacy of Canada's residential school system and history of colonialism than in Courtroom 6 at the Lethbridge courthouse this week.

"[I was] struck by the fact that not only Austin's family but the family of the victims, they seem to be surrounded by death," said defence lawyer Tonii Roulston. 

Austin Vielle pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree murder for the brutal stabbing deaths of Devine, his girlfriend Clarissa English, 24, and her brother Dakota English, 18.

The three victims were extremely intoxicated when they died; Clarissa had the most alcohol in her blood at nearly six times the legal driving limit. Vielle was so drunk he couldn't remember what happened, robbing the victims' families of answers. 

Clarissa and Dakota English, and Clarissa's boyfriend Kyle Devine (not seen), were killed by their friend Austin Vielle in 2015. (vimeo)

Court heard that Vielle — whose family is from the nearby Blood Tribe — had been drinking and doing drugs, self-medicating after a close friend had died from suicide. He'd suffered physical and sexual abuse as a child. 

After the guilty plea, several members of the English and Devine families read aloud victim impact statements that detailed how other losses compounded the grief.

"There's uncles who've died, children who've died, mothers who've died; that seems to be a consistent theme throughout both of these families and it appears to be systemic," said Roulston.

'This story needs to stop being told'

The victim impact statements told the story of grandmothers burying beloved grandchildren while mothers raise their babies' babies. 

"This story needs to stop being told," said Karen English, an aunt to Clarissa and Dakota and a social worker. 

Devine's mother isn't around to raise her grandson. Jackie Crazybull, 43, was fatally attacked by three men who stabbed her to death at a Calgary bus stop in 2007. Her killers have never been caught.

A "Justice for Jackie" walk through Calgary takes place annually to honour Crazybull and all other missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada.

Crazybull had already suffered much loss in her life — her sister was beaten to death by her boyfriend years earlier, and in 1999 a cousin was stomped to death in a Calgary alley.

The year after his mother died, Devine's brother Josh was killed on the highway when he was struck by a car. 

In the past decade, Ian Devine lost his mother and brother to homicides. Another brother was killed while hitchhiking. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

According to his brother, Devine's mother and father, stepmother and stepfather all attended residential schools. Neither brother was raised by a biological parent.

"Parents don't know how to be parents," said Ian Devine, who was brought up by an aunt. "It has its toll because it's a part of the reason why they had turned to alcohol, drugs."

"[It's] a cycle that kind of affected not just our ancestors that were in residential, it had an impact on every single one," said Ian. 

Jackie Crazybull was stabbed to death in 2007. She had already lost two sisters to homicide. Eight years after her death, her son was murdered. (Calgary Police Service)

The English family — many of whom are from the Piikani Nation — suffered extreme losses, too. A year after Clarissa and Dakota English were slain, their cousin Joey English, 25, died after overdosing on drugs. The man she was with panicked and dismembered her body before hiding the remains

Joey left three young children behind and investigators were never able to recover all of her remains. The family feels police didn't take them seriously when they reported Joey's disappearance because they are First Nations.

Joey's mother, Stephanie English, made a public plea in April to others suffering from mental health issues and drug addictions.

"Get help, it's not too late," she said. "Don't forget who you are."

Joey English, from the Piikani Nation in Alberta, was caring and compassionate, her family says. She was a mother of three children. (Stephanie English)

In 2015, another cousin — Joey's sister Alison — died from what police determined to be suicide, although her family believes she may have accidentally overdosed on drugs. 

Alison had spent time in the psychiatric ward after she'd been hard hit by the loss of her uncle, who was killed in 2010.

During her victim impact statement, Clarissa and Dakota's great grandmother spoke about burying two of her children.

"I lost two sons in 2007, 2009, and it was one of the hardest things in my life, to lose your children."

In delivering Vielle's sentence, Justice Rodney Jerke noted the "notorious history of colonization, displacement and residential schools," which the judge said provide the context for the abuse suffered by the killer during his childhood and the layers of multi-generational loss suffered by the English and Devine families.

These are themes provincial court Judge Harry Van Harten sees in his courtroom every day.

Van Harten says it's important to avoid continually painting a bleak picture of what life is like for Indigenous people. But he points out it's equally crucial to recognize the factors that led to their over-representation in the justice system as both offenders and victims.

If some kind of reconciliation doesn't happen … that's just going to continue. Sadly, it's a thing we see regularly in our courts.- Judge Harry Van Harten

"When you grow up in that kind of atmosphere, you pass it to your kids, which is why you have disproportionate rates of incarceration, disproportionate rates of the apprehension of children, and it's all related to the trauma to earlier generations."

Van Harten says that as a start, every Canadian should read the 94 calls to action from the truth and reconciliation commission.

"If some kind of reconciliation doesn't happen ... that's just going to continue. Sadly, it's a thing we see regularly in our courts."

Mitch Walker, the vice-chair of the Gladue Writers Society of British Columbia, works in the court system and says the story of the English and Devine families is not an anomoly. 

Walker authors Gladue reports, which examine an Indigenous offender's upbringing and background ahead of sentencing. In his practice, he says it's common to see Indigenous families surrounded by death and loss. 

"I can't tell you how many Indigenous inmates I have met who have been to more funerals than birthdays and graduations by the time they are 20."

Loss of hope

Walker says Canadians have a narrow understanding of the accumulation of trauma, which in part is tied to poverty, loss of hope and mental and physical illnesses like FASD and depression.

"The middle-class value system of work hard, go to school, get a job, save your money and everything will work out is not a concept to those populations who are not only removed from that social contract, but have experienced generations of law and policy specifically designed to remove them from that reality. 

But Ian Devine is working toward creating a new reality for his family. He has his own kids now and wants to change his family's story. 

"I want to be a person that can stand my ground and be able to say that we can stop, that there's hope, try to think more positive, and parent differently."

"I love my kids.... I want to be a part of that to stop it."