Domestic violence 'an epidemic,' advocate says after 2 Indigenous women killed in Winnipeg during pandemic

Marie Morin lived in fear and tried to check in to an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence in Winnipeg just weeks before she was found dead in the the city's William Whyte area last Friday, a friend says.

Marie Morin was found dead May 15 in city's William Whyte area; Julie Racette was killed Easter weekend

Marie Morin, who died on May 15 after suffering from what police describe as a 'significant laceration,' is being remembered as a kind, loving person. (Submitted by Verna Merasty-McIvor)

Sue Caribou says she tried to help her friend Marie Morin check in to an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence in Winnipeg, but there were too many barriers.

And the head of a provincial association for women's shelters worries other Manitobans who need help have essentially become "prisoners in their own home" during the coronavirus pandemic.

Marie Morin was found dead in the city's William Whyte area on May 15, after what police believe was an incident of domestic violence.

During their last visit in early May, Morin made a promise to Caribou — who says her home was a safe haven for Morin when she felt scared or hurt — that she would seek help from a shelter. 

"She had no other place to go," Caribou said.

Caribou says she even tried calling a shelter on Morin's behalf, but was told they needed to speak directly with the victim.

She says she told her friend to make the call, but she doesn't know if Morin ever did.

Morin was the second woman killed in Winnipeg in the span of just over a month, following the death of Julie Racette, 34, in April.

Police say both cases involved domestic violence. In both cases, the woman's intimate partner is charged.

Caribou says she and Morin were like family, and Morin called her "sister."

She worried for Morin, who she says "couldn't even put lipstick on or do her hair or dress up nice" without fear of getting her face slapped, hair pulled or clothes torn.

Caribou says the small woman sometimes stayed with the man now accused of killing her, and did not have her own fixed address. She often took care of Morin when she ran away from her partner, Caribou says.

No-contact order

Morin was found in a suite of a residential building on Redwood Avenue with what police described as "a significant laceration" and taken in critical condition to hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Brandon Carl Starnyski, 45, is charged with second-degree murder and failing to comply with a court order to stay away from the victim.

A police cruiser stationed May 15 outside the building where Marie Morin was found dead earlier that day on Redwood Avenue. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The Winnipeg Police Service says homicide investigators believe Morin was socializing with Starnyski at his home when he assaulted her.

Provincial court records say Morin was one of two women assaulted by Starnyski on Jan. 6, 2019. That incident resulted in Starnyski being ordered by a judge not to contact Morin — an order he violated less than a week later, according to court documents.

Starnyski pleaded guilty to both the assault and violating the judge's order to have no contact with Morin.

Husband charged

Just weeks before Morin's death, on April 11, Julie Racette died after being taken to hospital from her home on Ottawa Avenue, in Winnipeg's Chalmers neighbourhood.

Julie Racette, 34, was killed over the Easter weekend. Her husband is accused in her death. (Julie Melnychuk (Racette)/Facebook )

More than a week after she died, Winnipeg police issued a Canada-wide arrest warrant for Racette's husband, Wayne Leslie Melnychuk, 42, who police say is now wanted for manslaughter in the death of the Indigenous mother of three.

Melnychuk has not yet been arrested and police "continue to devote resources daily in attempts to locate him," Winnipeg police spokesperson Const. Jay Murray said in an email on Wednesday.

He said the ongoing investigation involves the service's homicide and missing persons units.

'Never-ending' losses

Marie Morin's cousin recalls her as a kind, loving person.

Verna Merasty-McIvor said Morin's older sister asked her to speak for the family about their loss.

Morin had three children, who live with their father in Ontario, Merasty-McIvor said in a May 18 interview by phone from Thompson, Man.

She grew up with Morin in Granville Lake, a tiny community 740 kilometres north of Winnipeg, near Mathias Colomb First Nation.

She said she and her cousin lost touch after Morin moved to Winnipeg for high school.

"She's been through a lot," she said.

People wore face masks while paying tribute at a vigil held May 18 for Marie Morin, who was killed in what police believe was an incident of domestic violence. (Dana Hatherly/CBC)

Morin turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with intergenerational trauma and suffering through the loss of multiple close family members, including several relatives in the past year, Merasty-McIvor said.

The final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls — released last June — identified the cycles of trauma from generation to generation set in motion by colonization as a continuing root cause of domestic violence in Indigenous communities.

"It seems like it's never-ending," said Merasty-McIvor. "For us, the family, we don't even have time to heal from the losses … one after another. It's devastating."

The last time she saw her cousin was in Winnipeg before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Merasty-McIvor said she did not know the man now accused of killing Morin.

The provincial co-ordinator for the Manitoba Association of Women's Shelters says no-contact orders cannot stop abusers in domestic situations.

"It's just a piece of paper," said Deena Brock.

She said the killings of Morin and Racette underscore what she is hearing from the front lines of 10 provincially run shelters.

"Domestic violence is real. It's rampant," she said.

"It should be declared an epidemic."

'Prisoners in their own home'

Shelters, particularly those in rural and northern communities, have had "a huge challenge trying to be able to accommodate and get the help that people need" during the pandemic, she said, as critical places like shelters have had to make adaptations to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Shelters have been relatively quiet as of late, Brock said, with fewer drop-ins and calls to the crisis line.

But that does not mean domestic violence is down during the COVID-19 crisis, she said, adding that isolation can trigger or exacerbate abuse issues.

Some victims and families are stuck in a cycle of abuse during the pandemic, she said, with limited bus service and fewer taxis running overnight and on weekends — peak times for domestic calls, according to Brock — along with a lack of transportation options on First Nations.

Some abuse victims have been left with no way to communicate their fears, "like prisoners in their own home," she said, while they are under increased surveillance by partners in seclusion.

Brock said there have been more calls for help in the city since the province started easing restrictions on May 4, and service centres have started to get closer to what was "normal" before the virus.

"But what we don't know is how many women are out there who have no way to communicate and are stuck, and that's the scary part," she said.

Anyone facing immediate danger should call 911. Some other supports available in Manitoba:

  • Manitoba government's Stop the Violence program: 1-877-977-0007.
  • Ikwe Widdjiitiwin 24/7 toll-free crisis line: 1-800-362-3344.
  • Willow Place 24/7 toll-free crisis line: call 204-615-0311 or text 204-792-5302.

With files from Holly Caruk and Caitlyn Gowriluk