Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

When a domestic violence victim goes to work, who's there to help?

Jenny McKay was sent home after she was fired from her job. That night her husband brutally stabbed her to death. Her murder has her family and advocates for victims of violence urging employers to make domestic violence their business.

Jenny McKay was sent home after she was fired from her job. That night her husband stabbed her to death

Jenny and Jason McKay on their wedding day near Seafoam, N.S., in 2012. (Submitted by Doug Campbell)

This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.

On the day after Labour Day in 2017, Jenny McKay went to her job at an office in Regina to face the music. 

It was her last day alive.

The 33-year-old was a newly licensed insurance broker, but she had just missed more than a week of work as she devised plans to escape her husband, Jason McKay. After five years of marriage, increasing marital troubles, the loss of several jobs and alcohol abuse — they both drank — Jenny was ready to leave.

First, she had to account for her absence at work.

She turned to her dad, Doug Campbell, a retired Baptist minister in Seafoam, N.S., on the shores of the Northumberland Strait, for advice.

"Make sure you tell them what's going on, you know, you're not just doing this off a whim, that there's something going on with your life and your marriage, and you need help with it," Campbell said he told her.

For Jenny's family and advocates of victims of spousal and intimate partner violence, her story is a cautionary tale about what happens when opportunities at the workplace to protect a domestic violence victim are missed, and the risk of danger is escalated.

So significant is the issue that a new field of violence disruption has emerged in Canada, one that treats the workplace as an essential place for intervention and which trains workers and their bosses on what to do if they suspect a fellow employee is facing abuse at home.

For Jenny, the warning signs were there.

Jenny was Glenda and Doug Campbell's eldest child. The couple is shown at their home in Seafoam. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

According to court testimony, Jenny had been desperately trying to flee her husband, 12 years her senior, since late August. There was a call to 911, when she told an operator she was worried he was going to kill her. There was also a plan to find a safe place to live that went awry when McKay showed up and begged her to come home.

She also told her family that she tried to enter a shelter, but it was full. 

On Sept. 5, 2017, Jenny told her bosses none of that, and she was fired. She told her father that she was considered unreliable.

"She said, 'I just couldn't do it, I couldn't say anything.' She said, 'I thought they'd offer me some help.' She said she just ran out of there, burst into tears," Campbell recalled last month in an interview at his home.

It was their last conversation.

That night, in her kitchen, McKay repeatedly and brutally stabbed Jenny — even after she was dead.

According to Statistics Canada, Jenny was one of 63 women across the country killed by a male intimate partner in 2017.

McKay was convicted of second-degree murder by a Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench judge in January, and is awaiting sentencing. His lawyer argued he was too intoxicated from the combination of alcohol and antidepressants to form intent to kill, and is currently seeking a mental health assessment in a bid to have McKay declared not criminally responsible.

Jason McKay leaves the Court of Queen's Bench on Jan. 24, 2020. (Cory Herperger/CBC)

Jenny's wedding rings were found in her pocket. Neighbours heard a woman screaming that it was over. Her father believes, ultimately, it was Jenny's decision to leave McKay that motivated him to murder.

But he believes that being fired from her job added fuel to an already explosive situation.

"It's just a real shame. Nobody intended a bad result from that," said Campbell. "But it certainly, you know, it affected what happened that night."

Her mother, Glenda Campbell, wonders if something different could have been done at work.

"If they had been more aware, maybe they could have offered something in some way," she said. "Or if they knew how severe it was, that would have gone a long way, I think, in their awareness but also in offering Jenny something."

Jenny's employer declined a request from CBC to comment.

Barb MacQuarrie created a workshop on addressing domestic violence at work. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Barb MacQuarrie has visited workplaces that have been involved in a tragedy. She's the community director at Western University's Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children.

In the aftermath of domestic homicide, she's provided training to workplaces and found that "they weren't uncaring people, they didn't want anything bad to happen. They were unprepared."

It's unclear how much Jenny's employers knew about what was happening in the home, though she had confided to two coworkers about the abuse, according to court testimony.

What is known is that domestic violence is costly. According to a report prepared by the federal Justice Department, it's estimated Canadian employers lost $77.9 million in 2009 due to domestic violence.

MacQuarrie said those costs can add up in insidious ways. Workers may call in sick, show up tired or late, or cause accidents. An employee distracted by a barrage of text messages or calls, harassment or stalking is less productive. 

MacQuarrie said close friends at work are often aware of the problem, but uncertain how to help. And where there's a homicide, a traumatized workforce is left behind and an organization's reputation is damaged.

She said it's essential that prevention — or intervention — occurs at the workplace, because a 2014 survey showed that one in three workers has experienced domestic violence, and for more than half it follows them into the workplace.

"When we start doing that, we create opportunities not just to prevent harm from happening at work, but to reduce the harm that's happening in people's personal lives," MacQuarrie said.

Realtors at Royal LePage Atlantic in New Minas, N.S., participate in a workshop on addressing domestic violence in the workplace. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

Most provinces have introduced domestic violence leave in recent years. In Saskatchewan, employees can now get up to five days paid and five additional days unpaid. That legislation came into effect after Jenny's death.

Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick have amended their occupational health and safety acts to include regulations on domestic violence. When it occurs in the workplace, an employer is required to take steps to protect the worker.

In other provinces, there are provisions protecting workers against violence, though not specifically of a domestic nature. 

Even if it's not specified in occupational health and safety legislation, MacQuarrie believes that employers have a duty to create policies to help prevent intimate partner violence. 

"What we need to help employers understand is that they don't need to do this alone," said MacQuarrie.

To that end, she's developed domestic violence awareness workshops — for the workplace. They've spread from Ontario to Nova Scotia, Alberta and B.C.

When Ginger MacPhee, left, was a new mother escaping an abusive partner, Rhonda Fraser, right, supported her at Chrysalis House, a shelter in Kentville, N.S. Today, they're both transition house workers. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

In New Minas, N.S., the real estate brokers at Royal LePage Atlantic were among the first in the province to participate in one of those workshops, delivered by two shelter workers from the area.

For Marc Doucet, director of broker services, it was a "gut check moment" to think how close a colleague could have come to a potentially lethal situation because of his misguided advice.

He had told her it was safe to go alone to her home to retrieve her belongings after a bad breakup. But her ex-partner was still inside. Doucet is relieved she decided to return with transition house workers by her side.

"I would never have thought that someone would think that way, to want to harm someone, and then to say, 'Yeah, that's OK, I'm not going to be there and then still be there,'" he said. "You go with some support people because that person might not be gone."

Ginger MacPhee, who has survived two abusive relationships, said she's grateful one of her employers took steps to protect her by moving her to the backroom of the drug store where she worked after she disclosed she feared her ex-boyfriend would show up there.

"I know that my story is one where the opportunities were taken, and that's why I'm here today," said MacPhee.

She's now the executive director of Chrysalis House in Kentville, N.S., the same women's shelter that was a refuge years ago for her and the baby she had had with her ex-partner.

Even though domestic violence may be complicated and messy, she said everyone has a role to play to disrupt the violence.

"It's irresponsible of us to not take any action to prevent that. There would be no difference than if we receive a threat to something happening in the building. Threat of harm is threat of harm," she said.

Doug Campbell remembers Jenny as a woman who was 'on the verge of being all she was created to be.' (Submitted by Doug Campbell)

In hindsight, Doug and Glenda Campbell say they also missed warning signs. Jenny's favourite place was where she got married, on the beach near her family cottage where her family swam and camped. It may as well have been a world away. She only returned four times in her 11 years with McKay.

Jenny longed for an ordinary life with her husband — whom she feared, yet loved.

Her father wrote in his journal everything he could about their last conversation. 

Doug Campbell's journal entry about his last phone call with Jenny. (Submitted by Doug Campbell)

"She was very humbled and tender, just the way she should have been with me," Campbell said.

Jenny talked about the simple things, like reading the paper, going to work, working out, making a nice supper and watching Netflix on the couch.

"'And be a family,' that's what she said. I remember it very distinctly," he said. "That was where her heart was, to have a close family."

With files from Kendall Latimer

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Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at