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Daughter seeking systemic change at inquest into mother's murder thinks 'she'd be proud'

Valerie Warmerdam has taken an active role in the coroner's inquest into how future acts of intimate partner violence might be prevented. Jury recommendations are expected today.

Jury recommendations out of inquest expected Tuesday

Nathalie Warmerdam, centre, poses in this family photo with her son Adrian, left, and her daughter Valerie, right. (Submitted by Valerie Warmerdam)

Valerie Warmerdam says that if her mother Nathalie Warmerdam was still alive, she'd probably tell her daughter to take a break and rest.

"I think she'd be proud of me," Valerie said. "I don't have any doubt of that."

A coroner's inquest examining the murders of Nathalie Warmerdam, Anastasia Kuzyk and Carol Culleton has not only heard Valerie testify about the two years her family lived with her mother's killer — she's personally cross-examined witnesses in hopes of unravelling systemic changes needed to help prevent deaths like her mother's. 

"The [inquest] team says it is rare," said Stephanie Rea, a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Coroner, of the hands-on role Valerie has played in the inquest.

Joshua Hopkins, Valerie's uncle, has told the inquest he's grateful to his niece for showing "such courage and tenacity throughout this process."

On Sept. 22, 2015, a man with a known history of gender-based violence murdered Warmerdam, Kuzyk and Culleton in and around Renfrew County after repeatedly defying his probation orders without reprimand. He was convicted of three counts of murder in a jury trial and is in prison.

Inquest jurors, who have heard from dozens of first-hand witnesses and experts pointing out systemic issues in the lead-up to the murders, have been tasked with recommending changes to better protect and support survivors of intimate partner violence in rural communities.

Their recommendations, which will largely go to the Ontario government, are expected to be announced on Tuesday afternoon. 

"It must have been particularly difficult for Valerie throughout this process," said Lisa Brost, a lawyer for the Ontario government, during closing arguments Friday. 

Mental health at inquest top of mind

Valerie said that as a party with standing in the inquest, she's had early access to a raft of information about her mother's case. 

But she's taken care not to expose herself to traumatizing material, she said. 

"Some things are harder than others, but I was also in attendance for much of the [2017 trial]," she said at the end of the first week about listening to inquest testimony. 

"Compared to court, there's a lot more skimming over the really horrendous details that are less relevant to how we would stop it."

Valerie Warmerdam, the daughter of Nathalie Warmerdam, poses for a photo at the Pembroke, Ont., hotel where the inquest took place. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Valerie said she's been worried about how other people at the inquest, which kicked off three weeks ago at a hotel in Pembroke, Ont., have been taking care of their own mental health.

A trauma counsellor has been on hand every day for anybody who needs it and Valerie said she's cleared her head by taking her dog for walks when she can.

"It's a great way to make sure I'm getting moving and spending some time in nature. And that's good for my brain."

Inquest not meant to 'excoriate' 

While inquests have some similarities with criminal proceedings, such as juries, they're fact-finding — rather than fault-finding — missions.

They need a community that's holding them accountable and supporting them in improving their behaviour.— Valerie Warmerdam

"We planned to approach this case in a way that avoided getting caught up in the minutia of the facts and rather focus on systemic issues — to not excoriate any particular witness for actions and decisions taken seven years ago," Prabhu Rajan, a lawyer representing the Office of the Chief Coroner, said during closing arguments.

"Nobody's embodied this more than Valerie."

During her testimony on Day 1 of the inquest, Valerie spoke about how her mother's voicemail contained a message from someone in the community — delivered an estimated 10 minutes after her death — saying "it might not be safe today."

"If members of the community were able to get that through the grapevine in that time, I'd love to see a system that could more reliably have gotten information to her through proper channels a little bit faster," she said. 

The OPP then testified at the inquest about what happened that day. Police initially believed the murderer was still in Kuzyk's home when he had in fact fled to Nathalie Warmerdam's house, where he killed her and fled again before police arrived.

Valerie's brother was at the home during the attack and fled into the bush until police retrieved him. 

A lawyer for End Violence Against Women Renfrew County, one of the other parties with standing in the inquest, questioned whether the OPP could have phoned Nathalie Warmerdam to warn her once her well-known abuser's identity became known to officers on the ground. 

At the end of her own questioning of the OPP that day, Valerie said that while it was easy to talk with hindsight about what could have been, "I really don't want to suggest that there was any one-size-fits-all answer that would clearly be good enough."

"Any action that was done differently on that day ... could have been the difference between what happened happening and my brother having died as well." 

Nathalie Warmerdam, pictured here with her children, operated a small hobby farm, the inquest has heard. (Submitted by Valerie Warmerdam)

Valerie has repeatedly maintained that treatment for abusers before they're charged for an act of intimate partner violence is key.

"If they feel isolated, that can be a destabilizing factor," she told the jury on Friday. "They need a community that's holding them accountable and supporting them in improving their behaviour."

Next steps

Three men and two women from Renfrew County who are sitting on the inquest jury began their deliberations late Friday afternoon, after hearing 72 potential ideas for how to prevent gender-based violence in the future.

The jury's recommendations are expected to be announced Tuesday afternoon. 

Valerie will then participate in a news conference alongside the Office of the Chief Coroner and End Violence Against Women Renfrew County. 

"Once we have recommendations back from you, there will still be work to be done," she told the jury on Friday. "We'll need follow-through. We'll need action to be taken on those recommendations."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

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