Sister of domestic homicide victim says public awareness crucial in prevention
Public waits on awareness campaign that province committed to in 2018
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.
Brianda Robillard often looks at her son and wonders what nickname her sister Brandy would have given him. Brandy was known for giving names to all of the family nephews.
"When I look at my baby, I always imagine how it would be if my sister was alive."
Brianda was four months pregnant when Chester Bigeye beat 24-year-old Brandy to death in 2018 in Black Lake, Sask.
Their mom Lucy still cries and prays in the morning when she thinks about her.
"I can still hear her — still hear her say mom," Lucy said
It's hard for her to talk about it. Both she and Brianda remember Brandy, a member of the Black Lake Denesuline Nation, as a smiling, helpful and outgoing young woman who loved to visit. Then she met Bigeye.
"She stopped visiting, she stopped talking to family," Brianda said. "She always has a bruise on her face."
The couple had been together about one year when Bigeye, 32, killed her. He eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison with credit for time served.
Brianda said she went to visit him once while he was in custody before the sentencing. She thought it might help with her grief. It didn't. The anguish is as present as her guilt. Brianda wishes she could have helped.
The loss devastated their family, which is struggling to cope.
"Home doesn't feel like home without her in it," Brianda said. "I want people to learn and to help one another, to prevent that happening again."
Saskatchewan has the highest rates of intimate partner violence among provinces. The rates are higher in the north, where resources are scarce.
One month before Brandy was killed, Saskatchewan's domestic violence death report review was released. The report found that in most cases of death, friends and family knew of the violence but didn't know how to help. It detailed 19 recommendations for the province to prevent future deaths — calling domestic violence a community issue.
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The province has made progress on some initiatives, but one expert said it has been slow to develop the "number one" recommendation: a comprehensive public awareness campaign.
A history of violence
Black Lake is a remote community, tucked up north in the boreal forest. Brianda remembers tears streaming down Brandy's bruised face in January 2018 as she struggled to get to the car. She had called for help after fighting with Bigeye.
"When I think about it, it still frustrates me because I had a chance to help," Brianda said.
She said Brandy was reluctant to go to the police, but Brianda insisted and found an officer in the community. The detachment was located in the next hamlet over.
"The police didn't do anything, the police said they couldn't charge that person because my sister denied it. My sister was scared to charge," she said. "The RCMP said no, if the victim denies it, we can't go with the charge."
RCMP said they could not find documentation of the incident, but that this "does not mean there was not a conversation that occurred."
Jo-Anne Dusel, the executive director at the provincial association of transition houses and services of Saskatchewan, said that there has been reports of false pressure put onto victims by law enforcement.
"The onus should never be on the person who is the victim to press charges. That's not even the way it works in our legal system."
Public prosecutions are supposed to proceed with charges even if the victim becomes "unco-operative" as long as sufficient evidence exists. There is a policy that dictates what RCMP officers are supposed to do when answering a domestic-related call.
"In circumstances where charges cannot be laid, RCMP officers are encouraged to consider the use of an Emergency Intervention Order… so that certain conditions can be put in place against a suspect of domestic violence in order to keep the victim safe."
Brianda said they went on to the nurse's station, against Brandy's wishes. She said the staff gave her sister crutches to help with a fracture to her leg, but said there wasn't much else that could be done.
"It felt like I had nowhere to go with her."
There wasn't an emergency domestic violence shelter north of La Ronge until November 2019, when Ts'ekwi K'oni Koe opened in Black Lake.
A brutal death
In June 2018, Bigeye drove Brandy — bloody and face down — on a quad to the medical clinic. He blamed another man for her condition before leaving.
Staff documented her "grossly swollen and purple eyes," many scrapes and bruises, a deep jagged laceration on her forehead and a large laceration on the back of her head. She died from excessive blood loss brought on by blunt force trauma and stab wounds.
An agreed statement of facts lays out what happened. Hours before her death, Brandy's relative called police after Brandy told her Bigeye had "beat her up." She was crying and visibly bruised.
Brandy left that residence before police arrived, but they found her at home. They said she was intoxicated, unco-operative and would not give police information, so she was left in the care of her family.
The agreed statement of facts says RCMP officers searched the small community for Bigeye, but couldn't find him.
Not long after, Bigeye broke into Brandy's home. He reportedly left on a quad with a bottle of booze and Brandy in tow. A relative said she looked scared and seemed unwilling.
Court documents say Bigeye has little or no recollection of what happened "due to his extreme level of intoxication."
'No one helped her'
Brianda said the couple's problems were often amplified by alcohol, despite the community being dry.
She said other community and family members had witnessed violence with the couple.
"No one helped her."
Dusel said it's important to go beyond physical signs and notice coercion, control or isolation.
"People need to know and understand violence and abuse when they see it," she said.
Provincial progress made
The death review report outlines steps to preventing domestic deaths. Dusel said progress has been slow, but she understands certain actions take time and does see "attention that wasn't there before," particularly with legislation.
She noted paid leave for victims of intimate partner violence, changes to the residential tenancies act (which came before the domestic violence death review recommendations) allowing people to break leases and Clare's Law, which was passed but is still not active.
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However, Dusel said this is a problem the province cannot legislate out of existence.
The report called on the province to develop a "comprehensive" education program whereby information could be provided to K-12 students. To date, no changes have been made to the curriculum.
The first recommendation called on the government to "develop a comprehensive program that focuses on building education and awareness about healthy relationships and how to prevent and respond to situations of domestic violence and abuse."
In January 2020, the province put out a tender looking for someone to create a multi-year advertising campaign to change attitudes and behaviours around violence against women and girls.
Tina Beaudry-Mellor, minister responsible for the Status of Women Office, said she wishes the province moved faster on the awareness campaign. Beaudry-Mellor said work was underway prior to the tender going out. She said the province collaborated with a family centre and male community leaders to inform the language and messaging.
"I'm frankly sometimes frustrated that this is a women's issue and not a men's issue, and I think we need to do some reframing around that."
The awareness campaign is not expected to be public for months.
Brianda takes on awareness efforts
Brianda said more public education is needed
She's doing what she can to make it happen. In August 2018, she lead a small domestic violence awareness workshop in Black Lake. On the anniversary of her sister's death, she lead an awareness walk through the community.
She said she did it because she didn't want anyone to feel the pain she and her family have endured since Brandy died by the hands of her lover.
"I don't want anyone to go through that again."
If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area, visit sheltersafe.ca or http://endingviolencecanada.org/getting-help. In Saskatchewan,www.pathssk.org has listings of available services across the province.