Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

WARNING: This story contains graphic details about violence.

In the last few weeks before a murder devastated people in her circle of friends in Halifax, Ardath Whynacht began to worry.

“I had a bad feeling in my stomach,” she said.

Whynacht was worried about two people she knew socially: a high school friend, Nicholas Butcher, and the woman he was dating, Kristin Johnston.

Butcher’s friends knew he was struggling to find work, was in debt and depressed. People in their circle knew that the two had problems in their relationship.

Whynacht says she later learned in court that others among her friends knew Butcher had access to Johnston’s private messages. He also followed her movements, which Whynacht characterized as “stalking” behavior.

Ardath Whynacht, professor of sociology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, says she had a feeling there was something wrong with the relationship between two people she knew socially – and it turned out she was right. (Robert Short / CBC)

She came up with a suggestion to a mutual friend that Butcher might consider advising.

“But of course you can not force anyone to get help,” she told CBC News in an interview.

Whynacht says she had a feeling something was wrong – and it turned out she was right.

In March 2016, Butcher stabbed and killed Johnston, 32, and then cut off his own hand, which was later put on again. Two years later, a jury convicted the 36-year-old of second-degree murder.

Victim wanted to end the relationship

Whynacht and others studying domestic violence say warning signs are key to preventing such deaths in the future. A CBC study that analyzed nearly 400 cases of intimate partner homicide in Canada between 2015 and 2020 found that at least one warning sign was present in 36 percent of cases, or more than one in three.

The most common warning signs were recent or pending separations (20 percent of cases), previous reports to police, and patterns of coercive or controlling behavior (both 15 percent of cases). The analysis was unable to draw conclusions about warning signs in the remaining two thirds of the cases due to lack of publicly available information.

Kristin Johnston, a yoga teacher in Halifax, was stabbed to death by her boyfriend in March 2016. She had told friends that she wanted to end their relationship. (Facebook)

Johnston, a much-loved yoga teacher in Halifax, had told friends she wanted to end her relationship with Butcher, who lived with her in her home. He read her Facebook messages to friends and followed her the night he killed her while waiting for hours in his car with a knife.

Several witnesses testified in Butcher’s trial that Johnston wanted to break up with him but had difficulty doing so.

There were no previous reports that Butcher was physically violent towards Johnston, but the court was told that her friends and family describe how she felt “trapped” and “terrified” and told a friend that she was “too deep “.

Whynacht, an associate professor of sociology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, had experience in services for victims of domestic violence, which helped her see some red flags.

Nicholas Butcher arrives at Halifax Provincial Court in April 2016 following his arrest in Johnston’s stabbing. Two years later, he was convicted of second-degree murder. (Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press)

Women who previously had relationships with Butcher told the court during the trial that he had difficulty dealing with stress and anger, and they felt that professional help was needed to solve his emotional problems. In one case, a woman testified that he spat on her during an argument.

No one knew what they could do to help.

“The immediacy of the threat was not obvious to many of the people who might have been ready to step in and say, ‘Hey, Kristin, make sure if you break up with Nick, there are other people around.’ He seems to be in a crisis. This can be a difficult situation, ” Whynacht recalled.

‘Compulsory control’ is a new problem

Andrea Silverstone has a name for the cause of the kind of fear that Kristin Johnston expressed. It is called “compulsory control”.

“It’s not as difficult to recognize coercion as people might think it is because it’s a pattern of behavior that makes someone feel scared,” said Silverstone, CEO of Sagesse, a Calgary-based organization. working with individuals and organizations. to prevent abuse in the home.

In the wake of a mass shooting in April 2020 in Nova Scotia, which according to police started with the shooter attacking his spouse, many advocates of domestic violence pushed for the introduction of coercive control laws in Canada.

Andrea Silverstone is the leader of Sagesse, a Calgary-based organization working to disrupt the structures of domestic violence. Silverstone, who testified before the Commons’ Justice Committee in February, says about 95 to 97 percent of cases of domestic violence have elements of coercive control. (Wisdom)

New Democratic MP Randall Garrison introduced a private law in October 2020 that proposed an amendment to the penal code, but it did not become law because the federal election was called. Garrison reintroduced the bill last month. The House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights examined the idea earlier this year.

Silverstone, who testified before the committee in February, says about 95 to 97 percent of cases of domestic violence have elements of coercive control.

This can take many forms – including humiliation, intimidation, control of food or other essential things, or isolation of the victim from communicating with others. It can happen gradually over time between intimate partners, people who are boyfriends or co-parents.

“Only about 30 percent of people have visible injuries as a result of domestic violence, and only a certain number of people may experience emotional or sexual or financial parts of abuse,” Silverstone said. “But we know almost everyone who experiences domestic violence [also] experiencing coercive control. “

Coercive control can take many forms – including humiliation, intimidation, control of food or other essential things, or isolation of the victim from communicating with others. It can happen gradually over time between intimate partners, people who are boyfriends or co-parents. (Dave Irish / CBC)

She says Canada is “late” for a conversation about adding coercive control to the penal code.

“The reason we are seeing the development is because other jurisdictions are starting to adopt coercive controls as part of their criminal law, or also civil laws,” Silverstone said. “And it changes the way their communities understand and see domestic violence, giving them more tools to both deal with and eradicate violence.”

Several countries have adopted new laws

The United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, France and some US states have enacted coercive control laws. In Canada, the House of Commons Committee, which examined the idea, recommended that the Attorney General form a task force on the issue.

In an email to CBC News, the Department of Justice said its staff has reviewed the committee’s report in light of existing laws on intimate partner violence.

“When we think about whether or not [coercive control] must be criminalized, I think first, people jump to the conclusion: Well, yes, it should, because it is bad behavior. It is dangerous behavior, says lawyer Pamela Cross, an expert in violence against women and the law.

“But it’s not that simple for various reasons.”

Cross, the legal director of Luke’s Place, a family law support center for abused women in Oshawa, Ont., Says the majority of women who are abused do not report it to police and therefore will not benefit from a new law.

She is concerned that women defending themselves against a violent partner may themselves be accused of coercive control, which has happened under existing laws on domestic violence.

Pamela Cross, the legal director of Luke’s Place, a family law support center for abused women in Oshawa, Ont., Says the majority of women who are abused do not report it to police and therefore would not benefit from a new law. (Janice McLean)

She is also concerned about how a law on coercive control would affect families from marginalized groups who are already coming into disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system.

“Let’s look at how it can play out in families who are marginalized because of race, [Indigenous background], poverty, “she said.

“Will the police enforce this law differently, depending on the family’s social status? Will some people be more likely to be charged because of their skin color or because they are new to Canada, or because they do not speak English or French?”

Cross says more perspectives should be considered before changing the penal code. “Laws can always backfire on the people they are meant to protect,” she said.

Cross says she sees some benefits to criminalizing coercive control, including making spectators more aware of potentially dangerous warning signs. But she urges the government not to rush.

“What we want to encourage is that we continue slowly, carefully,” she said.

Sociologist points to basic causes of violence

Ardath Whynacht says she thinks Kristin Johnston fell into a compulsive, controlling relationship, but she does not think a law could have helped her.

“Compulsory control laws would not have saved Kristin Johnston’s life. I personally do not believe Kristin knew how much danger she was in,” she said.

Based on her research as a sociologist, Whynacht says she does not trust that a police and criminal law approach can prevent domestic violence.

Butcher stabbed Johnston while sleeping in her home in Halifax in March 2016. (CBC)

“It has not addressed any of the root causes that make us vulnerable to domestic violence in the first place,” she said.

“Many of the interventions that would be effective in preventing homicides are never funded – and if they are funded, they are the first to be cut.”

Whynacht is opposed to adding coercive control to the penal code and claims that the indications of it exist can be very difficult for the police to identify.

She says many of the factors that cause violence are cultural and systemic, and measures such as poverty reduction and the financing of men’s counseling would be more effective in addressing the root causes of violence.

Whynacht, who researches the field of domestic violence and the killing of close partners, says she thinks Johnston fell into a coercive, controlling relationship, but she does not think a law could have helped her. (Robert Short / CBC)

Whynacht says that in retrospect, she and others in her circle of friends could have talked to Johnston about the red flags they saw, in an attempt to call it “cross-border” behavior.

“Whether that would have made a difference, I do not know,” she said. “But I would like to think that if we all felt more responsible for making ourselves safer, instead of just throwing the police a few million dollars and asking them to do so, I think we would be safer.

“I believe lives would be saved.”


Support is available to anyone affected by partner violence. You can access support services and local resources in Canada by visit this website. If your situation is urgent, please contact the emergency center in your area.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *