WARNING: This story contains graphic details of violence.
In the last few weeks before a murder devastated people in her Halifax social circle, Ardath Whynacht began to worry.
“I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” she said.
Whynacht was concerned about two people she knew socially: a high school friend, Nicholas Butcher, and the woman he was dating, Kristin Johnston.
Butcher’s friends knew that he was struggling to find work, in debt and depressed. People in their circle knew the two were having problems in their relationship.
Whynacht says she later learned in court that others among her friends knew Butcher was accessing Johnston’s private messages. He also followed her movements, which Whynacht characterized as “stalking” behaviour.
She made a suggestion to a mutual friend that Butcher might want to consider counselling.
“But of course, you can’t force someone to get help,” she told CBC News in an interview.
Whynacht says she had a feeling that something was wrong — and it turned out she was right.
In March 2016, Butcher stabbed and killed Johnston, 32, then cut off his own hand, which was later reattached. Two years later, a jury convicted the 36-year-old of second-degree murder.
Victim wanted to end relationship
Whynacht and others who study domestic violence say that warning signs hold the key to preventing such deaths in the future. A CBC investigation 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 per cent of cases, or more than one in three.
The most common warning signs were recent or pending separations (20 per cent of cases), previous reports to police and patterns of coercive or controlling behaviour (both 15 per cent of cases). The analysis was unable to draw conclusions about warning signs in the remaining two-thirds of cases due to a lack of publicly available information.
Johnston, a much-loved yoga teacher in Halifax, had expressed to friends that she wanted to break off her relationship with Butcher, who was living with her in her home. He read her Facebook messages to friends and followed her on the night he killed her, waiting for hours in his car with a knife.
Multiple witnesses testified at Butcher’s trial that Johnston wanted to break up with him but was having difficulty doing so.
There were no prior reports that Butcher was physically violent toward Johnston, but the court was told that her friends and family describe how she felt “trapped” and “terrified,” telling one friend she was “in too deep.”
Whynacht, an associate professor of sociology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., had experience in services for domestic violence victims, which helped her to see some red flags.
Women who previously had relationships with Butcher told the court during his trial that he had difficulty dealing with stress and anger, and they felt professional help was necessary to resolve his emotional problems. In one instance, 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 wasn’t apparent to a lot of the folks who might have been poised to step in and say, ‘Hey, Kristin, make sure if you’re breaking up with Nick, there are other people around. He seems to be in a crisis. This might be a tricky situation,'” Whynacht recalled.
‘Coercive control’ an emerging issue
Andrea Silverstone has a name for the cause of the kind of fear that Kristin Johnston expressed. It’s called “coercive control.”
“It’s not as hard to recognize coercive control as people might think that it is, because it is a pattern of behaviours that make someone feel afraid,” said Silverstone, the CEO of Sagesse, a Calgary-based organization that works with individuals and organizations to prevent domestic abuse.
In the wake of a mass shooting in April 2020 in Nova Scotia that police say began with the shooter attacking his common-law spouse, many anti-domestic violence advocates pushed to have coercive control laws introduced in Canada.
New Democrat MP Randall Garrison introduced a private member’s bill in October 2020 suggesting a change to the Criminal Code, but it didn’t 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 per cent of domestic violence cases have elements of coercive control.
This can take many forms — including humiliation, intimidation, controlling food or other essentials, or isolating the victim from communicating with others. It can happen gradually over time between intimate partners, people who are dating or co-parents.
“Only about 30 per cent of people have visible injuries as a result of domestic violence, and only a certain number of people experience, perhaps, emotional or sexual or financial parts of abuse,” Silverstone said. “But we know almost everyone who experiences domestic abuse [also] experiences coercive control.”
She says Canada is “overdue” for a conversation on adding coercive control to the Criminal Code.
“The reason that we’re seeing the evolution is because other jurisdictions are starting to adopt coercive control as part of their criminal codes, or also civil codes,” Silverstone said. “And it’s changing the way that their societies understand and view domestic violence, giving them more tools to both address and eradicate violence.”
Several countries have passed new laws
The United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, France and some American states have passed coercive control laws. In Canada, the House of Commons committee that examined the idea recommended that the justice minister form a task force on the issue.
In an email to CBC News, the Department of Justice said its staff have been reviewing the committee’s report in light of existing laws on intimate partner violence.
“When we think about whether or not [coercive control] should be criminalized, I think at first people jump to the conclusion: Well, yes, it should, because that’s bad behaviour. It’s dangerous behaviour,” said lawyer Pamela Cross, an expert on violence against women and the law.
“But it’s not that simple for a variety of reasons.”
Cross, the legal director of Luke’s Place, a family law support centre 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.
She worries women who defend themselves from an abusive partner might themselves be accused of coercive control, which has happened under existing domestic violence laws.
She also has concerns about how a coercive control law would affect families from marginalized groups who already come into disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system.
“Let’s look at how that might play out in families that are marginalized by reason of race, [Indigenous background], poverty,” she said.
“Will the police enforce this law differently, depending on the social status of the family? Will some people be more likely to be charged because of the colour of their skin or because they’re new to Canada or they don’t speak English or French?”
Cross says multiple perspectives should be considered before changing the Criminal Code. “Laws can always backfire on the people they are intended to protect,” she said.
Cross says she does see some benefits to criminalizing coercive control, including making bystanders more aware of potentially dangerous warning signs. But she urges the government not to rush.
“What we want to urge is that we proceed slowly, cautiously,” she said.
Sociologist points to root causes of violence
Ardath Whynacht says she believes that Kristin Johnston fell into a coercive, controlling relationship, but she doesn’t think a law could have helped her.
“Coercive control laws would not have saved Kristin Johnston’s life. I don’t believe, personally, that Kristin knew the amount of danger that she was in,” she said.
Based on her research as a sociologist, Whynacht says she doesn’t have confidence that a policing and punitive approach can prevent domestic violence.
“It has not addressed any of the root causes that make us vulnerable to family violence in the first place,” she said.
“A lot of the interventions that would be effective in preventing domestic homicide are never funded — and if they are funded, they are the first to be cut.”
Whynacht is against adding coercive control to the Criminal Code, arguing that the indications it exists can be very hard for police to identify.
She says many of the factors that cause violence are cultural and systemic, and measures such as poverty reduction and funding men’s counselling would be more effective in addressing the root causes of violence.
Whynacht says that in retrospect, she and others in her social circle could have spoken to Johnston about the red flags they were seeing, in an effort to call out “boundary crossing” behaviour.
“Whether or not that would have made a difference, I don’t know,” she said. “But I’d like to think that if we all felt more responsible for making us safer, instead of just throwing the police a few million dollars and telling them to do it, I think that we would be safer.
“I do believe that lives would be saved.”
Support is available for anyone affected by intimate partner violence. You can access support services and local resources in Canada by visiting this website. If your situation is urgent, please contact emergency services in your area.