Life After Death

July 2, 2008

Corinne De Patie is only now beginning to rediscover her voice. Three years ago, after her son Grant was killed at the age of 24, she lost control of her life. For more than two months she couldn’t even cook, depending on her local church to fill the freezer. When the food ran out, she felt helpless and overwhelmed. But she focused on her other three kids and worked at putting her life back together. “It’s a slow process,” she says, sitting on a couch in the Surrey home she shares with her husband, Doug, and Grant’s younger siblings. “You need to teach yourself that, being the adult and being the parent, you have to guide these young children along and show them strength. It’s been hard. It is hard.

“I used to be a very bubbly person, but my bubbles have been popped. Grant’s death silenced me. On his birthday, I make a fancy dinner, I set a place for him. I buy six cupcakes, and we share the sixth one. After dinner, we put love letters in balloons and release them and then go for a bike ride. I ride his bike. When we went by the skate park, some kid said, ‘Hey lady, nice ride.’ ”

She thinks about Grant constantly. In the corner of the small living room, in a display stand, is the Medal of Gallantry awarded to Grant posthumously by the Vietnam Veterans of Canada. He lived in the basement of this house before moving to Maple Ridge in July of 2004 and, a few months later, taking a job at a nearby gas station. It was there, while he worked the night shift, that he ran out, perhaps to try to stop a gas-and-dasher or maybe just to get the plate number of the stolen Chrysler LeBaron. The then 16-year-old driver, who’s now serving a prison term, struck and dragged Grant more than seven kilometres as he sped away, later bragging to friends that he’d heard Grant screaming from underneath the car. “The pain is still immense,” says Corinne, “and it’s heavy.”

The De Patie house is filled with the sound of kids yelling and playing; 11-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, run up and down the stairs, getting ready for a BMX race. Grant introduced them to the sport, and the twins are now two of the top young BMX bikers in the country. Grant’s $7,500 bike sits upstairs in Corinne’s bedroom.

Corinne gets up to shut the glass door of the living room, blocking out the noise. Grant was more than 15 years older than his brother and sisters, but he’d always wanted siblings and was a good mentor to them. Since his death, says Corinne, she worries that she’s become too strict with the other children and is thankful that they’re patient with her. She recently took her daughter aside to talk about drugs, and 12-year-old Victoria interrupted her. “You know, Mom, if Grant was alive, he would have already told me that.” “So you see,” says Corinne, “we have a lot to live up to.”

The De Paties admire the trailblazing role played by the late Chuck Cadman, the ponytailed musician who was a Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2005 (and whose widow, Dona, is the Conservative candidate for Surrey North in the upcoming federal election). Cadman, like the De Paties, lived in Surrey, and had a young son—Jesse, then a 16-year-old Grade 11 student—who was killed senselessly by another teenager while he was on his way home one night.

After Jesse’s death, the Cadmans found themselves meeting two or three times a week with the parents of other youths who’d been killed. In 1993, incensed by the courts’ lenient treatment of their children’s killers, these parents started Crime, Responsibility, Youth (CRY), with the aim of pressuring politicians to toughen the Young Offenders Act. They arranged for hundreds of thousands of letters to be sent to Ottawa MPs, counselled other victims’ families, and started a movement to sue parents who ignored court orders to keep their children in on curfew. Later, as an MP himself, Cadman successfully introduced a bill that would allow those parents to be charged criminally. Arne Silverman, the lawyer (now a Supreme Court judge) who represented Jesse’s killer, says that Chuck Cadman “virtually invented victims’ rights” in Canada. Cadman, who died of cancer in 2005, inspired the formation of a number of other victims’ rights groups in the 1990s. Most of them, including his own, have since disappeared.

In 2006, Sandra Martins-Toner and Nina Rivet, two Lower Mainland women who’d lost loved ones to violence, started a group called Families Against Crime and Trauma, as both a victims’ support group and a political advocacy organization. They were motivated, in part, by Martins-Toner’s outrage when one of the two accused in the SkyTrain beating death of her son was released on $5,000 bail. Rivet, F.A.C.T.’s president, had lived in Cadman’s riding and worked with him on drafting a bill to toughen street-racing laws after a street racer struck and killed her sister in 2000. The seven parents depicted in these pages, all members of F.A.C.T., represent only a tiny fraction of the citizens who’ve been deeply affected by violence.

Many parents of murdered children feel muted by the violent invasion into their family, and helpless at the loss of control in all that follows: the searing grief, the criminal investigation, the trial, all of it conducted under the watchful, often invasive, eye of the media. At the most emotionally vulnerable moment imaginable, many parents feel stripped of their fundamental rights as citizens.

In their presence, reminders of death are never far off. One mother, sitting in a coffee shop, gasps when a woman grabs at her young son as he wanders into the street; another looks panicked when two of her young children walk off in a park. Another mother remarks that I’m tall and thin, like her son; she asks me to give her a hug. His ashes, in a small urn, sit on a shelf a few feet away.

Despite an annual budget of less than $7,000, Vancouver-based F.A.C.T. has attracted 100 dues-paying members and another 300 “supporters.” They’re pushing for a complete overhaul of our treatment of criminals and victims, paying special attention to a parole system they say is excessively lenient and a young-offenders law that lets juvenile killers off with unconscionably short prison terms. They want 24-hour security around high-crime SkyTrain stations, and improvements to surveillance systems, and met with some success in late May. The group has published a collection of poetry written by victims, and its work is included in a documentary on crime being made by a professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. In May, the group introduced a private member’s bill in the B.C. legislature to increase victim restitution, so that families can stay out of the workforce for up to two years while they grieve.<–pagebreak->

Government-sponsored victim services, created in Canada in the past 25 years or so, cover such things as travel expenses to court, the installation of alarm systems in victims’ homes, and family counselling—all available but not guaranteed and often denied. This year, the province increased victim-service funding by about 22 percent to $12.6 million. In 2005, this program helped 66,000 people and handed out about $10 million in victim compensation. But F.A.C.T. says that many victims now turn to them instead of to the government for help.

Since the mid 1990s, F.A.C.T. executive director Martins-Toner explains, provincial budget cuts have gutted the victim-services program; she claims few can access the program because it is designed for those with little or no income, not the middle class. “What they don’t realize is that for most of us, we can’t go back to work,” says Martins-Toner, whose son Matthew was beaten to death in 2005. Many victims, she says, do not even know about the funding.

Newly bereaved parents often believe that they did their part and raised good children; then, in their darkest moments, society fails them, offering nothing but platitudes. After the trial is over, the world moves on, leaving them shattered and bereft. Martins-Toner believes the group has taken on a responsibility the rest of society is abdicating. Whenever another slaying occurs, Martins-Toner phones the victim’s family to let them know they’re there to help. Rivet, who in addition to her sister also lost a brother in a 1977 shooting, attends court hearings with families, explaining the legal process as it unfolds, and arranging meetings with prosecutors. She also helps them navigate the provincial bureaucracy, and will threaten to go to the media if she encounters barriers. David Toner, Martins-Toner’s husband, and Gordon Penner, whose son was knifed to death after dropping friends off at a Port Coquitlam party in 2006, do a lot of the political advocacy work.

Despite the group’s membership base, much of the work is done by these four core people, for no pay. These are campaigns based on emotion, not money or political agendas, which can make them hard to sustain. When CAVEAT, a victim-advocacy group started in 1991, closed down a decade later, members spoke of the difficulty of getting the funds to continue. And Martins-Toner knows that investing so much energy can lead to disillusionment when things don’t change as quickly as you’d like. “I can understand how that can drain a person’s want to do that anymore, but I think that for us, it’s a completely different thing,” she says. “I think F.A.C.T. has really hit the nail on the head.” As long as the group can make small changes to the system, she says, the momentum will keep it going. Her husband is often asked if he’ll run for office, as Cadman did, but she says they’re not interested in partisan political games; instead, they believe grassroots power will bring about change.

None of the family members profiled here can express precisely what, for them, would count as a victory. In some families the desire for vengeance is almost palpable: they want a life for a life. Other victims’ families would settle for an apology, for the knowledge that their child didn’t die in vain, or simply for formal recognition of their loss.

Doug De Patie, Corinne’s husband, is trained as a plumber. Eight months after Grant’s death, his car was broadsided by another vehicle while he was on his way to work and he suffered a serious injury to his knee. He takes the stairs carefully and has trouble sitting; crawling on tile floors and working under sinks is now impossible. He’d been interested in the law as a young man in high school but never went any further with it, following his older brothers into a trade. Now he devotes much of his time to learning about the justice system and attempting to reform it. He often stays up until 1 or 2 in the morning, doing paperwork and emailing politicians; he gets up as early as 4 a.m., taking advantage of the time difference to call officials in the East.

Earlier this year, after countless hours of personal lobbying, the De Paties had the satisfaction of seeing the B.C. government enact Grant’s Law, an amendment to the province’s Occupational Health and Safety regulations. The law forces gas stations to improve employee security and requires customers to prepay for gas, effectively ending gas-and-dash thefts. Corinne helps her husband—typing, photocopying, mailing letters—but recoils at the suggestion that it’s a joint effort.

 

“ Let’s get the story straight,” she says sternly, separating herself from the project. “It’s Doug that does all the work.” Doug speaks proudly of their success and notes that there’s been interest from governments as far afield as Texas. “Now that he’s conquered British Columbia,” Corinne says, “he’s going nationwide with Grant’s Law.” Doug says that, later in life, he wants to be able to look back and know that he did all he could to prevent more needless deaths.

Victims are loath to blame the crime problem on police, with whom they tend to keep in touch during criminal investigations, offering tips and asking for updates. They recognize that the police would do more if they had the resources. In 2006, police across the province cleared 65 percent of homicide cases (which include vehicular death and manslaughter). From 2005 to 2006, the B.C. conviction rate for homicides was 75 percent. But the most recent stats put the average sentence at only five years, and for a young offender, a mere 913 days.

Though you would not know it from watching the news, violent crime in this part of the world is actually decreasing. According to the BC Progress Board, British Columbia’s violent-crime rate dropped 14 percent between 1995 and 2005. David MacAlister, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University who specializes in policing and sentencing policy, points out that the justice system is not as broken as it may seem. Why the misperception? Largely because the media focus on spectacular failures while ignoring everyday successes.

“ The general public doesn’t understand what’s actually happening in the courts,” says MacAlister, who believes that toughening up the criminal-justice system—mandatory minimums, tightened parole eligibility, revised sentencing guidelines for judges—will almost certainly lead to enormous growth in prison populations without necessarily reducing crime. “The end result is an American-style model.”

That’s exactly what groups like F.A.C.T. want: a justice system that gives victims a greater voice and treats criminals more harshly. Martins-Toner says much more crime goes unreported now, lowering the apparent crime rate. “I don’t care about any poll or stat, that’s just not true, they’re absolutely blatantly lying,” she says. And media sensationalism notwithstanding, the vast majority of citizens don’t want to see innocent people suffer or criminal acts go unpunished—to see intuitive notions of justice set aside because of improperly gathered evidence or sloppy courtroom procedures or a defendant’s history of childhood abuse. Stories of prisoners getting out for restaurant meals, or of judges knocking years off serious sentences, inflame most tax-paying citizens. A version of the “three strikes” law—life sentence, without parole, for any three-time violent offender—is just one U.S. innovation that F.A.C.T. thinks we need here.

And it’s tough to marshal counterarguments at a time when Vancouver, Chilliwack, New Westminster, Burnaby, and Surrey have some of the highest murder rates in the country. Vancouver’s homicide rate is now roughly that of metropolitan Seattle, a city most people think of as far more gun-riddled and violent than our own.

Doug De Patie knows all too well that new laws and tougher sentences will not solve the Lower Mainland’s violence problem. At the trial, the De Paties heard all about Grant’s killer’s troubled childhood, and while they certainly don’t think it absolves him of his crime, they feel truly sorry for the early strife he endured. Doug also learned that Grant’s killer had been known to B.C. social services for many years, but he had only met his counsellor in person once in the year before police arrested him. The system had been failing the De Paties for a long time before their son went to work the night shift on March 7, 2005. “Grant’s Law,” says Doug, “was the easy fix.”

The choice to play a public role in the midst of personal trauma is not one every family makes. People who do choose advocacy say that the work reminds them they can control something and don’t have to remain victims forever. After feeling largely ignored by the judicial process, they can potentially have a say in the political one. It can be difficult to keep the faith, especially when the subject is so visceral and one’s impact so hard to measure. It’s a long fight—even the highly visible and effective Cadman thought that Canadians were stuck in an “abyss of apathy”—and the challenges, for those with no experience in working for legislative change, are daunting.

Corinne, too, likes knowing that she and Doug have done something to prevent another family from going through a similar tragedy. But when Grant’s Law was passed, the media seized the chance to revisit the original story, and Grant’s picture was back in the paper; people on the street and at work kept approaching her to ask about her late son. She wonders whether having to constantly lobby and campaign, to talk about her son’s death again and again with reporters and politicians, has prevented the family from moving forward. “Some days,” she says, “it feels like Grant has just died yet again.”

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