A day after she was reported missing, the body of Dr. Elana Fric was found on December 1 of this year stuffed into a suitcase and dumped at the side of a bridge in Kleinburg, Ontario, 30 kilometres away from her home.
Dr. Fric's husband, Dr. Mohammad Shamji, a neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital, never reported to police that his wife was missing. It was her mother who informed Toronto police she hadn't heard from her daughter in days. And it was her mother who identified the suitcase as the same one she used when she first came to Canada from Croatia.
Dr. Mohammad Shamji was arrested by police the next day as he sat at a Mississauga coffee shop with his brother and his lawyer, Liam O'Connor. Dr. Shamji was charged with first degree murder on December 3.
Reports quickly surfaced that there was a history of violence and that Dr. Shamji was charged in 2005 with assault and uttering death threats against his wife and that a peace bond was issued but later dismissed after the charges were withdrawn.
Every six days in Canada a woman dies at the hands of her intimate partner and yet we are still astonished. The reporting of gender-based violence often erases the victim. We either ignore her and call her "the wife" or we just cannot believe that something like this could have happened or better yet, we end up praising the murder suspect and highlighting his accomplishments.
Dr. Elana Fric had filed for divorce days before she was murdered. Front line support workers in the fight against gender-based violence often note that when a woman decides to leave an abusive situation is when she is most susceptible to violence. These are not random acts they will tell you. In fact, study after study has shown that there is a method to the harm that is done to women and that concrete steps can be taken to reduce these types of heinous crimes.
The federal government of Canada announced this summer that it had put together an advisory council to help them develop a national strategy to deal with gender-based violence. Their findings and recommendations will be announced in 2017.
The timing of Dr. Fric's murder fell right into the middle of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, an initiative launched by the United Nations, and adopted by Canada. Many see Dr. Fric's murder as a tipping point but others say there have been hundreds of tipping points.
Marlene Ham, the Provincial Coordinator for the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH) says that most women die because of systemic failures.
"When our systems set up through bail court, probation and parole, family court and child welfare inadequately respond in a timely manner to survivor identified needs around safety, accountability and community centered care, the more dangerous the realities become for women experiencing violence," Ham told VICE.
With the federal government's announcement that it has put together an 18-member advisory board to assist Minister of Status of Women, Patty Hadju, with developing a federal strategy on gender-based violence, Ham points out that recommendations made more than a decade ago have not been acted upon and that if they were we would see a significant reduction in gender-based violence.
"There have been numerous recommendations and calls to action from survivors, violence against women advocates and researchers. Years of community-driven response, research and lessons learned, tell us that domestic violence related tragedies are preventable," says Ham.
Although it is difficult to say for sure that the death of Dr. Fric could have been prevented, we do know that this is not the first time an Ontario doctor was charged with murdering his intimate partner.
Eleven years ago, Lori Dupont, a 37-year-old nurse was murdered by her ex-partner who also worked at the same hospital in Windsor. Dr. Marc Daniel, brandishing a commando-style knife, stabbed Dupont repeatedly while she was tending to a patient. Her murder launched an inquest and an amendment to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act to include violence and harassment at work. Dupont had repeatedly told hospital administrators that she feared for her life.
Last year the head of the Ontario Nurses Association, Linda Haslam-Stroud, marked the anniversary of the murder of Lori Dupont by noting that after a decade, many of the recommendations made after Dupont's murder have not been actualized and despite the changes made to the Occupational Health and Safety Act "not enough has changed in our workplaces," she said. We need policies and laws that are enforced so that we can hold employers, CEOs and boards of directors of health-care agencies accountable for the safety of their workers."
The Ontario government's Domestic Violence Death Review Committee (Yes, there is such a committee) 2015 Annual Report provides grim statistics on the abuse suffered by women in the province. Comprised of mostly data and graphics, it also lays out the patterns involved with gender-based violence and yet we still see that warning signs are often parried away, explaining violence through the lens of isolated cases rather than as a societal problem.
The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses also recently published their annual report on women killed in the past year in Ontario by their intimate partners or family members. Unlike most reports, this one provides a photo of the woman murdered and background on who she was and how she died. It humanizes the victim, rather than turning her into an infographic to be discussed at the next committee meeting.
Ham says this viewing of gender-based violence as an individualized problem rather than a societal issue often sets up a false dichotomy which can then lead to obfuscating the severity of the issue.
"Women experience this (violence) in their homes, workplaces, on our streets, in online communities and when accessing services from those in positions of trust. Although men's use of power, control and violence towards women is most often what weaves these experiences together, women's social identities and experiences of discrimination related to race, culture, ability, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, class, language and immigration status, have a profound role in how women face particular barriers in living a life free of violence," says Ham.
"It's our collective and social responsibility to reduce these barriers and address the systemic structures that continue to put all women at risk."
Dr. Fric's funeral took place in Windsor, Ontario on the last day of the sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence. Her murder has once again sparked a national conversation about the issue. However, I can't help but wonder if all this action has more to do with Dr. Fric's position and privilege, than it does with a genuine concern about the lives of all women experiencing violence at the hands of their partners or family members.
Dr. Fric's murder sparked a vigil to be held in her honour in front of the Ontario legislature last week and the Ontario Medical Association has so far raised $150,000 for her three children. But what of the other women killed in this country at the hands of their partner? Did they receive vigils? Did their children receive tens of thousands of dollars? The answer is no.
There are no shortages of committees, roundtables or conferences dedicated to studying the issue of gender-based violence. There are no shortage of barriers, both legal and cultural, limiting the access women have to escaping violent situations. There are however a shortage of shelters that can provide for women and children who are fleeing violence at home and an unwillingness to act upon the recommendations already made in the fight against this national problem. How many more times do we want to quantify this issue? How many more times will we ignore a friend or colleague who informs a colleague or loved one that they fear for their lives and the lives of their children?
Det. Ann Marie Tupling, Domestic Violence Coordinator for the Toronto Police, noted that last year alone police in Toronto responded to 20,000 calls for domestic violence. That is one city in Canada.
Dr. Fric's husband, Dr. Mohammad Shamji, is due in court today for a bail hearing and according to frontline workers, the judicial system in this country is one of the first places that needs a systemic overhaul with respect to how it deals with perpetrators and victims of gender-based violence.
As I am writing this, another headline comes across my screen. This time in Ottawa: "Brother charged in the murder of his two sisters."
It's a stark reminder that every six days a woman in Canada dies at the hands of her intimate partner or family member.
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** Women who are experiencing various forms of abuse and violence can access counselling support and advocacy 24 hours per day through their local shelter. You don't have to move into a shelter to receive support, safety planning, advocacy or assistance with finding safe housing.
To find a shelter closest to where you are in Canada:
Provincial crisis lines to find a shelter in your community:
Assaulted Women's Helpline (with assistance in English and up to 154 other languages):
Toll-Free TTY: 1-866-863-7868
Rogers, Fido, Bell & Telus: #SAFE (#7233)
Talk4Healing: A Helpline for Aboriginal Women
24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Services offered in Ojibway, Oji-Cree and Cree
Femaide for Francophone Services:
Toll-free: 1-877-femaide (336-2433)