A Canadian Tragedy - Liam Pollock
One of Canada’s tragedies that persists to this day is that of murdered and missing Indigenous women. In 2019, according to Statistics Canada, the number of Aboriginal women homicides per 100,000 was 6 times higher than the rate of non-Aboriginal women. The case of R v Wood (“Wood”) exemplifies the pain and heartbreak that is constantly occurring in these communities. While Wood deals with this tragedy, the judgment specifically deals with the issue of sentencing for a murder of an Indigenous woman that had been committed.
A fatal attack and a foundation of trauma
Mr. and Mrs. Wood had been married since 2010. Since 2012, Mr. Wood had been convicted of assaulting his wife on four separate occasions. As part of an order given to him in 2017, he was directed to have no contact with his wife, had restrictions imposed on him when drinking and was not to return to his town of St. Theresa Point, where they lived, until completion of a residential alcohol treatment program. Despite the many directives that were given to Mr. Wood, in January of 2018, he went to St. Theresa Point to see his family, including Mrs. Wood. While there, the two of them went to his brother’s house where they drank and later became intoxicated. Later that evening, Mr. and Mrs. Wood began arguing, soon escalating to the point where Mr. Wood began assaulting her. During this time, Mrs. Wood’s brother went into the room to try to “settle down the hostility” but was told to leave. Later that same evening, her brother again went to check on Mrs. Wood and saw her lying on the floor. Mr. Wood told him that she had just passed out. However, after going to get help, it was determined that she was dead. The attack was of extreme brutality. Among her many injuries were numerous broken bones, including her jaw, collarbone, and all of her ribs. As well, she suffered from a subarachnoid hemorrhage and lacerations of the lungs and diaphragm. At trial, Mr. Wood was found guilty of manslaughter.
A sentence beyond analogous cases
In determining the proper sentence for Mr. Wood, there were a number of different factors that were considered. Within the Criminal Code [“the Code”], there are a number of provisions that a court must take into account, including:
the proportionality between the sentence and the offence;
the fact that spousal abuse is seen as an aggravating factor; as well as
the notion that jail should be used cautiously with “particular attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.”
In relation to the charge of manslaughter, in R v Caincsa [“Caincsa”], it was stated that manslaughter allows for a wide variety of possible sentences due to the fact that the circumstances that can lead to this conviction are rather broad. Specifically in reference to spousal manslaughter, the statutory parameters for the penalty is that there is no minimum penalty, except when a firearm is used, and that there is a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
In reference to Wood, there were a number of aggravating factors that the MBQB took into consideration. These included:
the “brutality of the beating and death”;
the victim’s vulnerability in that she was intoxicated and was much smaller than her husband;
the fact that Mr. Wood should never have been near his wife or within St Theresa Point; as well as
his previous criminal record.
The MBQB in Wood highlighted that Mrs. Wood’s vulnerability to spousal violence was increased due to the fact that she was Indigenous and had lived in an under-serviced community. In addition, regard was taken for the pain that this loss would cause her four children. As the MBQB stated, “they are deprived of her love, support and guidance.”
In assessing Mr. Wood’s moral blameworthiness, based on the brutality of the actions that took place, his previous history of abuse towards his wife, and a number of other factors, it was determined that it was very high. As the MBQB stated, Mr. Wood’s moral blameworthiness was “egregious” and “extremely severe.”
Another factor that the MBQB considered was the need to separate Mr. Wood from the rest of the community in order to prevent him from being a danger to his community. While there was acknowledgement that the possibility of rehabilitation remained, based on his past attempts at seeking treatment, there was a high degree of doubt that these programs would lead to a successful outcome.
The MBQB also looked to previous precedent of spousal manslaughter to look at the sentences that were given in similar cases. It was determined that a 15-year sentence was at the high end of precedent sentences. However, there was a lack of analogous case law to support the Crown’s suggestion of a 20-year sentence. The MBQB stated that, while these precedents exist as a guideline to determining the proper sentence in any given case, there is no definitive answer to determine the proper sentence. Therefore, in Wood, it was determined that an 18-year sentence was the proper length of sentence given all the factors that were considered. This was an extremely heinous act committed by the husband of Mrs. Wood. As such, a relatively harsh sentence was given.
Exceeding analogous cases is not enough
Wood is one of the more horrible cases that I have read in my short time in law school. This recent decision by the MBQB highlights another example of the disturbing occurrences that are being perpetrated against Indigenous women in this country. In the judgement written by Justice Martin, Mr. Wood’s history was discussed. In the community, cases of domestic violence are very common. Mr. Wood’s father was abused physically and emotionally by Catholic nuns. During Mr. Wood’s childhood he endured verbal and physical abuse by his father, while also witnessing his father assault his mother on numerous occasions. While none of this provides an excuse for the heinous act that he committed against his wife, it seems very clear that Mr. Wood is a product of his upbringing. The notion that domestic violence in this community is very common is unsettling in and of itself. Again, while Mr. Wood’s history doesn’t change the fact that he committed an extremely horrible crime, it exemplifies the changes that need to occur to give people in these communities, both male and female, the support they need to break out of this vicious cycle. Aboriginal women being six times more likely to be killed in this country than non-Aboriginal women shows that fundamental changes need to occur.
While it was mentioned that a 15-year sentence for spousal imprisonment was at the higher end of sentences as well as the fact that there were no analogous cases that demonstrated support for the Crown’s position of a 20-year sentence, I find this to be an unsatisfactory aspect of the MBQB’s reasoning. The attack in Wood was an egregious act and, as such, I find the sentence of 18 years to be insufficient. While this individual was not convicted of murder, the brutal attack that his wife endured by him was not any less heinous than an act of murder. This individual had had many opportunities to learn from his actions. While I understand that Mr. Wood’s history had set him up for failure, he had a duty to his wife and children. Now, instead of his children growing up with both parents, they will have to learn to exist in this world without a mother and a father in jail. Mr. Wood’s three youngest children are being raised by their relatives in Winnipeg while the oldest is on his own. Therefore, I would argue for a sentence of at least 20 years imprisonment. Not only did Mr. Wood beat his wife to death, but he also prevented here brother from coming to his wife’s aid. A crime like this does not deserve a merciful sentence. A lack of analogous cases in order to demonstrate the sufficiency of a sentence should not be the only determining factor as to the proper sentence.
Again, while Wood presents a horrible situation of spousal abuse, as the MBQB acknowledged, it further shows the broken system that exists for Aboriginal women in this country. There are 63 First Nations in Manitoba but only 5 shelters for battered women; none exist in reasonable proximity to St. Theresa Point. As the MBQB in Wood stated, it is very challenging for a domestic abuse victim to escape. Fundamental changes need to occur in order to not only ensure the safety of Indigenous women but to change Canada’s entire system to help benefit future generations.