“It seems like these days, all we are doing is going to funerals,” said one woman, standing in the gazebo at Rotary Peace Park during the Gathering of Families. The event honored the memories of three Yukon women who have died violently since late 1995.
Men and women, including young people, took to an open microphone and spoke of their pain over the losses of Susan Klassen, Maranda Peter and Sonja Lee Rushton.
Klassen’s husband, Ralph, was found guilty of manslaughter for her 1995 killing. He strangled his wife in their Lake Laberge home, left her lying on her bed, and tried to kill himself by running his pickup truck into a propane truck on the Mayo Road.
He was sentenced to five years in jail in January 1997, and will be up for a day parole hearing in June.
Peter was two weeks shy of her 16th birthday when her 16-year-old boyfriend strangled her in 1996.
Earlier this month, James Joe Ward was sentenced to four years in jail after pleading guilty to manslaughter.
Rushton was found stabbed in her Faro home on March 30. Her estranged husband has been charged with her murder.
The sentences handed down to Ward and Klassen were met with cries of protest over what little value women’s lives are given in the territory.
Whitehorse residents Rachael and Randy Lewis were two of the 10 people involved in organizing the event.
“I was touched by the demonstration that took place after the Susan Klassen trial, and I think there were similar feelings following the trial of Maranda Peter,” said Rachael.
“We felt it was important to try and gather people again and try and solve some of the problems we see our communities facing,” she said.
“My grandmother was a victim of (domestic) violence at a time when nobody talked about it. Unless we can keep talking about it and keep bringing it out in the open, it is a problem we are not going to be able to deal with.
“What I hope comes from today is that when my daughter grows up, she will feel the world is a safe place to be.”
Talking about it, taking responsibility and asking for help. Those were many of the sentiments the speakers expressed.
“I don’t feel it is right what happened,” said Jeff Wolsynuk, who came to the gathering as part of a group called Youth Services of Canada.
“Coming from someone who has been involved with violence, I don’t think there is any need for it anymore.”
Members of the youth group spoke to those gathered around the gazebo and placed yellow and white flowers on its steps in memory of the women lost.
“I lost someone I really loved,” said an emotional Louie Carlick, a youth group member and a friend of Peter.
“I grew up with her,” he said, adding that alcohol and society’s lack of help for those suffering from its effects are “killing us all.”
Said Community Services Minister Dave Keenen: “Today is such a sad day. A day we come together and remember the people who we have lost to violence ... we must come together as a society, as people, as Yukoners and as Canadians to stop the violence against women.
“We have got to share the sorrow, but also share in the direction of protection of women in our society,” he said.
Also on hand was Yukon MP Louise Hardy. She was presented a banner, signed by those attending the event, which she was to take to Ottawa.
“Each of us is responsible for each of our generations,” she said.
“We need to let our brothers know they can’t use their strength against us.”
Many of the messages on the banner spoke of frustration with the legal system.
“Just go north to the Yukon if you want to get rid of your partner, especially if she is female,” wrote one person.
“You’ll just get a slap on the wrist. Her life isn’t worth much up here. I don’t like this message. It scares the hell out of me.”
Another person wrote: “It’s time we join hands and work together – women and men and families and communities – to change our violent society into a culture of peace. Sympathy and love to the families who have lost loved ones and to all who have experienced violence in their lives.”
By Kathleen Goldhar, Star reporter
The Whitehorse Star, April 20 1998