WARNING | This story contains details some readers may find disturbing.
Six women and one girl were victims of femicide in Ottawa in 2022, nearly half of the city's 16 homicide victims and a sign of what police say is a "significant" increase.
All of the female victims were racialized or Indigenous.
Their stories, though different, tell what advocates say are all-too-familiar tales of what violence against women can look like — especially as a pandemic lays bare the vulnerabilities many women are facing and what happens behind closed doors becomes public.
"[Statistics] have shown us prior to the pandemic, and even afterwards, that racialized women, Black women, Indigenous women and non-binary folks are more at risk," said Pamela Twagirayezu, a member of the Black and racialized caucus of the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women.
"The pandemic made it very, very clear to us that there were members in our community that unfortunately lived different lives behind closed doors."
One of the city's 16 homicides was investigated by the Special Investigations Unit, Ontario's police watchdog.
The other 15 were Ottawa police cases, with seven involving female victims — a "significant" spike, said Insp. Tim Hodgins.
"Over the last several years ... statistically about one quarter of our victims of homicide are female. So this year it's considerably higher than that," said Hodgins, who oversees the force's major investigations branch, which includes the homicide unit.
There were also 16 homicides in 2021, but only two that year were women.
Many shades of femicide
According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA), killings of women and girls nationwide rose 26 per cent from 2019 to 2021.
Men were the alleged culprits in 89 per cent of those killings.
The CFOJA, which studies the ways women are killed for simply being women and aims to end that violence, defines femicide as "the killing of all women and girls primarily by, but not exclusively, men."
The group also distinguishes between intimate and non-intimate femicide, but says the types can and do overlap.
"Intimate partner femicide" is the killing of women by current or former partners, regardless of their gender. Two of the seven Ottawa women were allegedly killed by current or former partners, as was one elderly male victim.
Marie Gabriel, 24, was bludgeoned to death with a barbell inside her Heatherington Road townhouse on March 27, allegedly by the father of her two young children — a man with whom her family says she was trapped in a violent relationship.
She had gone to a shelter, her family said, and was living in community housing while trying to work out a shared custody agreement.
Yu Kun Xie, 78, was allegedly beaten by her longtime boyfriend on Sept. 16 and died the following day.
Police initially charged Ian Rooney with manslaughter for injuries allegedly inflicted during the aggravated assault. Court records show he pleaded guilty in 2003 to one count of committing an indecent act in public after he masturbated in public at the city's downtown library branch in front of two women.
He was sentenced to two years of probation and has no convictions for violent offences.
Goes beyond intimate partner relationships
The CFOJA also tracks "non-intimate femicide," which it defines as involving "the killing of women by someone with whom they did not share an intimate partner relationship." That could include family members, strangers or other perpetrators.
On Oct. 31 police found 88-year-old Kieu Lam dead, allegedly killed by her two adult daughters.
Police say the two made a plan to kill their mother, allegedly using a hammer to carry out the attack. When that failed, police allege they strangled her with a curtain-tie.
The CFOJA also describes "sexual femicide" as cases where "sexual violations and sexual violence … result in the death of a woman or girl."
On Sept. 11, 22-year-old Savanna Pikuyak was stabbed to death by her housemate. She'd moved to Ottawa from Nunavut only three days earlier, after answering a Facebook ad for a room for rent in the city's west-end.
Ottawa police charged the man who posted the ad with her fatal stabbing. Pikuyak was found gagged and half-undressed, and police believe she was killed during an attempted sexual assault.
On June 26, Jasmine Ready, 15, was fatally stabbed multiple times by an obsessed 21-year-old neighbour, while her 50-year-old mother was also killed trying to protect her.
Joshua Graves had previously been charged with stalking, harassing, and trying to kiss another girl three days before the fatal attack. It was his first criminal charge ever, and he was released on uncontested bail into the custody of his mother.
Before his deliberate attack on Jasmine Ready, her family had already told him to respect her boundaries and leave the girl alone.
The CFOJA also defines "associated/connected femicide" as the killing of a woman "who was not the intended victim, sometimes referred to as a 'collateral' victim."
That could be a woman who was trying to stop an attack on someone else, was near another woman at a high risk of violence or was simply "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Sahur Yare, 20, was simply riding in a car when she was shot and killed Feb. 21.
Police allege the bullet was fired from another vehicle by a 16-year-old young offender with ties to the city's youth gang scene.
'It makes you question what is going on — and why'
The number of deaths is "horribly sad," said Insp. Nicole St. John, who oversees Ottawa police's intimate partner violence unit and others that investigate violence against women.
St. John said the number of reported offences are down in what are considered the force's traditional violence-against-women units — like those that handle sexual assault, child abuse and human trafficking — but that could just mean reporting in general is down.
But St. John said she's also seen an increase in the severity of the types of violent behaviour being reported.
"[It's] just extreme violence," she said. "It makes you question what is going on — and why."
"Homicide victims tend to have a level — some more complex than others — of vulnerability in our community. It doesn't necessarily predispose them to violence. It could be a factor in their death," added Hodgins.
Those vulnerabilities can often add complexity to a case. But police have a duty to investigate all of their deaths fully, Hodgins said, and lay criminal charges where appropriate.
Ottawa police have either closed or laid charges in all 15 of its homicide cases this year.
For Twagirayezu, while she's saddened by the numbers and the stories of the women whose lives were taken, it also confirms what she already knew.
Ottawa has seen "more brazen acts of hatred," Twagirayezu said, calling the deaths an "ongoing collective crisis."
"These aren't strangers to us. These are members of our community. This person is no different than your sister, your cousin, your mom, your favourite teacher," she said.
"There's no difference."