When Audette Shephard's 19-year-old son Justin was shot and killed on June 23, 2001, she says she was left alone with her grief and in her despair even contemplated suicide.
"I can't even explain the devastation. I just didn't know where to turn," she said, adding that Toronto police offered little in the way of emotional support.
"It would have been helpful not to just leave me alone. Because god knows what I could've done. The 20th-floor balcony looked really good at the time."
Shephard, an advocate for justice and support for victims of crime, went on to co-found United Mothers Opposing Violence Everywhere (UMOVE), an organization that looks for solutions to end youth violence.
She was one of the many Black, Indigenous people and persons of colour to speak about their experiences after losing a loved one to homicide at a University of Toronto forum.
It was organized by the Survivors of Homicide Victims and Mental Health Research Project, a partnership between the Centre for Research & Innovation for Black Survivors of Homicide Victims (CRIB) and the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario.
The project will help develop recommendations for service providers, police and policy makers to identify systemic issues regarding homicide, violence, mental health and survivor support, and ultimately develop policy options for governments at all levels.
Tanya Sharpe, an associate professor at U of T who is heading up the project, says a culturally responsive support for families and friends of homicide victims is urgently needed.
"Research has historically focused on perpetrators and victims of homicide — neglecting to examine the post-homicide experiences of survivors, and leaving a wide gap in mental health support," she said.
Because of a gap in post-homicide research, policy makers and practitioners have little data to develop evidence-based interventions because the impact on surviving family members and community was not understood, she says.
For example, Sharpe says 2019 was the first time homicide statistics were revised to reflect information on whether victims were members of racialized groups. One third of homicide victims in Canada are visible minorities (44 per cent of this group identified as Black).
In Ontario, she says racialized populations accounted for 75 percent of homicide victims.
On average, each homicide victim has seven family members and when friends are factored in, one homicide can have a huge impact on an entire community.
Tazio Clarke, a manager with Ontario's Victim/Witness Assistance program, says when members of BIPOC communities are killed, the victim is often blamed.
"The narrative could be portrayed as the community's almost at fault for the violence and what happens is it becomes a reciprocal effect when going through the justice system so the treatment within the justice system carries on that same narrative."
Peel Regional Police Deputy Chief Marc Andrews told the panel that police and the justice system are ruled by procedures and practices that are not always appropriate when it comes to dealing with the family of a homicide victim.
"Traditional policing has a very narrow focus. We tend to focus on process and practice and not always on people," he said.
For example, he said police will keep the family of a homicide victim away from the crime scene for investigative reasons, which means loved ones may not get closure. He suggested police be more flexible.
"You let the situation dictate, not well this is the way we do things as we've always done things. Each situation is unique."
The forum also heard that BIPOC people have a harder time getting access to support ranging from help with mental health issues to financial hardship after a loved one is killed.
Lawyer Shalini Konanur, the executive director of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, says the Victim Quick Response Program, an enhanced plan to support victims of violent crimes introduced by the province in 2019, falls short.
The program is aimed at making it easier for victims and their families to access services and getting them support faster.
"Trauma doesn't go away in 12 to 18 months, right? It pops up and it follows you as you go on in your life," said Konanur.
"This scheme is not particularly helpful in supporting the people that we work with."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.