The coroner's inquest into the 2015 triple homicide in the Ottawa Valley began Monday with families remembering two of the three victims whose lives were cut short.
On Sept. 22, 2015, Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam were murdered by Basil Borutski in Renfrew County, west of Ottawa. Borutski knew all three women.
The inquest, which is taking place in Pembroke, Ont., is not only examining the circumstances around the murders, but also tasking five jurors from the county — three men and two women — with recommending ways survivors of domestic violence in rural communities can be better protected and supported.
"You have a very big job, and that's an understatement," Leslie Reaume, the inquest's presiding officer, told the jurors.
Zou Zou Kuzyk, Anastasia Kuzyk's older sister, began testimony at the inquest, describing Kuzyk as an animal lover, accomplished horse rider and the baby of the family, who others referred to as "Stasia."
"The cute one in the chair," she said, motioning toward an old family photo on display behind her.
Kuzyk said her sister believed in the systems meant to keep people safe.
"It never would have crossed her mind that institutions would fail to the extent that they did that day," she said of her sister's death.
WATCH | Sister of Anastasia Kuzyk says the system failed all three women:
Focused on systemic issues
Inquest counsel Prabhu Rajan said the public examination will largely focus on the systemic issues raised by the "terror-filled" day of the murders and examine the events through the lens of intimate-partner violence.
"If this inquest can improve even one woman's life, I believe it will be worth it," Rajan said.
The inquest will hear about issues victims face in reporting violence, the role of firearms access in rural homicides of female partners, and warning flags about the killer, to name only a few areas within the broad inquest's scope.
During the triple-murder trial in 2017, which ended in three convictions, court heard Borutski had been convicted of assaulting and attempting to choke Kuzyk the year before she was fatally shot, and he had been on a lifetime weapons ban.
The trial also heard he breached his probation by not taking part in a domestic violence response program.
Daughter recalls living with killer
Valerie Warmerdam, the daughter of Nathalie Warmerdam, also testified on Monday — one of more than 30 witnesses expected to speak over the next three weeks.
"I'm taking part because it's what mom would have done," she said in an email to CBC News before the inquest. "She would have used every lever available to her within the system to make change."
Valerie said her mother made a big, midlife career change to nursing.
WATCH | 'A life unlived': Friend reflects on loss as inquest into murders begins:
"I've had many families of [her] patients tell me how fondly they remember her work advocating for people in her care," she said.
Valerie said Borutski lived with the family for two years until his alcoholism worsened and he became increasingly unsafe to be around. Her mother wrestled with her decision to press charges against him, she said.
Traditional means of trying to shield victims from abusers, such as restraining orders and bail conditions, might help previous partners "but it doesn't protect new victims," she said.
Abusers should also be helped before they become destructive to others, she added.
WATCH | Valerie Warmerdam speaks to reporters following sentencing in 2017:
Valerie is one of three people or groups with "standing" in the inquest, meaning they or a representative can question each witness.
The other two groups are the Ontario government, which is expected to shoulder many of the recommendations the jurors might make, and End Violence Against Women Renfrew County, a coalition focused on domestic violence in the county.
"We know that all too many women are still living in fear of their partners," Kirsten Mercer, the Toronto-based lawyer and women's advocate who is representing the coalition during the inquest, said in an interview with CBC's Ottawa Morning.
"It's our hope that taking a closer look at the events of Sept. 22, 2015, and most importantly the events that led up to that day, will help us shed some light on the work that needs to be done to make sure that a situation like that is never allowed to be repeated."
Mark Zulinski, a retired inspector with the Ontario Provincial Police, also testified on Monday with an overview of the killings and the subsequent arrest.
WATCH | Inquest has 'a lot of potential' to change intimate partner violence in rural communities:
Among the next witnesses at the inquest is lawyer Pamela Cross, a women's advocate who was hired by End Violence Against Women Renfrew County to interview county residents for a report outlining their concerns.
She said remoteness is a huge factor affecting women experiencing violence in rural communities.
"There are fewer services in rural communities, and they're farther away and farther apart," Cross said in an interview with CBC News before the inquest.
"A woman who decides to leave her abuser and wants to go into a shelter ... may have to go such a distance that the kids can't stay in the school that they've been attending. That just adds further stress and trauma for those children."
WATCH | Inquest begins into murders of 3 rural Ontario women: