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Amid spike in GTA domestic homicides, experts call for action to address ‘crisis’

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At midnight on her birthday Natalie Lewandowski stared at her phone, waiting for a call that would never come.

Her 25-year-old sister, Alicia Lewandowski, had been killed two days earlier, on March 5, 2018 — one of fourteen women and children killed last year in the Greater Toronto Area in cases considered by police to be domestic homicides. Alicia’s boyfriend Joseph Chang has been charged with first-degree murder.

Natalie Lewandowski — sitting in front of photos of her sister Alicia who was killed last year, allegedly by her boyfriend — would like to see more education for young men and women about what healthy and abusive relationships look like.
Natalie Lewandowski — sitting in front of photos of her sister Alicia who was killed last year, allegedly by her boyfriend — would like to see more education for young men and women about what healthy and abusive relationships look like.  (J.P. MOCZULSKI for The Toronto Star)

“We were best, best friends. We had a divine and unique bond. Everyone knew us as the ‘Lewandowski sisters,’” said Natalie Lewandowski, 32, on a December evening before her first Christmas since her sister’s death. “We would always say that when mom and dad go, we’d have each other.”

Photographs of her sister at various milestones are placed around her apartment. Alicia surrounded by friends on her birthday. Alicia at the surprise baby shower she threw when Lewandowski was pregnant with her son Adrian. Alicia holding Adrian on the night he was born.

It’s the photographs of Alicia that will never be added to the framed collages that haunt Lewandowski. Not from her college graduation — Alicia was training to become an esthetician because she loved making people feel beautiful. Not from her wedding or the birth of her first child.

When someone is murdered their killer is “not just taking away a person’s life,” she said. “They are affecting everybody that loved the person and even generations later. My son is robbed of having an aunt and first cousins. I am robbed of ever being an aunt.”

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There is little Lewandowski wants to say now about her sister’s case because she may be a witness in Chang’s as-yet unscheduled criminal trial.

“(Alicia) gave people benefit of the doubt,” she said. “She loved spreading joy and bringing happiness to others.”

Lewandowski said her sister also went through abuse similar to what many women have gone through or are currently going through in their relationships.

“You don’t think it will ever happen,” she said of her sister’s murder.

The Greater Toronto Area saw more than twice as many domestic homicides in 2018 than in 2017 and three more than in each of 2014 and 2013.

Alicia Lewandowski, 25, was killed March 5, 2018. Joseph Chang has been charged with first-degree murder in the case.
Alicia Lewandowski, 25, was killed March 5, 2018. Joseph Chang has been charged with first-degree murder in the case.  (Natalie Lewandowski)

Fourteen women and children were killed in the GTA last year in 11 cases where a current or former intimate partner was charged, according to a Star analysis.

The victims range in age from 13 to 76. But there are some commonalities — most of the victims were found in their homes. In four cases the apparent killer died by suicide after killing their current or former partner. In at least two cases there was a known or documented history of abuse. In two cases, the victim was reportedly ending or had ended the relationship — a time known to be especially dangerous for women leaving abusive relationships.

It’s unclear why there was an increase in domestic homicides in the GTA in 2018, experts say. Both femicides — a term specifically referring to the killing of women and girls — and domestic homicides have, overall, been decreasing in Canada. Between 1975 and 2015, intimate partner homicide rates decreased 37 per cent for females and decreased by more than 69 per cent for males, according to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, which was launched in 2017.

However, homicide rates for Indigenous women have remained stable or increased over the same time period. Indigenous women constituted a quarter of femicide victims in 2015 and the homicide rate for Indigenous women between 2001 and 2015 was nearly six times higher than that for non-Indigenous women, according to Statistics Canada.

Women remain most at risk of being killed by a husband or boyfriend — 48 per cent of all solved femicides in Canada in 2015 were committed by a current or former intimate partner, according to the Femicide Observatory.

Women and girls are also far more likely than men and boys to be killed by someone they know well, including parents and other family members — only six per cent of female victims in 2015 were killed by a stranger and 14 per cent by a casual acquaintance. Meanwhile 45 per cent of male victims were killed by a casual acquaintance, 16 per cent by a criminal acquaintance and 16 per cent by a stranger.

These patterns appear to be reflected in the femicide statistics in Peel Region, which saw nine femicides last year out of a total of 26 homicides. All but three allegedly involve an intimate partner.

In Toronto, which saw 96 homicides in Toronto in 2018, 21 victims were women and girls. Including two exceptional “mass casualty” incidents, the April van attack and the July Danforth mass shooting, more than half were allegedly murdered by strangers — a much higher number than is typical.

Eight women were killed in the April 23 van attack that left 10 people dead. It remains unclear if women were specifically targeted. Alek Minassian, who now faces 10 charges of first-degree murder, has alleged links to the misogynist “incel” online community that espouses hatred of women stemming from their “involuntary celibacy.”

Reese Fallon, 18, who would have started university in the fall, and Julianna Kozis, 10, were killed by Faisal Hussain in the Danforth mass shooting in July.

Ruma Amar, 29, and Jenas Nyarko, 31, were shot and killed — neither the intended target of the bullets, according to police.

Abbegail Elliott, 21, was stabbed in her home — a man and a woman are charged with first-degree murder.

Rhoderie Estrada, 44, was killed in her home. Two men are charged with first-degree murder.

Victoria Selby-Readman, 28, was killed, allegedly, by her flatmate, a man with a history of domestic violence.

Three women and girls were killed by relatives — an infant allegedly killed by her father, Elena Marucci, 84, allegedly killed by her grandson, and Colleen Maxwell, 73, allegedly killed by her son.

Three women were killed by their intimate partners — one in a murder-suicide.

Examining all femicides is necessary to discover and prevent patterns of violence beyond intimate partner homicides, such as when women are killed by other family members including sons or grandsons, says Farrah Khan, the manager of the Ryerson University Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education.

The 2018 Femicide Census in the United Kingdom explores several femicides patterns, including terror attacks where women are killed or targeted, citing the attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester last year. The report also notes a link between terrorists or mass shooters and a history of domestic violence and stresses the importance of examining factors that may make certain women more vulnerable including race and immigration status.

This year the Liberal government proposed several new Criminal Code reforms targeting domestic violence, including increasing penalties for repeat offenders, making it more difficult for accused persons with previous domestic violence-related convictions to get bail on similar offences and explicitly allowing restitution to be ordered for a victim’s moving expenses, temporary housing, food, child care and transportation. The bill is currently before the Senate.

The reforms also make strangulation a more serious offence, reflecting research that shows strangulation is not just extremely dangerous but a risk factor for escalating violence — though University of Ottawa law professor Elizabeth Sheehy said this move may end up ineffective if accused persons can argue strangulation was consensual.

Sheehy said there remains a need for a federal strategy to tackle violence against women, which would allow for a more coherent approach across the country. “I think it’s very hard to imagine improvement that comes from haphazard law reform or fortunate decisions by one official in one jurisdiction or another,” she said.

Femicides — and violence against women — are not “women’s issues,” said Laura Hartley, the co-ordinator of Peel Committee Against Woman Abuse. “It’s a public issue, it’s a crisis and it requires a public response. It’s everyone in our communities’ responsibility to be working together to create a safe and just society for all women.”

Every year the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses compiles a list of the women killed in the province and vigils are held on Dec. 6, the anniversary of the killing of 14 women at the l’École Polytechnique de Montréal.

Khan says the significance of the list is made even more stark because so many could have been prevented.

“What will be the legacy of so many women murdered?” Khan said.

Natalie Lewandowski wants to see more education for both young men and women about what healthy and abusive relationships look like — and what to do if they are in abusive relationships and what resources, like free counselling or safe places to stay, they can access.

“If you see red flags run as fast as you can because you may think things will change and get better but they don’t,” she said.

She and her family remain devastated from Alicia’s death.

“I am not the same person that I was,” she said.

Lewandowski used to be a funeral director. She spent her days helping families endure the loss of loved ones with compassion and dignity. When it came time for her sister’s funeral, she did Alicia’s makeup herself, so that her winged eyeliner would be just right.

“I wanted her to look like Alicia,” she said.

She can no longer work in the funeral industry — it’s too hard, even though she understands the pain of losing a loved one more acutely than ever before.

It would have been Alicia’s 26th birthday on Dec. 8. Lewandowski stared at the clock until it struck midnight.

“I had my phone in my hands and I wanted so badly to call her and sing happy birthday to her. And I couldn’t make that call. And I will never be able to make that call.”

Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court. She can be reached at ahasham@thestar.ca. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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