WARNING: This story contains graphic accounts of sexual violence that may be disturbing to some readers.
For 17 years, she criss-crossed Canada trying to flee the man who raped and tortured her and coerced her into prostitution and sexual slavery.
Regardless of what she did or where she went, her tormentor and the gang that he ran with were never far behind.
When she became pregnant with his child, he beat her badly enough that police were called. No charges were laid.
Over the years, he was twice arrested and convicted, but never jailed for assault or for breaching no-contact orders as part of his probation.
He spray-painted one of her homes with racist epithets, torched another and dropped off an eviscerated rat at yet another. Police were called. No charges were laid.
It all ended 12 years ago when, against incredible odds, the United States granted her asylum under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
She didn’t have a lawyer, only two law students who with a professor’s help took it on as a class project.
U.S. Immigration Judge Kenneth Josephson relied on court precedents in concluding that domestic violence constitutes persecution, noting, “If the government is unable or unwilling to control persecution, it matters not who inflicts it.”
“There was no meaningful assistance provided to her,” he said, according to a transcription of his oral decision. He noted that she had made more than 30 attempts to get help from police and spent time in more than a dozen different transition houses across Canada and the United States.
“Obviously, Canada is a democratic, first-world country,” Josephson said. “While it is rare for a citizen of Canada to seek asylum, it is not rare to have claims presented on the basis of domestic violence.”
The judge also leaned heavily on Lisa Rupert’s affidavit describing how women are treated by Canadian police and courts. Rupert is the YWCA’s vice-president of housing services and violence protection in Vancouver.
Between 2003 and 2016, only 79 of 276 Canadian applicants were given asylum, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Because the reasons for decisions aren’t tracked, a spokesman said it’s not known how many were escaping domestic violence or gangs.
Because Rachel is still deemed by Canadian police to be at high risk, Rachel is a pseudonym. For her protection, other identifying details have been deliberately omitted or altered from the mountains of documents that she has meticulously saved over the years.
At our first meeting, Rachel insisted on one thing: “This story is not about him (the perpetrator) or the people he is involved with. … They get enough publicity for being the creepy people who they are.”
The story, she said, is about the failure of the Canadian police and courts to protect her and others like her.
Rachel is furious with Canada. She bitterly points to the country’s boast that it is a world leader when it comes to women’s rights.
“Between the RCMP and the court system, they dropped the ball and slid me down a million crevices, and then they did everything they could to cover it up.”
Now in her mid-50s, she lives at the edge of poverty in subsidized housing, scraping by on part-time and temporary work to supplement a $212-a-month disability pension from the U.S. government.
“I want the Canadian government to acknowledge what happened and repair as much of the damage as they can,” she said during one of many conversations over the past six months.
Rachel has paid dearly for her safety. It’s cost her everything she’s ever had and nearly everyone she’s known and loved.
She can never return to Canada. If she were to come even for a visit, she might be denied re-entry to the U.S. because the reason she was given asylum is that she’s at risk if she returns home.
Between the RCMP and the court system, they dropped the ball and slid me down a million crevices, and then they did everything they could to cover it up
Rachel has had to reinvent herself in a place where no one knew her or why she was there. She’s had to do it without any credentials, because her hard-earned college certificates are in her old name, and without job references because contacting Canadian employers risks having her new identity exposed.
She’s struggled with the effects of the trauma and abuse she’s endured, as well as guilt over the pain her life has caused her children.
Exile has also alienated her from Canada’s safety net, including health care, social assistance and the Canada Pension Plan.
That’s in addition to what she lost earlier when fear forced her to give up permanent custody of one of her children, cut off contact with her elderly parents, abruptly leave jobs and sell the family home she inherited from her parents in order to finance her fugitive life.
After 12 years in hiding, Rachel yearns for home. Canada Day, Canadian Thanksgiving and even Boxing Day trigger memories of happier times and thoughts about what might have been.
When she contemplated visiting Canada earlier this year, Canadian police advised her that she would be at high risk even if she only came for a few days.
The United States is the only place on the continent where she is safe. The man who hunted and abused her can’t cross the border because of his criminal convictions.
But even now, she’s extremely cautious, fearing he’ll find her again.
Meantime, her abuser has carried on. He’s served jail time for forcibly entering a home and assaulting another woman.
FATEFUL FIRST MEETING
Nearly 30 years ago, the vivacious, single, 20-something mom was singing with a band in a bar and attracted the unwanted attention of a guy who was never going to take no for an answer. It changed her world forever.
After she rebuffed him at the bar, he surreptitiously followed her home that night. The stalking had begun. He’d turn up at odd places. When she refused to go to his house for a barbecue with her child, he called repeatedly until she finally relented.
She thought that might be the end of it.
It was only the beginning.
His home was a grow-op. When she realized that, she grabbed her child and fled. He grabbed a rifle and fired a shot at her.
The phone was already ringing when she walked in the door of her home. She knew too much, he said. If she made trouble, his gang would kill her and her family.
Rachel changed her phone number, moved and quit her job. But a few weeks later, he was standing over her in her bedroom with a knife. He raped her repeatedly, pressing a pillow into her face to muffle her screams so she wouldn’t wake her child.
It went on for three days before he agreed that the child should be allowed to go stay with her father.
Over the next few weeks whenever she left the room, he went with her, carrying the switchblade knife. He began inviting some of his friends over. The more compliant she was, the more freedom he gave her. She began plotting her escape to a friend’s house in another community.
But he found out, took her car keys and her money and assaulted her. A few weeks later, he coerced her into taking him with her and the violence escalated.
He punished minor slights by locking her in the basement. In her U.S. immigration affidavit, Rachel wrote that he started humming the music from Psycho.
The RCMP report from one of the assaults that sent Rachel to hospital includes her statement describing how he wrapped a sheet around her neck and choked her before he lunged at her with a large knife.
She was thrown against a wall, thrown to the ground and kicked, according to the RCMP victim assistance supplementary report. He kept repeating that he was going to kill her.
When police interviewed Rachel about the assault, they didn’t want to hear about anything that had gone before that, she told the immigration judge. They refused to listen when she tried to tell them about how he’d coerced her into living with him, tortured and beaten her before.
Instead, they were the first of many to describe him as her boyfriend and suggest the violence was the result of her bad choices.
Although he was arrested, they didn’t detain him. They escorted him out of town as if it were all part of a Wild West movie.
It was no movie. A few days later, Rachel was released from hospital. As she was scrambling to pack the car and leave, he came out from behind the garage, grinning.
“Where are we going now?” he asked.
A month later and in another town, he beat her until she was unconscious. Once again, police weren’t interested in what had happened before, only what had happened that night.
He was charged with aggravated assault, but he later pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to nine months of probation and ordered to attend anger-management classes. There was no restraining order.
That night, he found her and raped her.
Within that first year, he coerced her into prostitution and made her audition for a porn film.
He also got her pregnant. When she refused to have an abortion, he assaulted her. Police came, but no charges were laid. A month after the child was born, he breached the order, robbed and assaulted her, burning her with a cigarette and punching her in the jaw.
“Strongly recommend that the accused be released only if a restraining order is put into effect,” the attending officer wrote. “No contact direct or indirect as accused harassing victim by repeated phone calls.”
Also in the report is the accused’s comment: “She’ll pay for this. She will know how this feels.”
Why police responded as they did, why he was never jailed for breaching no-contact orders and why he was never jailed at all are all questions that haunt Rachel and remain unanswered. Police don’t comment on individual cases and, aside from their decisions, judges don’t comment at all.
For 17 years, Rachel describes her life as a cat-and-mouse chase.
“I thought he’d eventually give up and move on. I didn’t think it would be a 17-year problem or that I would eventually have to leave the country,” she told me.
“I kept thinking, ‘Now, the police will do something. Now, it’s going to stop.’”
But the timeline chronicling her torment runs to eight pages. He’d breach the orders. She’d escape to a shelter and he’d find her. He’d beat her; police would be called. Only twice were restraining orders issued. He was never sent to jail.
When he couldn’t catch and assault her, he’d vandalize her home or threaten her employers. When he couldn’t find her, he’d threaten her parents.
One summer, she and her child lived off the grid in a tent bought at Zellers. When the $300 that she’d hidden from him ran out, she begged a telephone operator to find the number for a women’s shelter and put her through.
Less than a month later, her relentless and well-connected abuser found them there.
Another time and in a different shelter, a gang-connected woman wheedled her way in to deliver the message that he was watching.
Rachel relinquished permanent custody of her child from a previous relationship as a protection from the violence that permeated her life.
Later, exhausted from the threats and running, Rachel asked the child protection ministry to take the child that she’d had with her abuser into temporary care on the condition that the child’s father not be contacted.
But a social worker broke that agreement and contacted Rachel’s abuser even though his name is not on the child’s birth certificate. Because of that breach of privacy, Rachel very nearly ended up having to share custody with the man who was making her life hell.
Not only would it have meant regular contact with him, Rachel could never have got asylum in the U.S. With a custody order in place, she could have been charged with abduction if she had taken the child out of the country without his permission.
Instead, his custody attempt was the impetus for her exile.
REPEATED PLEAS FOR HELP
Over the years, Rachel has approached the Canadian government for help. She’s kept every email and letter, along with names and phone numbers of the various officials she’s spoken to.
Initially, she asked for compensation for the house she was forced to sell at below market price in 1997 to finance her fugitive life. When it sold again recently, it was for $1.4 million.
Last fall, she tried to get help accessing disability benefits under the Canada Pension Plan, which she paid into from the time she started a part-time job as a high-school student.
To get benefits, she needs a birth certificate and social insurance number. Rachel believes it’s too risky to apply for CPP under her old name, so she needs new documents.
After a flurry of email exchanges and phone calls, nothing has happened, just as nothing happened in the 1990s when Rachel begged police to give her a new identity.
Among the problems is Canada’s disjointed system, name changes and birth certificates are provincial. Social insurance numbers and CPP are federal. Each requires a separate application. Each application costs money that Rachel can ill afford.
But even before she can apply, Rachel would have to apply to be allowed to apply from outside Canada. That’s a whole other process.
For nearly 30 years, Rachel has been told there’s another problem with getting her name changed in Canada.
When she was in her late teens, Rachel defrauded a telephone company of $2,000 worth of telephone service by using a fake name.
“It was kid stuff, poor-people stuff,” she said.
She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years’ probation with 200 hours of community service and the requirement that she repay the money. She tried, but couldn’t manage to do all of that.
Even with the support of her probation officer, the judge refused to amend the probation order and clear the way for a later pardon, or what’s now called a record suspension. Because of her record, her only safe choice was an extreme one. Flight.
The United States gave her a waiver before granting her asylum and a new identity. Why shouldn’t Canada do that for her now?
STILL AT RISK
Rachel has lived in fear for half her life. She still struggles to accept that for as long as her assailant is alive, her life is at risk.
Violence, threats and coercion forced her into hiding, into exile and into poverty that affected not only her but her children.
Unable to return to her country of birth, she missed major milestones in her children’s lives. She is unable to visit her parents’ graves.
But among the facts of her life that Rachel finds most galling is that her punishment for defrauding a phone company of $2,000 was three times as long as any sentence her assailant ever received for nearly killing her.
It’s cruel and absurd.
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