Protective orders create confusion for Calgarians seeking safety from harassment
Aimee Buisson had been having panic attacks throughout the day, constantly checking over her shoulder.
She ran into a church after parking her car in early May, feeling somewhat safe in the presence of people who knew her. She thought going to a church event would help bring some peace of mind.
“I just felt he was close by, I knew it, I knew he was going to be there.”
It had been just over six months since Buisson’s ex-boyfriend started harassing her, after she had broken off their three-month relationship in November 2015. She says she knew there would be repercussions, but “I wasn’t prepared for how much manipulation and clingy behaviour came out of the situation.”
Buisson had a restraining order in place against her ex. He wasn’t allowed to be within 100 metres of her anywhere in Alberta, but that wouldn’t be the case at this particular event.
Because she and her ex both called the same church “home,” the restraining order — which had been in place for just over a month at that time — included that if Buisson was at an event, he could not be there.
When the event ended, Buisson couldn’t find someone who knew about her situation that could walk her to her car. She started walking out the church doors alone, but bumped into a friend who could get her to her car safely.
Buisson says her friend continued telling her to calm down, and that he wouldn’t show up. But Buisson’s gut told her otherwise. As she looked just beyond her friend, she saw her ex turn the corner, walking towards her. She says she felt the blood drain from her face.
“He looked at me as if he was just waiting to see me, like he knew I was going to be there. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
She says her ex locked eyes with her, and continued staring as he started walking a circle around the parking lot her and her friend were standing in.
“He didn’t flinch once.”
Buisson says her ex was an alcoholic, and heard he had begun abusing street drugs.
Buisson called 911 but had a less than desirable outcome. Meanwhile, “he just kept walking, kept looking.”
“CPS (Calgary Police Services) is asking me all these questions on the phone, and about five minutes later, he came back again … even the officer on the phone couldn’t believe that he came back while I was clearly on the phone with the police.”
The police officer on the phone suggested Buisson get back inside the church until a member of their team arrived. But by the time the police had arrived, her ex was out of sight.
“When the police got there, basically they told me that since he wasn’t there when they got there, they couldn’t do anything.”
She told the officers she was confused. “Am I supposed to let him attack me, and then you’ll do something about it?” She said the officer responded by saying, “’I don’t really know how to answer that question.’”
Buisson found out later that her ex had been at the church earlier that day, and asked if he could be there for the evening event. He was told he couldn’t be there because Buisson would be in attendance.
Before the restraining order, Buisson’s ex would call from a blocked phone number or downloaded apps such as WhatsApp or Kik messenger to contact her, sometimes leaving 16 voicemails a day. He went as far as naming their unborn child, approaching a former boyfriend of Buisson’s at his gym, and writing her multiple emails a day.
Even more frightening, someone had broken Buisson’s bedroom window twice since she and her ex split. After the first break-in, Buisson moved for safety reasons, without her ex knowing. Although the police couldn’t confirm, she later found out that her ex had confessed to a friend that he had broken into a home. However, he did not say it was Buisson’s home.
“He had been in my house before, and the two things he had stolen from my house before was change, specifically toonies, and alcohol. I had caught him stealing those before,” Buisson says the same items went missing after the break-in.
While the break-ins remain unsolved, more emails poured into Buisson’s inbox from her ex.
“The CPS officer said it was insane,” Buisson recalls after they went through a lengthy email where her ex gave Buisson three options: she could get a restraining order, limit their contact, or, they could could get back together.
“Where was the choice where he leaves me alone?” Buisson asked. “The fact that wasn’t an option for him was terrifying to me.”
The police officer that read the email called her ex to warn him. If it happened again, they would escalate the situation. “Sure enough, less than one week later he messaged me.” Buisson continued to work with the police, filing formal reports, and having the police call her ex to give him warnings.
Finally, after receiving 27 emails in one day, Buisson knew she had to act. After four months of asking him to stop, she finally went to court and received a restraining order without question. That was April 7.
She was told about the option to file for criminal harassment, “but that was a long process, likely eight months. I didn’t necessarily want him to go to jail, I wanted to move on with my life.”
Buisson’s story isn’t unfamiliar. Her experience at the church is simply one more situation that is added to her documented lists of troubling behaviour from her ex-boyfriend. Although they only dated for three months, the following eight months would be more traumatizing than the relationship itself.
Liz Driessen has worked with HomeFront for over a decade — a non-profit organization in Calgary that helps free families from domestic violence — and says protective orders often complicate already tumultuous relationships.
“We know that victims of domestic violence are at a higher risk of violence when they leave a relationship,” she says. And once someone is told by the authorities that they aren’t allowed to see their partner or former partner, negative behaviours can often escalate.
Driessen says HomeFront seldom works with restraining orders because they do not apply in the case of family violence.
In fact, Driessen says, she “would never recommend to a client to ever go for a restraining order if there’s been violence.” Instead, she insists that police need to be contacted for other avenues of enforcement.
What most people aren’t aware of is the difference between a restraining order and an emergency protective order (EPO). Essentially, EPOs are mostly handled by police officers, who also have the authority to start the process of an EPO immediately after a situation arises. They are used in family violence situations, such as violence between a married couple, or an elderly person and his or her live-in caregiver.
Driessen says unlike restraining orders, which “are just a piece of paper” for those who do not fear or respect the law, EPOs — which are considered a criminal matter — have “far more teeth to them” because police involvement is much stronger.
Restraining orders (a civil matter) on the other hand are most appropriately used between neighbours, or even co-workers who cannot come to an agreement, or will not agree to sign a peace bond. Unless the claimant specifically requests a police enforcement clause in a restraining order, there is little to nothing a police officer can do.
According to the CPS website, “Police only have the powers to deal with criminal matters and not civil matters. There is no criminal offence for breaching a restraining order. This is why emergency protective orders were developed.”
However, EPOs aren’t available to people like Aimee Buisson for two reasons; first, she and her ex do not have children, and second, they never lived together.
These two stipulations exclude people experiencing dating violence (a current or former romantic relationship where physical, mental, verbal and/or sexual abuse is involved) from having an order “with more teeth.”
However, as Driessen suggested, there are other measures that police can pursue, such as criminal harassment charges.
Criminal harassment, or stalking, is illegal in Alberta. The law is included in the Protection Against Family Violence Act to protect victims from behaviours like excessive or unwanted texts, emails, phone calls or visits, threatening behaviours like leaving notes on someone’s vehicle windshield, or following someone around (according to the Alberta Human Services website).
Although it may take time, filing for criminal harassment may be the next necessary step if a restraining order does not stop predatory actions.
Driessen talks about a recent file where a victim of dating violence with a restraining order experienced a breach in the order: “That now becomes a criminal harassment/stalking issue,” she says. Although it is a breach of the restraining order, “it’s not going to give the teeth that we need to deter that behaviour or hold someone accountable. It’s now contacting the police about harassment.”
When asked if there had ever been a situation when it was too late to respond to violence, where a restraining order was in place, Driessen simply responded, “Yes.”
Aimee Buisson was also concerned about the effectiveness of a restraining order. “Because it’s a domestic or civil case, the police can’t scan across the country to see if he had another order in another province.”
“A week before I got my order, a woman had been murdered by the guy she filed a restraining order against, and this is why I wasn’t even sure about getting one. There are these flaws in the system I was dealing with. They need to fix this, because this is how people end up dead,” Buisson says.
Jeff Halvorsen, manager of research and evaluation at the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter (CWES), says it’s important to realize “we kind of have this misconception that abuse ends when the relationship ends. And it does not.”
According to police-reported data released in 2015, almost one-quarter of intimate partner violence cases involved post-breakup violent offences between ex-spouses or former dating partners. The report found that victims of dating partner violence account for a larger proportion of intimate partner violence (54 per cent) than victims of spousal violence (46 per cent).
That is why Halvorsen recommends victims of harassment without violence go through the process of getting a restraining order. He also says recordkeeping is vital to these sensitive situations. Keeping a record of text messages, emails, notes, video footage and other physical evidence is important.
“What is a piece of paper going to do, is the big concern. But still,” Halvorsen says, “go through the process.”
Although he acknowledges stalking is a much more difficult case to prove, it isn’t impossible thanks to criminal harassment laws.
Beyond the importance of a victim knowing the justice system sees the abuse, believes it is real, and says it isn’t okay, Halvorsen also says it’s important for victims “to access a level of justice.”
With over 12 years experience working with family violence, Halvorsen says one of their goals is to help men realize they also have a choice in relationships. “We believe men have agency. We really believe that men are making choices.”
Unlike Buisson’s case, there are many situations where intimate partners want their relationship to work out. Or, there may be kids involved in the situation. These complicating factors play a large role in the effectiveness of a protective order, but they can also encourage perpetrators to get help.
The CWES has a program open for men resorting to violent behaviours, which uses microanalysis to walk through dangerous behaviours. The organization believes self-correction works best with these men, who learn to see they have choice in every aspect of their situation.
“A lot of these guys are quite charming out in public, and some of them are very articulate,” says Halvorsen, adding a lot of guys have a “fear of being left.”
At the CWES, relationships start with safety and progress to intimacy. Instead of using power and control to make sure their partner never leaves, Halvorsen says these men need to create safety.
While restraining orders can get in the way of families hoping to reconcile, in Buisson’s case she “just wanted him to leave me alone.”
Without any desire for reconciliation, Buisson was introduced to a domestic violence caseworker to handle the volumes of harassment records she had been accumulating. At the same time, her ex was sent to an addictions residence outside of the city where external contact would be taken away for the first six months.
Liz Driessen says it takes a lot of courage, but making the first step to getting help is important. “Information is so empowering,” she says.
“CPS takes domestic conflict/domestic violence very seriously,” Driessen says. Even calling just to say, “’I don’t know what to do, I don’t know if this is abuse, I don’t know if I can qualify’” is a step in the right direction.
As for Buisson, even though her ex’s absence provides an immediate sense of relief, it does not provide answers for when he is finished his program, nor how she is to cope with the now familiar emotion of constant anxiety.
“My caseworker called me about a week ago saying because there was no contact, they are closing my file.”
Buisson’s restraining order is still in effect, but the case for building proof that he had been breaching the order is now closed. If he comes back, and if there is contact, Buisson and her caseworker will start again.