TORONTO — Jennifer Kagan wipes away a single tear as she composes herself once again to discuss her daughter’s legacy.
Her four-year-old, Keira Kagan, was found dead next to her father’s body at the base of a cliff in a Milton, Ont., conservation area in February 2020. A provincial committee found it was “extremely consistent” with past cases of murder-suicide involving a father and a child.
Kagan, who had been in a bitter custody battle with Keira’s violent father for years, was determined to have the tragedy result in changes to the way the judicial system deals with cases of intimate partner violence. She and Keira’s stepfather, Philip Viater, spent years pushing lawmakers to drive change.
Those efforts have now resulted in Keira’s name being enshrined in new federal and provincial legislation designed to help other children avoid her fate.
“We’re remembering Keira in this positive way because she really didn’t deserve this,” Kagan says in an interview at Queen’s Park in Toronto.
“We hope people remember her as a beacon of protection for other children.”
The Office of the Chief Coroner will hold an inquest into the circumstances surrounding Keira’s death.
Kagan and her ex, Robin Brown, had been in and out of the courts over Keira’s custody.
In total, 10 different judges had become involved and 53 court orders were issued against Brown for his violent and unpredictable behaviour. He had sexually assaulted and beaten Kagan, but various judges did not take that into account when deciding his access to the girl.
“When a woman’s at risk and in danger, so are the children,” Kagan says. “So it’s very relevant and that’s really the culture that needs to be changed.”
On the final weekend of Keira’s life, the court forced Kagan to hand her daughter over to Brown for his weekend visit despite his increasingly violent behaviour and knowing that his custody rights would be curtailed the following week.
Keira didn’t make it to Monday.
Ontario introduced legislation last week that will see provincially appointed judges and justices of the peace receive education and training on intimate partner violence and coercive control.
While Attorney General Doug Downey debated the bill on Wednesday, he stood speechless for a full minute as he struggled to introduce Kagan and Viater.
“I’m very emotional,” he told the legislature.
“It’s so important that we acknowledge this tragic story and take action.”
Outside the legislature, Downey explained why the province had brought in the legislation.
“It’s critical because we want to make sure that the people who are making decisions understand what’s happening in terms of the dynamics of intimate partner violence,” he said.
Similar education and training guidelines were part of the recommendations that flowed from the jury at a coroner’s inquest that examined the murders of three women at the hands of a deranged ex-boyfriend in eastern Ontario.
The province is still examining the 86 recommendations from the jury that looked at the 2015 deaths of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam.
Family violence has increased seven consecutive years, a report from last fall by Statistics Canada shows. Of the 788 homicide victims reported in 2021, 154 were killed by a family member, according to police-reported data. Sixty per cent of these victims were women and girls.
The federal government has also acted in the aftermath of Keira’s death.
Keira’s Law, as it’s become known, just received royal assent in Ottawa, meaning all federally appointed judges will receive that same training and education on domestic violence.
“For us, it doesn’t change, we still wake up without her,” Viater says.
“What we’re doing is really for other families, for other children and if there’s any kind of comfort, it’s that we continue to hear Keira’s name in a public discourse.”
Kagan echoed that sentiment.
“If I could spare somebody even one-millionth of the pain of having this kind of traumatic loss, that’s a worthy endeavour,” she said.
As friends and family gathered to say goodbye to the little girl on a cold February day in 2020, Kagan read from two of Keira’s favourite books and promised her little girl she’d never be forgotten.
The federal and provincial legislation now ensures that promise is kept.
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