'Our lives in that city were forever changed,' said one email to public safety minister
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and key cabinet ministers received hundreds of emails from Canadians back in the spring expressing how "horrified," "shocked" and "utterly disgusted" they felt when they learned that serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo had been transferred to a medium-security prison.
Some of those who wrote messages of protest said their own lives were forever changed by Bernardo's crimes.
The messages — obtained by CBC News in a 400-word document released under the Access to Information Act — overwhelmingly urged the government to find a way to reverse the transfer and send Bernardo back to maximum security.
"Any persons at Corrections Canada who made such a misguided decision should be forced to watch the Bernardo tapes in all their horrific detail, as were the jury members who were unfortunate enough to be assigned to his case," said an Ontario resident and "loyal Liberal supporter" in one of the emails.
"I have a personal friend who was on that jury and she remains traumatized nearly 30 years later. She tells me that several of the jury members meet regularly for psychological support even to this day."
After three decades in maximum-security prisons, Bernardo was moved in May to La Macaza Institution in Quebec. A lawyer for the victims' families said they were astounded to learn about the transfer the morning it happened.
CBC News reported staff in then-public safety minister Marco Mendicino's office knew about Bernardo's prison transfer three months in advance — but Mendicino said he wasn't informed until after it happened.
Public Safety minister's staff knew about Paul Bernardo's transfer 3 months in advance
5 months ago
Featured VideoStaff in Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino's office knew for three months that serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo would be transferred from a maximum-security facility to a medium-security prison — but didn't inform the minister until after it had happened.
Facing calls for his resignation, Mendicino issued a ministerial directive stating that registered victims must be notified when such a prison transfer is being considered. Mendicino was shuffled out of Trudeau's cabinet in the summer.
The emails viewed by CBC News — which were sent to Mendicino's office over roughly two weeks in June — show how memories of Bernardo's crimes still haunt many people.
"Our lives in that city were forever changed when we learned about it," wrote one resident of St. Catharines, Ont. "If only there had been the death penalty, the families would have had closure."
Dozens of emails from the public were forwarded to Mendicino's office from the Prime Minister's Office, other cabinet ministers, MPs and the commissioner of Corrections Canada. Some of the authors identified themselves as former forensic specialists; one said they were a survivor of rape.
More than 60 people sent emails on June 5 after Mendicino made his first on-camera statement about Bernardo's transfer, calling it "shocking and incomprehensible."
Many messages came from residents in and around St. Catharines and Scarborough in Ontario, where Bernardo committed his crimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"I remember taking the bus home from high school and being afraid that the Scarborough rapist may be on my bus," wrote one person to Prime Minister Trudeau. "I remember hearing about both Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French being abducted … they were the same age as I was. Then when they were found, it was heartbreaking."
Bernardo is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping, sexual assault and killing of Leslie Mahaffy and 15-year-old Kristen French in the 1990s. Bernardo was also convicted of manslaughter in the death of Tammy Homolka, his sister-in-law.
His former wife Karla Homolka served 12 years in prison for her role in his crimes. Bernardo, who was designated a dangerous offender, has admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women.
One of the emails to Ottawa came from someone identifying himself as a childhood friend of Mahaffy. He described how he's still affected by what Bernardo did to her.
"I remember the morning that she went missing, we were all frantically trying to find her …," says the email to Trudeau, Mendicino and the commissioner of Corrections Canada.
"The idea that [Bernardo] could be anywhere other than solitary confinement for the rest of his life completely baffles me," he wrote. "I've done nothing wrong to deserve the prison that is my mind. It's a prison that I can't escape."
The government redacted the names of the authors of the emails. CBC News has not been able to verify the details of what they wrote.
In another email, a woman claimed she was in Grade 12 when she had her own run-in with Bernardo and Homolka.
'I got away'
"I got away by screaming my head off in the neighbourhood and running back to my high school," she wrote to Mendicino.
"I don't care where they put him as long as they keep him away from the rest of us."
The emails indicate how much political heat the federal government was facing from ordinary voters — some of whom described themselves as longtime Liberal supporters.
"You cannot stand on your soap box and preach about women's rights, advocating for women's rights, and then reward a convicted repeat rapist and serial killer with leniency," wrote one Ontario resident.
"Understand this, I have never voted conservative, always voted Liberal," one person wrote to Trudeau on June 12. "Well there is always a first time. Next election, regardless of how much the opposition leader may turn my stomach, this latest Liberal gaff [sic] was the limit."
Not everyone wrote to the government to protest the transfer. The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), which advocates on behalf of people in the corrections system, wrote to Mendicino saying it was "very concerned with the harmful narrative and misinformation … which encourages Canadians to call for emotive and punitive responses to crime and incarceration." CAEFS attributed that "narrative" to "the Conservative Party."
WATCH/ Corrections Canada commissioner explains reasons behind Bernardo's transfer
Corrections Canada commissioner explains reasons behind Paul Bernardo's transfer
3 months ago
Featured VideoCommissioner Anne Kelly says that although Bernardo was transferred to a medium security institution, 'he's a psychopath and he committed horrific and unspeakable crimes.'
The Correctional Service of Canada responded to many of the emails, saying it renders decisions with the "utmost care for public safety and victims' rights, and by following the rule of law."
"We acknowledge that our decisions have an impact on victims," wrote Jay Pyke, the acting senior deputy commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada. "These were horrific crimes and we regret any pain and concern this has caused."
A review committee concluded the Correctional Service of Canada followed the law when it agreed to Bernardo's request for a transfer to a medium-security prison. But the committee concluded there was nothing stopping Corrections Canada from giving victims' families more advance warning.
The lawyer for the French and Mahaffy families said Bernardo's next parole hearing was scheduled for this month but has been moved to February.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She was recognized with the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct involving senior leaders in the Canadian military. You can reach her confidentially by email: email@example.com or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/
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