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Bernardo transfer should be 'turning point' on better informing victims: ombudsman

OTTAWA — Three childhood friends say they were forced to relive the anguish, fear and trauma of losing Kristen French more than 30 years ago when Correctional Service Canada decided to transfer her killer to a medium-security prison.
Paul Bernardo is shown in this courtroom sketch during Ontario court proceedings via video link in Napanee, Ont., on October 5, 2018. The childhood friends of Kristen French says they were forced to relive the anguish and fear of losing their friend by Correctional Service of Canada's decision to transfer her killer to a medium-security prison. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Banning

OTTAWA — Three childhood friends say they were forced to relive the anguish, fear and trauma of losing Kristen French more than 30 years ago when Correctional Service Canada decided to transfer her killer to a medium-security prison. 

The women testified at a parliamentary committee late Wednesday about how it felt to learn that Paul Bernardo was being moved out of his maximum-security prison in late May and how they believe the process should change. 

Tennille Chwalczuk, who became best friends with French at the age of four, told MPs she was filled with a mix of "absolute anguish," tears and rage when she suddenly learned without warning about Bernardo's transfer.

"Everything resurfaced," said Marcia Penner, another friend. "It left us in despair — a feeling of hopelessness." 

Bernardo, a designated dangerous offender, is serving an indeterminate life sentence for the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 15-year-old French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy in the early 1990s near St. Catharines, Ont.

He was also convicted of manslaughter in the December 1990 death of his then-wife Karla Homolka’s 15-year-old sister, Tammy.

Homolka herself was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter for her role in the crimes against French and Mahaffy. She was released from prison in 2005. Bernardo has also admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women.

The legislation that governs the prison system is failing victims by placing too many restrictions on what can be shared with them, said Benjamin Roebuck, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime. 

At the time of Bernardo's transfer, Tim Danson, the lawyer for the French and Mahaffy families, voiced concerns that the correctional service was withholding basic information about the decision, citing the prisoner's privacy rights. 

More details were eventually shared once a review into the transfer became public. 

"The way that we are treating victims of crime in Canada isn't just, it's not kind, it's not compassionate. It's not respectful," Roebuck said. 

He told the committee that his office has been raising concerns about prison transfers since 2010, and that he hopes the Bernardo decision becomes a "turning point."

"What we've recommended is that there will not be any transfers where people haven't been notified at the time of a pending transfer," Roebuck said. Victims should be made aware that they are allowed to submit feedback and express concerns, he added.

In a review released in July, the correctional service concluded that it had followed proper procedures, but commissioner Anne Kelly said the agency could have done a better job informing the families of victims, who said they only learned about the transfer as it was happening. 

It is common practice to notify victims once a transfer has been completed, Kelly explained. In the case of Bernardo, the decision was made to let the French and Mahaffy families know slightly earlier. 

When someone has been seriously harmed by another person, it's common for them to respond by needing to know as much information as they can, Roebuck told the committee, which has embarked on a study of the issues surrounding Bernardo's transfer. 

"Knowing the location of the person is especially important."

Laura Murray, another friend of French, testified that when she learned of the transfer, she felt much the way she did as a teenager the day she found out French's body had been found. 

"It brings us right back to that same moment," Murray said.  

All three women told MPs that while they oppose the prison system's decision to move Bernardo in the first place, they would have benefited from having access to mental health resources, as well as extra notice to allow for more time to process the information. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023. 

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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