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‘I remember the fear’: Canadians recounted horror of Bernardo case following transfer

OTTAWA — The haunting effect of Paul Bernardo’s crimes lingered for Canadians nearly 30 years later, detailed in the hundreds of messages that poured into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office after the serial killer was transferred to a medium-security prison.

“I have a personal friend who was on that jury and she remains traumatized nearly 30 years later,” one person wrote in correspondence obtained by The Canadian Press through a freedom-of-information request. 

“She tells me that several of the jury members meet regularly for psychological support even to this day.” 

Bernardo was transferred in late May from the Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security penitentiary in southern Ontario, to La Macaza Institution, a medium-security prison about 190 kilometres northwest of Montreal that offers treatment for sex offenders. News of the move led to a swift and emotional backlash from Canadians. 

Critics including Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre urged people to implore Trudeau and then-public safety minister Marco Mendicino to reverse the decision — something the government said it could not do because the Correctional Service of Canada is an independent agency. 

The outrage nevertheless prompted the head of the prison system to strike a review to see whether its decision was sound. The results of that probe were publicized last month, saying that the decision was correct and noting that the families of murder victims Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy could have been better notified. 

Bernardo is serving an indeterminate life sentence for kidnapping, torturing and killing the girls, then 15 and 14 years old, near St. Catharines, Ont., in the mid-1990s. He has been declared a dangerous offender.

Canadians contacting Trudeau’s office recounted memories of the case, when Bernardo became known as the “Schoolgirl Killer.”

“My children were going to school in the Niagara region during the time of killings and all of us will never forget the fear, sadness and disgust,” one message read. 

Another said she was the same age as Bernardo’s victims at the time: “I remember the fear my friends and I felt for the victims and for ourselves.” 

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

Karla Homolka pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was released in 2005 after completing a 12-year sentence for her role in the crimes against French and Mahaffy.

One person who said they were a friend of Mahaffy’s wrote to Trudeau to say. “I remember the morning she went missing.” 

“We were all frantically trying to find her … me and my three closest friends from that summer all suffered for years.”   

Their name has been redacted, as are the names of anyone else who wrote to the government about the transfer. 

Many messages show how vividly Canadians, particularly those from southern Ontario, remember violent details of the case and Bernardo’s 1995 trial, which remains one of the highest-profile to ever unfold in the country. 

“His violent acts were so invasive that they changed our outlook on personal security.”

“My children, who are more than a decade younger than Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, grew up with the knowledge of who those two young girls were as an important caution … and the importance of being careful when doing the most ordinary of things like walking home from school,” another message read. 

Bernardo ultimately admitted to sexually assaulting 14 other women, crimes which at the times were attributed to the “Scarborough Rapist.” 

“As a teenager I lived in Scarborough,” one email said. “I remember taking the bus home from high school and being afraid that the Scarborough Rapist may be on my bus.” 

Another said that, “As a rape survivor, I feel it is an absolute disgrace that Paul Bernardo was transferred to a medium-security prison.” 

The correctional service has said that Bernardo is not a risk to the public in his medium-security lodgings. The review into his move revealed he was transferred after years of meeting the criteria to be reassigned as a medium-security prisoner. He had demonstrated he could integrate with other offenders, following a prison sentence mostly spent in solitary. 

Of the roughly 247 messages that were sent to Trudeau’s office and to other cabinet ministers in early June, all but two were critical of Bernardo’s transfer. 

Those messages came from Canadian Prison Law Association and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which expressed concern that the federal Conservatives’ opposition to Bernardo’s transfer “encourages Canadians to call for emotional and punitive responses to crime and incarnation.”

Some people voiced support for Poilievre and his demand that the government step in and enact legislative changes so that killers like Bernardo be forced to serve out their entire sentences in maximum security.  

“Next election, regardless of how much the opposition leader may turn my stomach, this latest Liberal gaff was the limit.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 27, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press


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