Ambiguous end to family tragedy
Father accused of murdering mentally ill daughter dies before controversial trial begins
Joseph Brean, National Post Published: Saturday, March 20, 2010
Snug Harbour Resort, a family summer retreat north of Kingston, Ont., near Frontenac Provincial Park, has a "no firearms" policy to preserve the idyllic feel of the little lakeside cottages.
An exception, in the winter off-season of 2006, was a .22 calibre rifle kept by the resort's owner, David Canvin, a retired professor of biology at Queen's University and a global authority on plant physiology.
That gun, likely kept for pest control, was to have been a central piece of evidence in one of the most dramatic and controversial murder trials ever to be argued in Kingston.
On Monday, assistant Crown attorney Jennifer Ferguson was to lay out the case for first-degree murder against Prof. Canvin, who admitted to police that he fatally shot his mentally ill daughter in the head as she slept on a couch at Snug Harbour in the late afternoon of Jan. 27, 2006.
Sarah Jean Canvin, aged 41 when she died, had been diagnosed with manic depression, and had a particularly strained relationship with her mother, Prof. Canvin's wife Marie, which involved threats of physical violence.
In Prof. Canvin's defence, his lawyer Michael Mandelcorn was expected to re-elect for a trial by judge alone, and to put forth a defence of not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder. As such, the case was expected to turn on the report of a psychiatrist who interviewed Prof. Canvin during the five months of his initial incarceration, before he was bailed to Snug Harbour.
At the time of Sarah's death, Prof. Canvin had recently had a heart operation, and was taking medication for depression.
But these plans–and the judicial inquiry that would have cast the light of forensic psychiatry on the seemingly impossible question of why a father would execute his own sleeping daughter — came to an ambiguous conclusion this week when Prof. Canvin himself died at Snug Harbour, aged 78.
The cause was esophageal cancer. He had been in and out of hospital in recent weeks, according to long-time colleague David Layzell, who also led a fundraising drive that brought in $60,000 for his defence.
Prof. Canvin's son Steven declined to comment.
Mr. Mandelcorn said he was to appear in court yesterday to inform the judge, who would then bring the proceedings to an official close, after an unusually long four-year pre-trial process.
An obituary yesterday said Prof. Canvin's death was peaceful, and it described a life of academic success, made brighter by a large and loving family, including three sons and two grandchildren.
"Together with his daughter, Sarah, he built a beautiful French-style garden [at Snug Harbour] in which they spent many enjoyable hours," the obituary reads.
The same garden is described in Sarah's own obituary, which also describes a trip through France with her parents as a "highlight of her life."
Born in a "one-room shanty" on a farm near Selkirk, Manitoba, David Canvin came to Queen's in 1965 as a young researcher focused on photosynthesis, and 20 years later was appointed dean of graduate studies and research for a five-year term. His family was similarly involved in the life of the pleasant university town.
A Kingston Horticultural Society newsletter from 2003 identifies Marie and Sarah Canvin as judges for the Paterson awards, for the city's best front gardens. Marie was also a fixture at the local curling club, and president of the Sunnyside Children's Foundation, a children's welfare charity.
The killing of Sarah Canvin was a case of a man "driven to madness by the lack of help," according to June Conway Beeby, a former executive director of
the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario who attended many of the pre-trial court appearances, and came to know the family.
"People don't understand what it's like to live with very mentally ill people," she said.
She described the family's reluctance to have Sarah criminally charged for her violence against her mother, for fear she could be jailed, despite a record of police involvement going back to her teens. But the animosity between Sarah and Marie could be so intense that it posed a physical danger, and in the final days of her life, the family had called police at least twice. Officers took Sarah to hospital emergency, but both times she was sent home in a taxi.
Ms. Conway Beeby said this is a common practice, and that medical decisions about mental illness are often made on the basis of how many hospital beds happen to be available in the over-burdened system.
The Canvins "had no belief that anyone was going to help them with their daughter. And they were right. The system worked just as the government intended it to," Ms. Conway Beeby said. "Frankly, I can understand it."
David Canvin was a "big guy with a gruff voice," and a gentle demeanour with his students, according to his colleague Prof. Layzell. Records of his academic service similarly reveal a man whose empathy and goodwill extended even to his vision of science and ecology.
In 1986, speaking at a ceremony to mark the donation of some land to a Queen's biology field station, Prof. Canvin said: "As we, a two-legged species, increasingly populate this Earth, it's ever more important to preserve some of the other life forms, and to have them in an untouched form so that our children can enjoy them."
Twenty years later, he would tell a 911 operator, after his wife placed the call, "I shot my daughter … because I couldn't stand it any more."
In a videotaped police interview, he said he made the decision to kill her that afternoon, without telling Marie, and that he did so after drinking perhaps two ounces of liquor.
Whether this was a poor decision made in frustration, and thus first-degree murder, or the expression of his own mental illness, and thus a blameless family tragedy, remains forever unsettled.
Read more: http://www.nationalpost.com/news/canada/story.html?id=2704576&p=2#ixzz0ijPfHJNL
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