Fame may be fleeting, but infamy endures. Karla Homolka recently came back into public view when journalist Paula Todd tracked her down in the Caribbean, revealing that the killer is now a mother of three. Around the same time, a controversial eight-month-long inquiry into the case of serial killer Robert Pickton wrapped up, with the families of the murdered women now waiting on the final report. In these ways and others, cases that grabbed headlines and shook the nation so many years ago never really go away.
Maclean’s has delved into its 107-year archive to refocus on some of the most intriguing and disturbing crime stories from our country’s history. As part of that special project, we asked Canadians to tell us who they consider to be the country’s worst criminals. It’s a short list of unspeakable horrors and unimaginable depravity, and in the end, the only difference is by degrees. Paul Bernardo and Homolka, convicted of abducting and killing two Ontario schoolgirls in the early 1990s, still loom large in the public imagination with 73 per cent of respondents to an exclusive Maclean’s/Angus Reid Public Opinion survey offering up their names. Pickton, the B.C. pig farmer found guilty in 2007 of the murders of six women, who once confessed to killing 43 more, was cited by 61 per cent. And Clifford Olson, who died in prison in 2011 while serving life sentences for the rapes and murders of 11 young people at the beginning of the 1980s, was identified by 44 per cent.
The passage of time doesn’t seem to make much of a difference when it comes to the power of such nightmares, but geographic proximity has an influence. In Ontario, for example, 31 per cent counted Russell Williams, the former Royal Canadian Air Force colonel who confessed to killing two women, among the worst, compared to just eight per cent in Alberta. Marc Lépine, who murdered 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique before turning his gun on himself, was named by a full third of Quebecers, yet only five per cent of B.C. residents. And while only one per cent of respondents on the Prairies offered up Allan Legere, the so-called Monster of the Miramichi remains a frightening memory in Atlantic Canada, where he was mentioned by 39 per cent.
Similarly, where Canadians live appears to have an impact on whether or not they feel justice has been served in several high-profile cases. Almost half of Ontarians believe Steven Truscott, convicted as a teenager of the 1959 killing of a schoolgirl neighbour, was unfairly treated by the system, well above the national average of 36 per cent. (Oddly, public perception lags behind the courts, which belatedly overturned his conviction in 2007.) Robert Latimer, the Saskatchewan farmer convicted in the mercy killing of his disabled daughter, is judged to have been a victim in his own right by just 38 per cent of Ontarians, yet by half of respondents on the Prairies and in Quebec. The system’s failure to secure a conviction in the bombing of Air India flight 182, and the deaths of all 329 people aboard, is considered unjust by 44 per cent of those in B.C., but 35 per cent nationally. (Although the more shocking figure is surely the 40 per cent who said they are “unfamiliar” with the worst act of terrorism in Canadian history.) The case of Homolka, who secured a controversial 12-year sentence in exchange for testifying against her husband, is perceived as a miscarriage of justice by 52 per cent nationally, but only 29 per cent in the Atlantic provinces. (The survey of 1,510 randomly selected Canadian adults was conducted from Oct. 29 to 30, 2012, and has a margin of error of +/- 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.)
Still, there is no such regional divide when it comes to the crimes of Homolka and Bernardo—who continues to serve his life sentences in protective custody in Kingston. The pair were rated among the worst of the worst in every part of the country. And, as with Pickton and Olson, public revulsion over their misdeeds is unlikely to fade anytime soon. They were convicted not just in law, but in the court of public opinion too.