Could someone have saved the Shafia girls?

Before their alleged “honour killing,” victims repeatedly complained to police, teachers and social workers

Zainab Shafia (Canadian Press)

The “system” did not kill the Shafia sisters. If prosecutors are correct, and their midnight drowning was in fact a mass execution, the girls perished because their parents and their brother are “honourable” people. They are dead because they were beautiful and bold and very much Canadian, a combination that so disgraced the good Muslim family that nothing short of their corpses could reverse the shame. The “system” did not dump them in the Rideau Canal.

But it didn’t exactly run to save them, either.

As a jury in Kingston, Ont., is now hearing, detectives, teachers and child welfare authorities knew full well that the Shafia home was a toxic pit of abuse, fear and borderline enslavement. One of the doomed sisters fled to a women’s shelter. Another told a police officer, point blank, that her dad threatened to kill them. Yet another tried to do it herself, popping a pile of pills in a failed suicide attempt. “I want to die,” Sahar Shafia, then 16, told her vice-principal. “I’ve had enough and I want to die.”

At last count, five different members of the “system” have provided evidence of what they saw in the weeks and months before the girls died—and what they did (or didn’t do) in response. Although some of those witnesses fought back tears during their testimony, not a single one expressed regret or remorse. None of them said that if they had a wish, it would be to go back in time and do something more.

They phoned the house. They convened meetings. They issued warnings. Twice, Quebec’s youth protection apparatus launched an official investigation. And both times, the case was closed. Should more have been done? Was someone negligent? Lazy? Were they crippled by cultural correctness? The answer, sadly, has become very clear during the course of this sensational trial: sometimes the “system” is simply no match for certain motivated individuals, especially someone who honestly believes that life behind bars is better than watching his teenage daughter hold a boy’s hand.

The Shafia sisters—Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13—were found in a sunken sedan at the bottom of the Kingston Mills Locks on June 30, 2009. Floating beside them was 53-year-old Rona Amir Mohammad, their dad’s first wife in what was, up until then, a secretly polygamous clan. A few weeks later, father, mother and son were slapped in handcuffs for what the Crown contends was a quadruple homicide meant to restore the family’s “honour,” supposedly tarnished by the girls’ Westernized ways. All three suspects—Mohammad Shafia, 58; Tooba Yahya, 41; and Hamed Shafia, 20—have pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder.

The jury has already been told, over and over, that Zainab was the initial focus of her Afghan father’s wrath. The eldest of the seven Shafia children, she immigrated to Canada with the rest of the family in the summer of 2007—and immediately began bending the house rules. But in March 2008, after Hamed discovered her boyfriend hiding in their Montreal garage, Zainab was yanked out of school and banished to her bedroom. For nearly a year, she rarely left home.

On Wednesday, the jury learned that Zainab was not the only female Shafia desperate for an escape. In May 2008, while her older sister was essentially a prisoner, Sahar told a teacher about the hell that was her home life. She said she was forced to wear a hijab, the Muslim head covering, and that her older brother was abusive and controlling, once wheeling a pair of scissors at her arm. She also said her parents barely spoke to her, threatened to pull her out of school, and didn’t care at all that she tried to kill herself just ten days earlier. (Rona, the wife who died with the girls, confirmed the latter in her diary, recalling Tooba’s response to her daughter’s suicide attempt: “She can go to hell. Let her kill herself.”)

Concerned, Sahar’s teacher approached the school vice-principal, who in turn contacted Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, the province’s Anglophone child protection agency. “Sahar was in my office, as well as the teacher, when I made the call,” said the V.P., Josée Fortin. When she recalled for the jury how she handed the telephone to Sahar, Fortin had to stop and compose herself, taking a long drink of water.

Batshaw classified the complaint as a “Code 1,” dispatching a social worker the very same day. But when that worker arrived, Sahar immediately backtracked. “This change of attitude surprised me,” Fortin testified. “I wondered to myself: ‘Do I have before me a child who is afraid?’”

Jeanne Rowe, the Batshaw worker who met Sahar, said the young teen “cried profusely” during the entire half-hour meeting. “She didn’t want to give me any information,” Rowe said. “She just denied everything. She said: ‘It’s not true, it’s not true.’ She was very, very scared of her parents knowing about the report. She didn’t explain why, she just said she wanted to go home and be with her family.”

By law, however, Batshaw is obligated to inform a parent of any complaint filed against them (although the source of the information always remains confidential). Tooba arrived at the school first, with Zainab in tow. She denied every allegation, insisting that Hamed was not violent and that Sahar was free to pursue her education for as long as she liked. “The mother was not aware that Sahar had taken any pills in an attempt commit suicide,” Rowe continued.

“Did she express any concern about that?” asked Laurie Lacelle, one of the prosecutors.

“She did not.”

Zainab—fresh into her own punishment for being caught with her boyfriend—was also questioned. She, too, said Hamed was not abusive, and that “sometimes Sahar wanted to keep to herself and not talk to anybody.” Zainab also confirmed that mom and dad wanted both her and her sister to wear the hijab, which was “one of the things that made Sahar sad.”

Shafia walked into the school—with Hamed—shortly after that. “The father was quite angry, and he wanted to know the source of the report,” Rowe said. “I told him I could not give him the source, and he said he would speak to his lawyer because the report was nothing but lies.” Hamed agreed with his father, Rowe said, but he did concede that Sahar was upset about having to wear the hijab. “He said he didn’t understand why it was a problem because she knew it was part of their custom.”

Rowe phoned her boss and provided an update: five witnesses, five denials—including one from the complainant herself. They decided to let Sahar go home, and two days later, Rowe followed up with another visit to the school. Unlike the first time, Sahar was wearing her hijab. “She said things were better and she wanted to stay home,” Rowe told the court. “You have to make an assessment if the child is at risk. This child was not at risk at the time, she wanted to go home, so we closed the case.”

Things, of course, were not “better” at home. In fact, they were spiraling out of control.

By 2009, Geeti had joined Sahar in high school, and both were skipping class and flunking courses, triggering repeated phone calls from the office. At the same time, the Shafias were dealing with a much more pressing crisis: Zainab, reunited with her boyfriend, had run away. Hamed phoned 911—twice in a matter of minutes—to report her missing, and the resulting visit from police only shook out more of the family’s skeletons. Sahar told the responding officer that Hamed slapped her, and that her father hit Zainab “because he did not like her boyfriend.” Geeti said her dad “threatened that he was going to kill them,” and like Sahar, wanted to leave home “because there is a lot of violence.”

Montreal police launched an investigation, as did the provincial child welfare agency. Again, nothing came of it.

While Zainab was still missing, Shafia and Tooba were summoned to the school for yet another meeting, this one with Nathalie Laramée, a different vice-principal concerned about Sahar’s and Geeti’s recent misbehaviour. “The father was really in a state,” Laramée testified. “He was speaking very loudly in my office. ‘What can we do! What can we do!’” Sahar translated for her dad, from French to Farsi.

When her parents left, Sahar told Laramée that she didn’t relay most of what her father said because he lied so much. “My sister and myself are afraid in the house,” she said. “And we know that when we are in school we have to be careful because our behaviour is reported back to the home.”

Two weeks later, Laramée encountered a weeping Geeti in the hallway. Again, the 13-year-old talked about her desire to leave home, and how she and Sahar were planning to run away. In court, Laramée held back her own tears while recalling the encounter. “What can I do?” she said, repeating her words from that day. “How can I go about helping this family?”

Over the last few weeks of the school year, Geeti barely showed up. Once, when she did attend, Laramée sent her home to change out of a “low-cut sweater.” In the middle of June, Geeti’s parents received yet another letter from the school, detailing her truancy: 40 absences, 30 late arrivals. Her report card was even worse; she failed all four courses, including a dismal 28 per cent in math.

Days later, Geeti and her sisters would be pulled from the canal, their lifeless bodies laid out and photographed.

Inside the car, floating among the dead, was Sahar’s cell phone, rammed with its own photos of the family’s Niagara Falls vacation—a trip that ended on the same day they died. In one shot, Geeti is holding a puppy. In another, Sahar is posing in front a hotel mirror, smirking in her bikini. Zainab’s smiling face fills another.

Did they suspect that something terrible was about to happen? Was there an inkling, even the slightest, that they might not make it home?

Should someone else—a teacher, a cop, a social worker—have seen it coming?

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.