THUNDER BAY — The family of 41-year-old Nazareth Kwandibens say no sentence imposed on the man responsible for his death will ease the grief and pain that they all feel, but there is hope it will prevent another family from being the victim of such violence.
“No words or actions can change the way I feel. Nazareth is gone. Today and for the rest of my life I am mourning the loss of my father,” Nazareth Kwandibens’ daughter, Jesse-Anne, told the court. “A sentence will not bring Nazareth back but it will keep you from committing something heinous like this again.”
Jesse-Anne Kwandibens was one of several family members of Nazareth to share victim impact statements to the court during a sentencing hearing for 45-year-old Johnathan McKay before Justice Bruce Fitzpatrick on Monday.
During a hearing in March, McKay, originally from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, pleaded not guilty to the original charge of second-degree murder but guilty to the lesser included charge of manslaughter.
A sentencing hearing was scheduled to take place in June, but it was pushed back after McKay no longer wanted to be represented by his previous lawyer, saying it was not his choice.
According to the agreed statement of facts, McKay beat Nazareth Kwandibens over the course of several hours inside his own residence on the 300 block of Arundel Street on Nov. 13, 2019.
The assault began after McKay believed a woman he had been romantically involved with had cheated on him with Nazareth. At the time of the assault McKay was under the influence of alcohol and crack cocaine.
Nazareth suffered numerous blunt force injuries to his head, face, neck, and torso and the cause of death was determined to be acute subdermal hematoma from a blunt force head injury.
McKay was arrested by the Thunder Bay Police Service and initially charged with second-degree murder and forcible confinement.
Nazareth’s siblings and children shared emotional victim impact statements to the court, describing him as a loving and caring man.
“We wanted to grow old together and work to help our community,” said Nazareth’s twin sister, Nadya Kwandibens. “In Anishnawbe culture twins are powerful together. He wanted to help young people. I grieve for the past, now, and for the future that was stolen from us.”
“When you took him from us he was planning on coming home to rest and take back his life,” said Nazareth’s younger sister, Crystal Bird. “He wanted better and I remember waiting for his return. I was looking forward to having him home.”
Nazareth’s daughters, Jesse-Anne Kwandibens and Leara Lachinette, said they continue to struggle with the loss of their father.
“There is an emptiness,” Jesse-Anne said. “An everlasting confusion inside of me. I believe this will always be there for the rest of my life and for my children.”
“I am not the same person anymore and will never be,” Leara added. “Johnathan has inflicted pain into my life. He stole away many opportunities I could have had with my dad.”
Those who spoke said they cannot forgive McKay for taking Nazareth away from them.
“The choice you made took his life away. You took him away from his family, from his daughters and grandchildren,” Crystal Bird said. “I will not forgive that decision you made. I will hold that over you and hope that one day you can come back from that.”
Prior to sentencing, a Gladue report was prepared, with defence counsel Gil Labine highlighting that McKay has struggled with the intergenerational trauma of the residential school system.
This resulted in him experiencing abuse as a child and being exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age.
The Crown and defence shared a joint sentencing submission of eight years incarceration minus pre-sentence custody credited at 2,130 days, leaving McKay with 790 days or approximately two years and two months left to serve.
Before the sentence was handed down, McKay was given the opportunity to speak, and he addressed Nazareth’s family directly.
“I just want to say I’m sorry he’s gone. I’m sure he’s in a good place right now,” McKay said. “I’m very sorry for what happened that day. I have changed a lot since I went to jail. It changed my life.”
Fitzpatrick accepted the joint submission, calling it fit and just considering the circumstances surrounding both the offence and the offender.
Several mitigating factors cited by Fitzpatrick included past trauma experienced by McKay, as well as his expressions of remorse, plea of guilt, and the effort he has put into bettering himself while in custody, such as earning his Grade 12 diploma.
But Fitzpatrick also noted the significant aggravating factors in the case, namely the violence inflicted upon Nazareth and the impact his loss has had on his family and community.
“Mr. McKay should have turned around and left that afternoon but he didn’t. However, he is owning up to it,” Fitzpatrick said.
“The family has experienced a profound sense of shock, grief, and disbelief with regard to his death. A father, a brother, a twin brother died in his own home. The family must live with this sense of loss for the rest of their lives.”
Fitzpatrick also thanked the family for attending court and sharing their feelings through victim impact statements.
“It was not an easy process,” he said. “I hope they will do something to assist all those who knew and loved Mr. Kwandibens in that healing journey.”
McKay is also required to submit a DNA sample and is subject to a lifetime weapons prohibition with an exception for cultural sustenance hunting upon his release.