Drunk driving’s life sentence

The phone call came at 1 a.m., rousing Joanne Davignon from sleep. It was a stranger's voice at the other end of the line, a Dr. Jamieson calling from BC's Campbell River hospital.

The phone call came at 1 a.m., rousing Joanne Davignon from sleep.

It was a stranger’s voice at the other end of the line, a Dr. Jamieson calling from BC’s Campbell River hospital.

“You’re daughter’s been in a serious car accident and there is little chance she will survive the night.”

Davignon “died inside” at that moment.

The next thing she remembers is a 7 a.m. Air Canada flight from Whitehorse to Vancouver.

She hadn’t heard about Todd McKinnon yet.

All she knew was that her daughter, Torie Anne Gerard, was still alive.

Davignon spent the next 17 days in the Victoria hospital intensive care unit sitting beside a young woman she didn’t recognize.

Gerard, who was 21, had been so badly injured one eye had popped out and her brain had sheered, meaning the nerves connecting its two sides were permanently severed.

As the days crept by, Davignon made one of the most difficult decisions of her life, agreeing to a “do-not-resuscitate order” for her daughter.

Gerard had just graduated from University of Calgary, a straight-A student, and was living off Vancouver Island with her best friend Jess Van Ruyven. The girls were working two jobs, saving up to travel together in Southeast Asia in the fall.

“Torie was a really lovely, confident young girl,” says Davignon.

“Now, she’s unrecognizable.”

The night of the accident, the girls were coming back from a trip to Vernon, and Van Ruyven was driving.

McKinnon was on the road that night too – a man in his late 30s who’d already faced two impaired driving charges in 2005.

But those charges were dropped on a technicality: the RCMP had faxed an incomplete breathalyzer report.

If McKinnon had been convicted, he might not have been on the road that night to collide with a small white car carrying two young women.

After the crash, McKinnon, once again, was charged with impaired driving and impaired driving causing bodily harm.

Then, Davignon waited.

After 18 months in BC, she was able to bring her daughter home to Whitehorse.

Gerard sees double, has ataxia (constant shaking) on her right side, needs a walker, is numb and cold on her left side and has severe brain damage.

“The mental disabilities are the hardest to deal with,” says Davignon. “It would be nothing if she just lost an arm or a leg.”

Gerard has no filters, bursting out with comments better left unspoken. She can’t concentrate without medication. And although she feels sorrow, Gerard can’t cry.

In many cases, brain damage acts as a shield, blocking out memories of what life was like before.

But Gerard doesn’t have this natural anaesthetic.

She remembers everything.

“Torie is very aware of what she lost,” says Davignon.

A few months ago, she experienced another loss.

For the last three years, ever since that fateful collision on August 13, 2007, the girls’ two families have been waiting for justice through the BC courts.

The trial was set for January, but there was a mixup with paperwork from the RCMP and the case was adjourned until December 2010.

Davignon was frustrated, but resigned herself to wait another year.

Then, in July, she got a phone call from her victim services worker in Campbell River.

The case had been dropped because of excessive court delays and RCMP mistakes.

McKinnon “had to put his life on hold for much longer than he ought to have,” writes the judge in a June 2 ruling.

“They said the defendant was under a lot of stress and hardship,” says Davignon.

“Well, they should have come and walked a day in Torie’s shoes.”

Gerard is 24 now.

In the years since her accident, she has learned to stand up without help. She has learned how to hold a fork on her own. And she can talk again, although her speech is slow and slurred.

She will likely never have a job, a family or a career, says Davignon.

Gerard knows this.

And she struggles with depression.

“Torie says all the time, ‘My choices were taken away from me,’” says Davignon.

Now, justice has been taken away too.

And with the case tossed out, it’s unlikely insurance settlements will cover the costs of Gerard’s ongoing care.

Davignon has a hard time thinking about her daughter’s future.

“I have huge anxiety all the time, emotionally and financially,” she says.

As a single mother of three, Davignon can’t keep up with costs.

Gerard gets social assistance because of her disabilities, but she’s still living on the poverty line, says Davignon.

With her degree in sociology, Gerard had dreamed of becoming a social worker. She’d also been a competitive figure skater during her high school years at Vanier.

“Now, I can’t take her to the arena,” says Davignon. “She gets too upset.”

After McKinnon’s charges were dropped, Van Ruyven started a Facebook page to raise money for her best friend.

The girls still see each other now and then, although Van Ruyven lives in BC.

But it’s not the same, says Davignon.

Gerard use to have a huge social network; now, she has trouble making friends.

And “fun” is no longer part of her lexicon.

When the word is mentioned, Gerard breaks down.

“I wished I would have died,” she says to her mom.

The Scotia Bank in Whitehorse has set up a Trust Fund for Gerard and has agreed to match the first $5,000 raised. Its account number is 70920-0383023.

Contact Genesee Keevil at