Over the five years since her 11-year-old daughter Grace was killed by a drunk driver on Crowsfoot Road near Maryhill, Conestogo’s Julie Wynen has become an activist against impaired driving.It’s a problem that persists – causing death at four times the homicide rate here in Ontario, she points out – despite significant shifts in societal and legal paradigms over the past several decades.
She has been outspoken on the subject, unafraid to call a spade a spade.
“I am trying desperately to get people to change their language,” she said, noting that Grace was killed in a car crash, not a car accident. “It is never an accident when one of the drivers is drunk.”
And she has taken her message to Ottawa, bringing a pair of Grace’s shoes to parliament on the third anniversary of her death on Oct. 31, 2013 as part of the Empty Shoes Project to make sure the political elites don’t forget that the problem continues to cause irrecoverable harm across the county.
And she wants to see the justice system function better, too.
Only 22 per cent of impaired driving causing death cases are actually prosecuted in this country, she notes. That statistic includes the driver who killed Grace, since despite the fact that the 25-year-old man involved in the crash that killed Grace pleaded guilty to driving with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit, police and the crown attorney’s office decided not to pursue more serious charges.
On Thursday, Wynen turned her focus to an issue that was near and dear to Grace’s heart, participating in the fifth annual Conestogo Public School dog-walk-a-thon to raise funds for the Cambridge Humane Society in Grace’s honour.
“Grace was always an animal lover, although ironically, she was afraid of dogs when she was really little,” Wynen said. “It started with the neighbour’s gerbil. He was busy quite a bit and so Grace would happily look after it. We joked that they shared custody. But her passion was for all kinds of animals. Every spring she’d be looking after caterpillars in the backyard, or birds. And we always had fish in the house.”
The love affair really took off when the family adopted Ginger from the Cambridge Humane Society.
“She was the reason we got a dog,” Wynen remembered. “She just kept begging and begging and begging for something.”
When they met Ginger, a “pound hound,” – they aren’t quite sure what breeds she is, Wynen laughed – it was love at first sight.
“They were bringing dogs up here after (Hurricane) Katrina, and she wasn’t in Katrina, but she was probably born from two strays after Katrina,” Wynen explained. “And she picked us. We were out in the yard and we were actually waiting for them because they were taking the female dogs in so they could bring out the two male dogs that we had narrowed it down to. And Ginger just walked up to us, twice as much skin as dog, and she’s got a stubby tail, always has, and it was just going a mile-a-minute, and she was smiling at us and she flopped over at Grace’s feet. And so I turned to the woman and said, ‘I think we’ve been adopted.’”
From that point on, the pair were inseparable. Grace loved walking through Conestogo, meeting everyone, especially if they were out walking their dogs, too.
“Community was a big deal for Grace,” Wynen said. “There was never a short walk through town with her, because she knew everybody.”
That outgoing nature was even on display during the family’s many trips around Canada, Wynen added.
“We made an attempt to take our kids to every province; we missed three with Grace. But we started referring to our trips as the cross country Canada tour of dogs because Grace would stop to visit with every dog we came across. We have pictures from Vancouver, which is where we finally started getting all of their names so that we could lay out the album with what we did each day and all the dogs we met. And we did the same thing down east. That was how she met people. ‘What’s your dog’s name?’ And then she’d start talking to them. She really was a small town kid no matter where you took her.”
The fundraiser at Conestogo PS, where Grace was a Grade 6 student when she died, keeps that spirit going.
It’s an opportunity for the community to get out and socialize, while raising money for a great cause in Grace’s name, Wynen, who is quick to point out the effort of school administrator Chris Bauer in getting the event going, said.
“Chris and Grace really bonded over their love of animals, and so I was thrilled when Chris called me up to ask what I thought of the idea. It’s been a nice way for me to get a chance to spend some time with Grace’s friends, while accomplishing something that Grace would’ve loved.”