Inside the healing lodge: Catherine McKay denied temporary unescorted absences
The Van de Vorst family spent their late son and brother’s birthday driving more than 400 kilometres to Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, where the next day they read victim impact statements at a parole board hearing for Catherine McKay. She had applied for unescorted temporary absences from the lodge to see her family.
McKay has served nearly two years of her 10-year sentence and was transferred to the lodge about one month in. In July 2016, she was handed one of Saskatchewan’s stiffest sentences for impaired driving causing death.
On Jan. 3, 2016, McKay’s blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit when she ran a stop sign and crashed into a car carrying Jordan and Chanda Van de Vorst and their two children, five-year-old Kamryn and two-year-old Miguire. The family of four died in the crash.
Parole board denies unescorted temporary absence
Catherine McKay’s application for unescorted temporary absences was not authorized by the parole board during the hearing Friday. She requested six unsupervised 72-hour visits a year with her family at her partner’s home in Saskatoon.
Two parole board members deliberated for about 15 minutes before making the decision. They said McKay met three of the four criteria for authorization: she wouldn’t present a risk to society while out, her behavior in the lodge doesn’t impede her being out, and a structured plan for the absence is prepared.
The board said she didn’t meet the criteria that it’s “desirable for the offender to be absent from the institution for family contact,” because some of her family visits her in the lodge. The board also said “more time is deemed necessary” before granting McKay unescorted absences.
Jordan’s parents, Linda and Lou Van de Vorst, said they are relieved with the decision and felt, after listening to McKay speak during the hearing, she isn’t ready for the absences.
“I think she’s sorry in one sense,” Lou said, before pausing to decide how to phrase his answer. “But I think she wants to get out of jail. Sorry.”
McKay became eligible to apply for unescorted temporary absences on Feb. 5, 2018.
It’s her first though when she wakes up each morning and her last before falling asleep each night: she got drunk, she drove and she killed four people.
“It kills me every time I think about it,” McKay said.
She cried during the majority of the three-hour hearing.
McKay’s parole officer said she is “very active” in her correctional plan and has completed programming while demonstrating insight into her risk factors. She has gone on about 95 escorted temporary absences without incident to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and do community service.
McKay told the parole board she believes she’s ready for unescorted absences and that she won’t reoffend because the thought of alcohol makes her want to vomit and because she’s afraid to ever drive again. She said the night of the crash is one of the few times she’s blacked out from drinking alcohol.
McKay isn’t Indigenous but has adopted the culture and teachings while at the lodge. She said that some of her five children are Indigenous and that she spent 12 years in northern communities where she was guided by elders.
“I felt a connection. All of a sudden a lot of things started making sense,” she said.
The board heard McKay participates in ceremonies and other traditional practices regularly, and McKay said it brings her strength. She said she prays for the victims’ families every day.
The Van de Vorsts said McKay still has to complete more required programming and they feel unescorted absences shouldn’t be granted until that is complete.
A ‘ticking time bomb’
McKay said she doesn’t know how or why she drank so much the night of the crash, but she told the parole board her life began to “spiral downward” about one year prior.
She described getting two concussions and a subsequent change in her behaviour. She was frustrated at work and was afraid her partner was going to leave her, she said. She began drinking two to three times a week, rather than her previous few times a month. She said she was a “ticking time bomb” because she’s since learned she has post-traumatic stress disorder. She was molested at a young age and later raped, she said.
She said she had never previously driven drunk and only intended to have one drink the night of the crash.
“I was the person who took peoples’ keys away and I was the person who told them not to drink and drive,” she told the board.
She drank wine at home that night and said she then remembers driving to a bar and being inside. She said she doesn’t remember driving to the second bar and has little recollection of being there.
‘Death is the end of possibility’
Four empty chairs sat in the hearing room to honour Jordan, Chanda, Kamryn and Miguire. Linda, Jordan’s mother, often patted the chair beside her.
“I just know that they’re there,” she said. “I just thought, ‘My big guy is right there. He’s listening to every word.’”
The family said it was important to read their victim impact statements at the hearing to continue to take a stance against drunk driving and to remain present in McKay’s case. They said Jordan and Chanda would have wanted them to, and that the two give them strength to do so.
Lou said they were a very tight-knit family that had so much potential, and he recalled his brother telling him, “Death is the end of possibility.”
“She took something… not just from us, but from society, from our country, from our province. We don’t know what they could have been doing but the possibilities and potential there was endless.”
Combatting impaired driving
The family said they want McKay to complete programming and get the help she needs so she can be released one day and contribute to society again. They say they wouldn’t be against unescorted temporary absences for McKay if the time is right and her programming is complete.
They are hopeful McKay will fulfill her promise she made during her sentencing to help deter drunk driving, and they said they want her to one day publicly share her story.
“People have to hear that side of it too and people have to say to themselves, ‘Do I want to be the next Catherine McKay?” Lou said.
McKay said she has organized a fundraiser in the lodge for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and shares her story with other offenders in hopes others learn from her mistake.
“One day I will go out and make a difference so no one ever does this,” she said.
McKay did not wish to participate in an interview with CTV News. We last asked her one month ago.
Jan. 3, 2016 – Catherine McKay crashes her SUV into a car carrying a family of four on Highway 11 north of Saskatoon. Parents Jordan and Chanda Van de Vorst are pronounced dead on scene. Their two children, two-year-old Miguire and five-year-old Kamryn, later die in hospital.
Jan. 4, 2016 – McKay makes her first court appearance. She will be charged with multiple impaired driving offences by the time she pleads guilty.
Jan. 9, 2016 – A funeral is held for the family of four. Many people display glow sticks in their homes to honour the family.
June 8, 2016 – McKay pleads guilty to four counts of impaired driving causing death.
July 27, 2016 – McKay is sentenced to 10 years in prison. She’s moved to a healing lodge one month into the sentence.
Jan. 1, 2017 – New impaired-driving laws come into effect in Saskatchewan, toughening penalties for impaired driving and lowering the legal limit to .04.
Feb. 28, 2018 – SGI announces a settlement with two bars that served McKay the night of the crash. The insurance Crown also states it won a statement of claim against McKay. The terms of both are not released.
June 1, 2018 -- Catherine McKay’s application for unescorted temporary absences is not authorized by the Parole Board of Canada