Twelve years after she and her friend were kidnapped and viciously attacked by Cory Bitternose in Banff, MJ says it’s only in the last week that she’s learned how she felt in those harrowing moments.
MJ is still working to heal the trauma from that night. That work will be a lifelong project. Just last week, she did a therapy course which helped her identify emotions erased by trauma.
“What I actually felt right in that moment was, ‘I need to get out of here and save our lives … I need to find help because we’re not going to get out of this on our own.'”
MJ feared Bitternose would kill her. She doesn’t fear him any longer.
“My hope is that he can forgive himself, that he can come to a place where he can be peaceful,” MJ told CBC News in a telephone interview.
Last year, MJ attended a parole hearing for Bitternose. Afterward, on a whim, she asked if she could meet with him. The encounter was therapeutic, she said, for both of them.
A court-ordered publication ban remains in place and protects the identities of both MJ and her friend, a woman described in court documents as E.
And although those documents — as well as evidence from the dangerous offender hearing and victim impact statements shed some light on what E experienced and how she felt about the trauma she suffered — this story is about MJ and her own path to peace.
July 13, 2008
On July 13, 2008, MJ and her friend had just gotten pizza after a night out at the Rose and Crown Pub in Banff.
They were walking a bike, making their way home when Bitternose — driving a stolen truck — rolled up alongside the women and offered them a ride home.
MJ and E accepted, put the bike in the bed of the truck and got in. Bitternose locked the doors.
His attack began almost immediately. Bitternose, who was at the time a crack cocaine addict, told the women he would murder them.
In a nearby parking lot, Bitternose beat the women, punching, choking and kicking them. When MJ tried to escape, he attempted to run her down with the truck.
MJ eventually got away, but had to leave E with Bitternose in order to seek help.
A woman who MJ describes as a “wonderful human” opened her door to the battered woman and called police.
Officers tracked down Bitternose and E. By then he had raped her repeatedly.
‘A loaded gun with a hair trigger’
MJ arrived at hospital first and wondered if E had survived.
“I didn’t know if my friend was alive or not, I didn’t know if she was coming back. I didn’t have any answers for that and seeing her come through those hospital doors was probably the most relieving moment I’ve ever felt in life.”
Eight months later, Bitternose pleaded guilty to kidnapping, assault and sexual assault.
A lengthy hearing was held at the Calgary Courts Centre where, with a decades-long history of violence, Bitternose was designated a dangerous offender.
Ultimately, he was sentenced to an indefinite prison term after the judge called him a “loaded gun with a hair trigger.”
Before she was appointed as a judge mid-hearing, then-prosecutor Joanne Durant said she’s never forgotten MJ and E — whom she calls “two of the most courageous women I have ever met.”
“There are people we meet over the course of our careers who stay with us long after a case has concluded. The two victims … certainly fall into that category. They were so patient and conducted themselves with such dignity throughout the hearing,” Durant said.
In the first couple of years after the attack, MJ felt she was supposed to have certain feelings about her attacker: angry, hateful. But over the years she’s realized that’s not how she wants to process her trauma.
“I wanted to heal and I wanted him to heal,” she said. “I wanted to have a choice in this and speak my truth and know that it’s ok that I actually want good things for him.”
Cory Bitternose is now 50 years old. He lives at the Bowden Institution. He’s clean from drugs and is now deeply connected to his Indigenous roots.
Bitternose grew up in Saskatchewan and was raised in poverty by two parents who were residential school survivors. They suffered from addiction and Bitternose’s childhood was violent.
He was also sexually assaulted as a child.
Bitternose is a perfect example of the poisonous nature of intergenerational trauma.
“People like to think it just stays in a certain community or with a certain people, but it doesn’t,” MJ said.
“Intergenerational trauma affects all of us … I learned on a visceral level just how impactful that is.”
After years of working on his anger issues, Bitternose was admitted into Pathways, a program for Indigenous offenders who are given the opportunity to work one-on-one with elders in order to heal.
In 2018, CBC News profiled the program and spoke with participants, including Bitternose.
Members of the program follow traditional teachings and participate in sweats and smudging ceremonies.
At first, Bitternose said he was full of shame and said he couldn’t wrap his head around an elder wanting anything to do with him.
That elder saw potential, and now said Bitternose is a changed man.
MJ sees it too.
MJ and Bitternose meet
Last fall, MJ attended a parole hearing for Bitternose, at which everyone participated in a smudging ceremony.
Afterward, she asked if she could meet with him.
Bitternose agreed and MJ said it was “one of the best healing experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
“It was peaceful, it was healing and it was an incredibly therapeutic situation that was not planned,” MJ said.
The timing was right — MJ said both she and Bitternose had done the work they needed to do to be in the right space to meet.
Bitternose responded to the meeting with “incredible authenticity,” said MJ.
“What I felt from him was just sadness, I felt a lot of sadness and I felt healing — I felt a vulnerability from him that I didn’t feel when he attacked us,” MJ said.
“So what I saw in Cory Bitternose when he walked into that room was the person who he truly is, not the person who was attacking us that evening, but a real human who has feelings and has hurts.”
‘I found that place of joy’
MJ said Bitternose wanted her to know he’s sorry. He said the only way he could show her that was to work on himself.
“He’s in jail, he’s incarcerated, so he has no way to outwardly show us how sorry he is, but the way that he can is to be a better person and to never hurt anyone again,” MJ said.
MJ said she’s “incredibly grateful” to the Pathways program for the space it’s created in encouraging growth and healing.
MJ wants Bitternose to continue working on himself and healing his own traumas.
Right now, she’s living in Ontario, working as a teacher and a life coach.
She’s hoping to visit Bitternose again.
And her message to other trauma survivors is that there is life, after.
“There is hope out there and there are places you can go for help and to do that for yourself is the biggest, most impactful act of self-love you can do, to be connected to your life again and to feel again.
“I wasn’t always connected to my heart and when I found that place of joy and happiness, it was the most incredible sense of relief I’ve ever felt because it gave space, not only for me to heal my life but for Cory Bitternose to heal his life also.”