RENEE WILLMON

translating data into human stories


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Postcard from Bordeaux: “La Perle d’Aquitaine”

Since early September, I’ve been living and working in Bordeaux, France, in the framework of an international joint PhD program. Embracing the culture and lifestyle of new places is an important component of international collaborations, beyond the scientific exchanges facilitated by programs like the cotutelle. This is the first of a collection of “postcards”, where I’ll share snapshots of my experience being a newcomer in France, and highlight some of my non-work related adventures.

It’s hard to believe my first research trip to Bordeaux is already drawing to a close! In two weeks I will be heading back to Canada for two months to spend the holidays with family, and check in with my supervisor and lab mates at Western University. This trip has been wonderful, and I’ve very much enjoyed getting to known my colleagues at the university, meeting new people – both local Bordelais and other newcomers to the city – and seeing as much of the region as I can manage.

Exploring on my first evening in Bordeaux

Exploring on my first evening in Bordeaux

Bordeaux is best known for its 18th century architecture, and the world-renowned blended wines produced in the surrounding vineyards. The capital of the Aquitaine region, the main city center is located on the left bank of the Garonne river, south of where the Gironde estuary branches into the east-flowing Dordogne, and the Garonne that continues a southern trajectory. The proximity of the Atlantic coast and Arcachon basin is evidenced by the popularity and availability of fresh seafood (especially oysters and mussels from the basin), and the temperate climate… green grass and leaves on many trees is quite a contrast to the snowy pictures of home in Canada that fill my Facebook page! Recognized as a UNESCO heritage site, the downtown center is contained within medieval walls of the city – though not all of the wall remains standing today. Characterized by narrow streets with many pedestrian-only areas, the center is filled with quaint squares and plazas, featuring cafe terraces, bakeries, and beautiful monuments. Since the early 2000’s, a city-wide project has been underway to restore the vitality of the city, cleaning blackened buildings to reveal the limestone facades, upgrading the tram system, and promoting pedestrian activities in town such as the first Sunday of every month, when car access is prohibited.

Miroir d'Eau, Bordeaux FR

Miroir d’Eau, Bordeaux FR

One of the most recognizable landmarks of Bordeaux is the “Miroir d’Eau”, or water mirror, along the riverbank. The shallow water feature reflects the beautiful Place de la Bourse, and is a popular place for kids to splash in the hot summer months. The adjoining boardwalk is a lovely place to walk, jog or cycle, and when the weather is nice, is the perfect spot for an impromptu picnic. Food is an important part of everyday life here, with quintessential French favourites such as various cheeses, fresh bread, pastries, and of course, wine all receiving special attention throughout the day. One of my favourite rituals is “Gouter”, which is the snack break observed around 4 or 5pm where friends or colleagues gather to indulge in a sweet treat, and coffee or aperitif. I think a future post will have to be dedicated especially to food…

I hope you’ll enjoy these little snapshots from a Canadian in France! Feel free to request a topic or leave a response in the comments.

A bientôt!

 

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Vancouver Police Launch Cold Case Website

Yesterday, the Vancouver Police Department launched what Steve Mertl described as “what may be the country’s most ambitious, user-friendly cold-case web site” in his coverage of the launch. Many police websites list basic statistics and details on cold cases, but the VPD has expanded on this model. By publishing case file information on their new Cold Case Website, the VPD is inviting members of the public to make like a TCAK Squad Member and review the available information, then apply their own experience, insights and areas of expertise to shed new light on these unsolved cases.

VPD adopts TCAK model

The squad members, producers, and victims’ family members of To Catch A Killer have long believed in the benefits associated with fresh eyes on cold cases, and demonstrated the strength of multidisciplinary investigations unhindered by the biases and habits associated with traditional police approaches. A first-of-its-kind true-crime documentary series, TCAK follows a multi-disciplinary squad of civilians led by Mike Arntfield as we investigate unsolved Ontario homicide cases. Each episode documents a six-week investigation carried out with the blessing of the victims’ families and friends, as the squad brings modern perspectives and techniques to each case.

VPD Cold Case Website

VPD Cold Case Website

VPD Deputy Chief Adam Palmer acknowledged that “the method and speed by which people communicate has evolved, and that the Internet plays a huge role in our lives. Our goal is to reach as large an audience as possible to give people an opportunity to provide valuable input on homicide cases, some of which have been inactive or “cold” for a number of years”. Similar to initial “facts of the case” meetings led by Dr. Michael Arntfield in the TCAK Squad Room, the website posts a summary overview of each case (there are eight so far), media stories from the time, locations of interest, and photographs of interest. Continue reading


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Behind the Scenes of TCAK: Centering the Voices of Sex Workers in Social Justice Movements

A Guest post by Claire Venet-Rogers

The TCAK Squad’s investigation into the unsolved murder of Nadine Gurczenski revealed troubling trends in the lack of reporting on acts of violence towards women involved in the adult entertainment and sex work industries. In addition to the personal tragedy experienced by her daughter and ex-husband, Nadine’s case reveals how the stigmatization that accompanies employment in adult entertainment and sex work perpetuates the violence committed against victims by blaming them for living risky lifestyles, and structurally hinders progress in the search for their killers by muffling their stories. I am pleased to invite my colleague Claire Venet-Rogers to discuss some of these broader issues in the stigmatization and criminalization of sex work, and provide a constructive starting point to humanize sex workers and their role in our communities.
Claire Venet-Rogers

Claire Venet-Rogers

Claire is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Anthropology program at the University of Western Ontario. As a graduate student, Claire founded The Committee for Women in Anthropology with the goal of spreading awareness of the discrimination faced by women anthropologists on campus, in their community, work places and during fieldwork, and creating a safe supportive space for students to discuss their own experiences of oppression. The committee was Claire’s first foray into feminism, from which she developed her model of feminism that strives to be anti-colonial, sex-positive, and focused on the intersectionality of oppression. Her approach to advocacy focuses on centering the voices of the most vulnerable within social justice movements, discouraging victim-blaming and shaming, and encouraging consensus and non-hierarchical models of activism.

A woman’s value should not be tied to her sexual activities, and her death should incite shock and outrage rather than the often-common response of victim-blaming and shaming. We need to start putting sex workers at the center of our movements and give them the independence and agency they deserve.

                                                – Claire Venet-Rogers

The stigmatization of women working within the adult entertainment and sex work industries is prevalent in Canada and has been for decades. Why, when sex workers go missing or are murdered, does the general public not take to the streets in outrage? Why are people murdering women, trans, and queer sex workers and getting away with it? Why are people too uncomfortable to talk about it? It seems, unless it is to advocate for more institutionalized state intervention and stricter policies around sex work, many people are too uncomfortable to talk about the experiences of sex workers in Canada. With the recent publicity Nadine Gurczenski’s story has received after the airing of To Catch A Killer, hopefully the struggles that adult entertainers and sex workers face are more welcome topics of conversation in living rooms across Canada. That said, however, I want to take this opportunity to stress that while we do need to address the identity and agency of adult entertainers and sex workers, they do not need to be “saved” from themselves or their professions. Many of the issues that face adult entertainment professionals and sex workers stem from the criminalization of their work, and the stigmatization associated with their role in society. Beyond a complete overhaul of not only laws and policies, we need to reform the way we think about sex work if sex workers are to be safe doing their jobs. The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision to decriminalize sex work can be viewed as an opportunity to provide a safer environment for sex workers, yet there is concern that resulting new policies will further harm sex workers, despite their good intentions. This post will highlight some of the problematic assumptions that are inherent to reactionary suggestions for new policies and laws.

While many sex workers and sex work activists rejoiced at the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to decriminalize sex work, many abolitionist (anti-prostitution) groups were dismayed, and are encouraging the Supreme Court of Canada to rule in favour of the “Nordic Model”, which is an “end demand” approach to prostitution. Many within this abolitionist movement define prostitution as a violent act done to a woman, but also recognize that penalizing a sex worker is further marginalizing an already vulnerable person. Instead, they support an “end demand” approach that targets johns by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services. This approach is appealing to many for obvious reasons. Firstly, many people understand that women who are in the sex trade usually, though not always, have very few other options presented to them (Sayers , December 2013). At the same time, few people sympathize with the johns, and so it would seem to make sense not to punish already marginalized sex workers and go after the purchasers instead. This approach usually advocates for harsher consequences such as longer jail time or higher fines, public humiliation (usually either the publication of the picture and name of the john in the newspaper, cable television, internet, or even billboards), and for “john schools” to teach men the harms of prostitution (Koyama 2011). Advocates for the “end demand” approach have been growing in strength, despite the voices of many sex workers stating that this approach is not only unrealistic but unsafe. Continue reading


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TB Research Profiled on CTV London

Jan Sims of CTV London came to visit the Bioarchaeology Lab at Western University this week to learn more about my PhD research, as I try to catch a killer of another sort – the bacterial pathogen second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infectious agent: Tuberculosis. Watch the clip here.

CTVReneeIn addition to my investigative role on To Catch A Killer, I study the impact of Tuberculosis and how it has changed over time by analyzing the internal structure of human bone using medical and micro-CT imaging. By examining the skeletal remains of individuals who suffered from Tuberculosis in the pre-antibiotic era, my research is contributing to our understanding of the past movement of people and pathogens by identifying the effects of disease-causing bacteria that persist in the archaeological record. This increased understanding of the past experience of TB is crucial to contextualize the present experience of the disease and potentially anticipate future trends in its spread.

My research is conducted in collaboration with the Huron-Wendat Nation, whose ancestors I study, to investigate their health history. By examining The Ancestors’ remains, we hope to learn more about the type of illnesses that affected them, and how trade relations with European explorers impacted their health in the 17th century. Using detailed 3D images acquired using medical and micro-CT, I can conduct qualitative and quantitative analyses that isn’t accessible through macroscopic, or conventional microscopic methods of analysis. In addition to shedding light on the impact of TB on the human skeleton, this research will preserve a permanent digital record of irreplaceable human remains, that can be printed in 3D for future teaching, research, and ongoing heritage preservation.


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Behind the Scenes of TCAK: Forensic Facial Analysis

Jacqueline English was just 15-years-old when she disappeared after working the evening shift at a local snack bar in London, Ontario in 1969. Her body was found floating in a creek days later. Her case is notorious for the string of incidents linked to the murder, in particular several strange attacks on a witness who gave police information about a strange man seen speaking to Jackie several days before her disappearance. 
Her sister Anne – now 60 years old – remains haunted by the fact that her killer was never caught. Anne’s desire for justice remains as strong as ever, and in the fourth episode of To Catch A Killer, the squad tackles the case to distinguish the facts from myth. 
This post will focus on the composite sketch that was part of the police file, and the analysis conducted by Dr. Cathy Mondloch of Brock University to systematically and scientifically compare that composite to two potential suspects uncovered by the TCAK squad. 
murder victim Jacqueline English

murder victim Jacqueline English

Like a fingerprint, no two faces are exactly alike. Recognizing and identifying key people related to a crime (including the victim, perpetrator, and other persons of interest) are often the first criteria that must be met to advance a forensic investigation. Investigators and forensic scientists draw on a number of branches of science that study faces, such as anthropology, psychology and art to develop useful tools to find these key people.

In Jackie English’s case, one of the tools at the squad’s disposal was a sketch that depicted a man seen speaking to Jackie several days before her disappearance. The sketch was based on a description provided by Ms. Harrison, who later became a victim of harassment and assault due to her involvement in the case. Because she was attacked after providing information to police, there was speculation that the man who attacked her was the same person who killed Jackie. When the TCAK Squad identified two potential suspects in Jackie’s case, we needed to systematically and scientifically assess whether the sketch pointed to one of these people more than the other. To do that, I approached Dr. Cathy Mondloch of Brock University, who is a specialist in the psychology of facial perception.

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Announcement: New Visiting Researcher position at the Ryerson Digital Media Zone

I’m very excited to announce that I will be spending the next several months as a Visiting Researcher at Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone! The DMZ is one of the largest startup incubators in Canada, connecting entrepreneurs with mentors, networks and funding opportunities in an innovative and tech-filled space in the heart of downtown Toronto. I will be exploring new ways of using 3D imaging and paleopathological data to detect and interpret evidence of ancient disease in consultation with the Master of Digital Media Program and other Ryerson experts.

Today is also World TB Day. Although humans and TB causing bacteria have co-existed for thousands of years, Tuberculosis is very much a modern disease with a real impact. Every year 9 million people get sick with TB, and of those, 3 million don’t get the diagnosis, treatment or care they need.

Follow the blog to see how my work at the Ryerson DMZ contributes to our understanding of TB and human interaction since prehistory.


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Behind the Scenes of TCAK: Semiotics in the Service of Criminal Investigations

A guest post by Dr. Marcel Danesi

In the third episode of To Catch A Killer, the civilian squad investigates the murder of David Buller, a professor who was murdered in his office on campus in 2001. Given that David was a visual artist, it made sense to me that his body of artwork could be an important place to start to make sense of his life, and to investigate whether signs in his artwork could point us to a period, event, or person that would be relevant to our investigation of his murder.
Dr. Marcel Danesi

Dr. Marcel Danesi

Dr. Marcel Danesi is a renowned semiotician, who I have had the pleasure and privilege of learning from during my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, and who I knew could provide exactly the insight and expert analysis that would be required to translate meaning from David’s art. Semiotics is the study of how we make meaning from signs, be they colours, words, objects, gestures, or anything that stands for something other than itself.

While the scene revealing Dr. Danesi’s findings did not make it into the final edit of the episode, his analysis is extremely compelling. David’s case is a perfect example of the value that Semiotic analysis can provide to criminal investigations, as well as the importance of thinking outside the box when considering which disciplines can contribute to the advancement of cold cases. 
Cold cases such as the David Buller one create Chaos. Solving it, or at least trying to solve it in some concrete way, such as on programs like To Catch a Killer, restores in us a certain sense of Order.  
                                                                    – Marcel Danesi 

David Buller, a professor and artist at the University of Toronto, was murdered in his office on January 18, 2001. Everyone at the university, including myself, was shocked by the news of his tragic and brutal death, and all of us became quite apprehensive about campus safety.

However, as anything else in our busy and news-cluttered world, the case quickly receded from the headlines and from campus memory. We all went back to our routines and hectic academic duties. Other than the police, journalists, and media news outlets, few on campus maintained interest in the details of the case or, as was the case with myself, knew anything about them.

Thirteen years later I was approached by an ex-student of mine in semiotics, Renee Willmon, who believed that I could shed some light on this very case, given that Buller had left behind some paintings. His last paintings seemed to be especially relevant to the cold case (as it had become). I was extremely skeptical that I could contribute anything to solving the case by simply interpreting his paintings. But, as a semiotician, I was intrigued. Could his last paintings contain signs pointing to a deep premonition Buller may have had about his impending death? Keep in mind that I knew nothing about the police investigation or had any recollection at all of the details of the case. Essentially, I was asked to do a semiotic interpretation of Professor Buller’s paintings to see if they would yield any clues about the crime. Paintings are texts and when we create texts of any kind, our subjectivity, our fears, and other emotions (conscious or unconscious) work their way into the structure and content of the texts. This is a fundamental premise of semiotics.

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