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Gone but not forgotten: The memory of Nina de Villiers lives on at McMaster University

November 2016

At Hamilton’s McMaster University, there is a memorial garden dedicated to the memory of McMaster student Nina de Villiers, who attended the university from 1990-1991.

So just who is Nina de Villiers?

Nina de Villiers was a nineteen-year-old McMaster University biology student and Burlington resident; the daughter of Priscilla and Dr. Rocco de Villiers.  The family had immigrated to Canada from South Africa to escape rising violence under the Apartheid system when Nina was just 6 years old and her brother Etienne was 4 years old.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa on 7 September 1971, Nina grew up to have interests in music, science, growing roses and a love of rescue animals.  It was her love of animals that caused her to tell her mother when she was 8 years old to start saving money because she would likely have to go to jail to save baby seals and would need the money to get bailed out.

Musically, Nina had learned to play the piano while still in South Africa and developed into a fine singer, regularly singing in a church choir.  While still in high school at Hillfield-Strathallan High School in Hamilton, she wrote her own songs and sang in with the school jazz band, despite being quite shy.

In 1990, Nina was among a group who sang backup vocals for the song “Give Us Back the Night” by folk-rock duo Open Mind, which was produced in response to the massacre of 14 women at the University of Montreal in 1989, and appeared in the resulting video.  The video received airplay on Much Music, Canada’s video music station and the camera seemed to linger on Nina longer than the other backup singers.

She planned to follow her father into the medical field, but had considered plant genetics and pure science.  She was close to her family and decided to go to nearby McMaster University to stay close to home.

Nina’s life came to a tragic end on 9 August 1991, when she was abducted while jogging along a trail near the Cedar Springs Racquet Club in Burlington.  A frantic search for her turned up nothing.

Nina’s body was found in a marsh near Napanee, Ontario a week later on 16 August.  She had been shot in the back of the head. 

Nina had escaped the turmoil and violence of South Africa only to die a violent death 13 years later.

The man accused of killing Nina, Jonathan Yeo, was out on bail at the time of the killing and despite a long history of violence, did not have any weapons restrictions.  Two days after killing Nina, Yeo murdered Karen Marquis of Moncton, New Brunswick.  He returned to the Hamilton area and after a police chase, killed himself in the parking lot at Limeridge Mall in Hamilton when finally cornered.

Nina was cremated and a private memorial was held for family and close friends on 24 August 1991 at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, where Nina sang in the choir.  A recording of Nina singing was played during the service.

As a result of Nina’s death, her mother Priscilla founded the Burlington-based, anti-violence/judicial reform organization Canadians Against Violence Everywhere Advocating its Termination (CAVEAT) in June 1992.  CAVEAT was very influential in convincing the federal government of Jean Chrétien to create the Canadian Firearms Registry in 1993 and helped to bring about policy and action on the growing incidence of violence against women.

A 1992 Coroner’s Inquest revealed that during Yeo’s eleven-year history of violence towards women, he had continually slipped between the cracks of the justice and mental health systems.  Prior to murdering Nina, Yeo had tried to leave the country, but was turned back at the border by U.S. Customs Officer Hugh O’Hear.  Canada Customs was alerted, but the investigating officers felt they didn’t have the authority to seize Yeo’s .22 caliber rifle, despite knowing he was violating his bail conditions by trying to leave the country and had what looked like a suicide note in his possession.  He allowed him to re-enter Canada and continue on his way.  It was this same .22 caliber rifle that would be used to kill de Villiers and Marquis.

A total of 137 recommendations came out of the inquest, aimed at preventing similar violence and deaths.

On 7 February 1994, The de Villiers Petition, one that was signed by 2.5 million Canadians across the country, was presented to federal Justice Minister Allan Rock, urging “…that Parliament recognize that crimes of violence against the person are serious and abhorrent to society and amend the Criminal Code of Canada, the Bail Reform Act of 1972 and the Parole Act accordingly.”

The memorial garden, situated in front of University Hall, was dedicated to the memory of Nina de Villiers on 15 September 1993.

At Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, the regional sexual assault and domestic violence care centre for Halton Region is named Nina’s Place in tribute to Nina.

CAVEAT disbanded in May 2001, but Priscilla de Villiers continues to advocate for victim’s rights.

It’s unfortunate that the murder of Nina de Villiers was somewhat overshadowed by the murder of fellow Burlington resident Leslie Mahaffy earlier in the summer of 1991, and then by the death of Kristen French the following spring, both murdered by Paul Bernardo.  It was Nina’s murder in particular highlighted numerous failures of the Canadian justice system and the way law-enforcement agencies conducted themselves when it came to violent offenders, particularly violence against women.

Perhaps it was due to Bernardo’s greater notoriety, given that he was also found to be the infamous Scarborough Rapist and unlike Jonathan Yeo, he actually had a well-covered trial.

Nina may be gone, but she is not forgotten.

Sources:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priscilla_de_Villiers, www.caveat.org/publications/chronicle_nov99.html, http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/2214301-legacy-of-nina-de-villiers-lives-on/, “Nina sings her own farewell,” Hamilton Spectator, 26 August 1991 and other articles published by the Hamilton Spectator, “Fatal Mistakes” by Kevin Marron, personal recollections of the author.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/gone-but-not-forgotten-the-legacy-of-nina-de-villiers-lives-on/

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