Dr. Elana Fric-Shamji loved her three young children and her job as a family doctor. She also seemed, to the outside world, to be happily married to Mohammed Shamji, whom she met at medical school in Ottawa.
But behind the façade of smiling photos and celebratory posts on what she called “Fakebook,” she told friends about escalating physical, sexual and emotional abuse by Shamji, then a neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital, according to testimony from the preliminary inquiry into her murder.
Two days after Shamji was served with divorce papers in November 2016, he strangled his wife and dumped her body in the Humber River — facts he admitted to in his guilty plea to second-degree murder in April.
Shamji’s sentencing hearing is set to begin Wednesday morning. He faces an automatic sentence of life in prison. The only issue to be determined is how long he must wait before he can apply for parole — an assessment based on a number of factors, including whether there were instances of previous abuse.
The usual range for domestic second-degree murders is between 12 to 17 years.
Over their 12-year marriage, Shamji isolated Fric-Shamji from people who knew about past abuse, according to the testimony of her friends and her divorce lawyer. But she was concerned about how leaving Shamji and making the abuse public would affect their children and his career.
As she weighed whether to stay or go, she worried what the people she confided in about the abuse would think if she chose to remain with him.
“I’m so smart. I’m a doctor. I don’t understand how this could happen,” she told the divorce lawyer she hired, who advised her to make a safety plan.
She told friends she was worried about Shamji’s reaction to her finally leaving, despite his many pleas for another chance.
“If I ever go missing, or if something ever happens to me, you will know who did it,” her friend Neely Savard testified Fric-Shamji told her.
For Savard, the most important thing to do now is to make sure this fact is known by as many people as possible: “The most dangerous time (for a woman in an abusive relationship) is when they realize they want out or a divorce.”
It’s the time when she needs the most informed support from lawyers, therapists, friends and family and from her workplace, advocates say.
“It’s important that the people she reaches out to have the adequate education and training to provide the support that is needed in a non-judgmental way,” said Robin Mason, who researches domestic violence at Women’s College Hospital.
Mason has since helped develop an online training tool for physicians in Toronto that helps them recognize risk factors for domestic violence in their colleagues.
“(Domestic violence) is a public-health issue and it’s everyone’s business,” she said.
Meanwhile, resources are strained. Shelters for women and families fleeing violence are full on a daily basis, said Paula Del Cid, a residential program manager at Interval House.
Cuts to legal aid have left advocates afraid that women, including those who fear deportation or losing custody of their children, will not be able to access necessary legal help, says Harmy Mendoza, the executive director of the Women’s Abuse Council of Toronto.
Stigma also continues to prevent women from seeking help. Women of a higher economic class can see themselves as not needing to use a shelter or other social services, said Amanda Dale, the executive director of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action.
“It’s harder to admit they need help and that something has gone very wrong,” Dale said. But domestic violence and hatred of women “transcends class, it transcends social advantage,” she said.
For those who know someone is being abused, it’s important to “keep the lines of communication open; don’t judge them,” said Del Cid. Advocates suggest offering to help pack a bag, providing a safe place to stay, providing child care or helping her connect with a crisis line or other services.
The costs of domestic violence are not borne by one person or one family, Mason said.
“We all lose,” she said. “And when we lose someone like Dr. Fric, we lose a lot.”
Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati