Collaboration spéciale: Quid Novi, Université McGill

Warning Signs

Matt Malone

On the second floor of New Chancellor Day Hall, there is a portrait of a student in the east-facing alcove. The photo does not mention much. At most, the profile’s ambiguous caption puzzles the curious onlooker. It is through this portrait that I first came to the story, chatting about it with two friends.

In the summer of 1987, Patricia Allen, a third year law student at McGill, met her future husband in Thompson House. Patricia was a remarkable student in our Faculty - highly intelligent, absorbing, wickedly funny, hard-working, with a very bright career ahead of her. But because of this meeting at Thompson House, her story is a tragic one.

Patricia had come to the Faculty of Law from Ottawa, where she graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy. After briefly working in an advertising agency, she entered the Faculty of Law in 1984. Friends of Pat told me that the Faculty in those days was a family. Within that family, Patricia belonged to a tight-knit group of excellent students. She and her group rarely left the vicinity outside of Peel and Dr. Penfield, passing most of their time in the orbit of the Faculty and Thompson House. She graduated near the top of her class.

                Like Pat, her future husband was a bright young man: Colin McGregor had been Class President and Valedictorian at Marianopolis College. He also attended McGill, where he was on the debating team and participated in national championships. He graduated with a B.A. in literature in 1984 and went to work at a series of newspapers around Canada before returning to Montreal. He was an articulate, thoughtful, and passionate young man. When they met, they dated briefly and intensely. He sent her flowers everyday and called her incessantly.

Colin and Patricia married shortly after her graduation. They moved to Ottawa, where Colin started working in communications for a pharmaceutical company. As a top student with a strong interest in tax law, Patricia had received offers from all the illustrious firms, but she decided against biglaw and got a job at Revenue Canada. Within a year, she received a promotion that doubled her salary. While Patricia succeeded at work, Colin started studies towards a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Later, friends would reflect that it was evident that there were problems in their relationship. Colin became possessive. He was bothered by her promotions. He kept taking jobs that he couldn’t hold down. The marriage started to disintegrate.


As nurses’ notes would later show, Patricia witnessed angry outbursts by Colin during this time - though not towards her, only objects. They also show that Patricia expected to divorce him, and that Colin foresaw financial difficulties resulting from the divorce. Patricia informed health officials that initial discussions of their breakup came before Colin’s mental health problems. For his part, Colin attested to them coming later.

In May 1991, Patricia went on a business trip to Edmonton. After she left, Colin made a series of visits to the Ottawa Civic Hospital. Over the course of a few days, his psychological behavior was assessed and he was admitted to the psychiatric ward for observation. He was administered an antipsychotic drug.

Throughout the early summer months, Colin started a co-op placement at the Department of National Defense. But his performance in the position declined rapidly. He continued to undergo assessments by psychiatrists at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. The psychiatrist who saw him the most later testified that Colin came around to the idea that he was overreacting to paranoic health concerns. This doctor also maintained that she believed Colin “had the capacity to appreciate the moral wrongfulness of an act.”

In July of that year, neighbours started to hear loud arguments between Colin and Patricia at their home in Ottawa. Colin started to miss work. Patricia often accompanied Colin to the hospital for psychiatric visits. She was losing sleep, as Colin started to keep her awake at night. By August, her parents intervened to tell Colin to give Patricia the time to relax so that she could continue to function at work. There had been talk throughout the summer of a divorce by Christmas time, but Patricia was concerned that this would give Colin false hope of a reconciliation.

In late August, Colin’s condition worsened. He was convinced that he was dying from herpes and stated that he wanted to commit suicide. Patricia contacted a psychiatrist familiar with Colin’s case. Colin was admitted to the crisis intervention unit in the Ottawa Civic Hospital. It was at this time that Patricia informed Colin she wanted to divorce him. While Colin was in the hospital, Patricia contacted a lawyer. Her lawyer wrote a letter to the Ottawa Police voicing concerns about Patricia’s safety.

After the first week of September, Colin was granted an overnight pass from the crisis intervention unit to stay with Patricia at their home for one night. When he returned to the hospital, Patricia called the hospital telling them that she had received a call from Colin saying he was going to kill himself by overdose. He denied this statement, though an essay he wrote dated from that day is titled: “End Essay (a rambling diatribe).” It begins: “As I write these lines, I feel certain that I will die shortly of a systemic bodily virus.”

He was discharged from the hospital on September 9 with a diagnosis of a somatoform disorder, the persisting belief in medical diagnosis when there are no findings to support it. After his discharge, Patricia told Colin that she did not want him to stay at their house, which she had originally purchased with the help of her parents.

The day that Colin was discharged from hospital, Patricia began a diary titled “Diary of Threats.” After his discharge, Colin went to live with a friend for a week. But during this time and over the course of the next two months, Colin harassed Patricia.

                He frequently called her to voice his concern that he was dying. She got an unlisted telephone number. A close friend moved in to live with her. This friend later testified that she witnessed an incident at the end of September on a Saturday where Colin repeatedly called her, and then, at 11:00 p.m., after they had gone to bed, opened the door to the house with a key. Patricia and Colin argued before he left. Patricia then bought a chain for her door.

                Two weeks later, Colin once again tried to enter the house with a key at night. They spoke through the door, and finally he agreed to leave. But when Patricia and her friend went to bed, they heard Colin rattle the windows and the patio backdoor. As they called Patricia’s parents for help (her father was an RCMP officer), Colin broke into the house. When they saw him, he had a wrench in his hands. He remained calm. He walked upstairs, and came back downstairs with a book in his hands, telling them that it was he wanted. He left.

                Patricia’s lawyer wrote the separation agreement. She insisted that Colin did not need to repay her for the money that Colin had used to go to school. By early October, Colin had also enlisted a lawyer. Throughout October, their separation dragged on through their lawyers.

In late October, Colin purchased a weapon. The store clerk later testified that Colin knew exactly what he was looking for in the store. He later told his psychiatrists that he purchased the weapon with the goal of suicide.

                The following day, and over the course of the next week, Colin was repeatedly admitted to the hospital. He continually spoke of suicide and dying, and told a friend of his that he would die before the end of the year. On November 2 he checked into a motel. The following day he met with Patricia to discuss the separation agreement. On the same day, later that night neighbours saw him staring into the window of her house.

                On November 5, he signed an application for a firearms acquisition certificate and left it with the registrar at the Ottawa Police. Four days later, he bought binoculars. On November 11, he rented a car from Hertz for three days and moved into a different motel. The following morning, he circled the block of Patricia’s house several times. In the evening, he called the police to ask if his wife had brought a complaint against him that day. The operator told him that nothing would happen right away, unless he was suspected of trying to murder her. Colin asked if he was under suspicion.

The separation agreement was finally received by Colin’s lawyer on November 12.

                “On November 13th, 1991, the accused returned to Ms. Allen's residence early in the morning, parked his car and waited for her. Ms. Allen got in her vehicle and the accused followed her. She drove to her dentist's office on Argyle Avenue in the City of Ottawa, parked her vehicle on the street and entered her dentist's office shortly before her 8:15 a.m. appointment. The accused entered the parking lot adjacent to the dentist's building at 8:09 a.m. and parked his vehicle. He remained in the car waiting for her. Ms. Allen left her dentist's office at about 8:30 a.m. She walked to her vehicle. The accused got out of his vehicle and followed her holding [a] crossbow hidden in a garbage bag. She got to her vehicle and put her keys in the door. He got up to her and she saw him. She turned around and asked him, "What are you doing here?". He looked her in the eye and shot a bolt through the garbage bag into her chest. She screamed. He dropped the crossbow in the garbage bag and ran across the parking lot onto McLeod Street. She collapsed to the ground. An ambulance brought her to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. The autopsy would reveal that the bolt passed through the right chest wall, right lung, the heart, aorta, oesophagus, left lung, left chest wall and the tip exited through the back.”[1]

                Colin immediately turned himself over to the police. When asked how long he had been thinking of killing his wife he said: “I don't know. I've been very upset at my wife. I just want to die. I just want to die. It's all I want to do. I want to kill myself now. I want to hang myself in my cell or I want to shoot myself. I'm a monster.”

Friends and family knew that the situation was bad, but they had never conceived that it would go that far. Such extreme violence is the complete dehumanization and diminishment of another person. It is the worst exhibit of humankind. Yet violence of this kind is channelled in our society. In the year of Patricia’s killing, 87 women were victims of spousal homicide in Canada. The day after Patricia’s murder, 67 women called the Ottawa police to tell authorities that they feared violence at the hands of their ex-partners. Over the month of November, that number rose to 453.

                I was told by Pat’s friends that living with the pain of losing someone to a senseless act of violence is a deeply unfocusing, disturbing experience. It can take a long time to come together and rehabilitate after such an experience. To try and make sense out of the senseless. To produce any good from such evil. The burdens of repair and healing are immense.

                Following her murder, Pat’s friends, family, and community, including members of the Faculty, took steps to lobby the government to put a federal ban on crossbows. Then Dean, Yves-Marie Morissette, wrote a letter on behalf of the ban. The Minister of Justice, Kim Campbell, came out in favor of the ban - but then rescinded her support. After a change in government, the ban was finally approved in 1994. The debate in the House of Commons specified the memory of Patricia Allen. It was a victory. For the friends and family of Pat, it brought an enormous cathartic effect. But in the end, that catharsis was the main and lasting effect. There remain countless ways to carry out a murder if the circumstances and intentions to do so exist. No one knows if the ban prevented another murder. No one can say. The roots of violence go further than mere weapons.

The essence of this story is the conundrum of violence. Where does violence come from? Is it socialization? Disease? Culture? Male privilege? An inadequate health care system? The fact that Colin’s father was an abusive alcoholic? That Colin was suffering an inferiority complex? That certain people are not seen as valid threats by our institutions? That women’s security is hardly taken as seriously as it could and should be?

I write these words on October 27, 2016. In a couple weeks, it will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of Patricia’s killing. After his trial by judge alone, presided by Justice Louise Charron (a decade before she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada), Colin was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to twenty five years in prison. He will become eligible for parole in a couple weeks. The twenty-fifth anniversary of Patricia’s murder is this year: November 13, 2016.

                I wrote to Colin to ask to meet him, but he ultimately declined my request out of a wish not to attract media attention. In prison, Colin writes in English and French, which he learned during his incarceration. He edits a magazine called The Social Eyes and writes about concerns of mental health in the incarceration system. In addition to co-authoring the Québec Manual Against Suicide, he has published a novel called Teammates, about mental health.

When I asked Pat’s friends from her university days for answers, I learned that clear answers do not always exist. Finding the sense to a senseless murder is a painful task. At times, I expected to see these peoples’ weakness, since I was asking such personal and past questions. But the truth is that these people exuded strength. What I realized in writing this story is that the individual pain of those people who lost Pat is burdened with another pain - the knowledge that she is lost is not only to them, but also to those of us who didn’t know her.


[1] R v McGregor, [1992] 43 OR (3d) 455, 22 CR (5th) 233.