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N.S. gunman’s spouse, set to undergo restorative justice, lived ‘in survival mode,’ says lawyer

When Lisa Banfield was on a trip to Cuba with her common-law spouse and his parents, her father-in-law asked her to meet him in his hotel room, where he gave a warning.

Paul Wortman, whose face was swollen after being beaten up by his son near the pool by their resort, told Banfield that she needed to leave. 

“He’s just like … ‘I was a bastard to my wife, I was a bastard to my son, and Gabriel’s gonna do the same thing to you … don’t tell him I told you because he’ll, he’ll do more damage to me,'” Banfield later recounted to police after her partner of 19 years murdered 22 people in Nova Scotia. 

In a series of interviews with investigators, Banfield described Gabriel Wortman as being unpredictable and materialistic, an alcoholic who could fly into rages, a loner who suffered from abuse at the hands of his father and grew up to lash out at others physically and verbally, including herself. 

“He would just make me feel so low,” Banfield said in a recorded interview with RCMP on April 28, 2020. 

She estimated there were at least 10 times he attacked her during their relationship, including once when his uncle and a neighbour found him punching and choking her on the ground in Portapique, N.S. Another time, he became irate when she tried to drive him home from a party after he’d been drinking, and she fled into the woods screaming. 

“Sometimes I would stick up for myself because I would be so angry that he’d talk to me like I’m pathetic. And then other times, I would just do and say whatever he wanted because I was just scared,” she told RCMP in the third of a series of interviews.

N.S. gunman's spouse, set to undergo restorative justice, lived 'in survival mode,' says lawyer
Banfield puts on a face mask at Nova Scotia provincial court in Dartmouth on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. Banfield’s lawyer withdrew her not guilty plea to charges related to illegally transferring ammunition to the gunman responsible for the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The issue of control would have been central to a criminal trial, according to Banfield’s defence lawyer, James Lockyer, who spoke after his client’s case was referred to restorative justice last week.

Lockyer withdrew Banfield’s not guilty plea on the charge of providing the gunman with ammunition he used when he attacked friends, neighbours and strangers on April 18 and 19, 2020. Police have always said Banfield didn’t know how he’d use it. 

Crown lawyer Cory Roberts said the process would require Banfield to accept responsibility, but she would not be pleading guilty. If she completes the process, she won’t have a criminal record. 

‘Long overdue’ referral 

The decision to refer the case —15 months after she was charged and two weeks before a scheduled trial — was “the right decision, [and] long overdue,” said St. John’s lawyer Erin Breen, who represents a coalition of groups participating in the public inquiry into the mass shooting. The group includes the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, Avalon Sexual Assault Centre and Women’s Wellness Within. 

Breen, a defence lawyer, said restorative justice offers options for addressing harm that “frankly [are] not often achieved in the criminal justice process.” 

N.S. gunman's spouse, set to undergo restorative justice, lived 'in survival mode,' says lawyer
Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O’Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

It’s not clear what restorative justice will look like for Banfield, though it could involve her engaging with people impacted by her partner’s violence.

Barbara Miller Nix, executive director of the Community Justice Society, which oversees restorative justice referrals in Halifax, couldn’t comment on the case. However, she said generally the goal of restorative justice is to help people see things from each other’s perspectives, and the exact approach is adapted depending on the individuals involved. 

“We look at understanding the harm that has been created and what the needs are, and it allows us to work with the person or persons who have created harm, as well as those who have been harmed,” she said. 

Participation voluntary for victims

For some, she said, that means a virtual or face-to-face meeting with the people who hurt them. People can also submit written statements. Participation is voluntary for victims. 

“The basis of our program is about relationships, and we do a lot of in-person work and we allow space for the voices in the situation to be heard,” said Miller Nix. It’s not unusual for someone who caused harm to also be a victim, so they work with other community supports, like social workers, to ensure all parties are supported, she said. 

N.S. gunman's spouse, set to undergo restorative justice, lived 'in survival mode,' says lawyer
An RCMP car is seen near a memorial display in Portapique following the mass shooting in April 2020. (Brett Ruskin/ CBC)

Results range, Miller Nix said, from people who feel they’ve gained a new appreciation for what someone else was experiencing, to people who acknowledge their actions had far-reaching impacts they hadn’t considered. Some victims may prefer not to be directly involved, she said. 

Several lawyers representing many of the families of people killed said they have not yet heard what the process will look like or received direction on whether their clients will participate. But some families do plan to take part. 

‘She was in survival mode’

The restorative justice process will be separate from Banfield’s participation in the Mass Casualty Commission’s hearings, though she is now expected to testify. 

After learning that Banfield was open to doing so, Breen said the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre reached out to the commission and offered the services of a trauma specialist. 

Breen said it’s important to remember Banfield suffered emotional and psychological harm at the hands of a man who had control over her professional and personal life. 

“Clearly she was in survival mode. And when you’re in survival mode, you may undertake actions simply … out of fear for repercussions if you don’t do certain things. Really, your choices are not your own because you are trying to survive a violent relationship,” said Breen.  

Never reported partner’s abuse

Transcripts of Banfield’s interviews with police show she told investigators she never reported her partner to police and didn’t know if anyone else did. One of her sisters took photos of her injuries the first time it happened, but Banfield said she wouldn’t let her tell the authorities.  

“Even times that he was abusive … I wouldn’t tell my family because I thought if I get back with him, I don’t want them looking at him a certain way,” Banfield told police. 

She said for many years, she was “on eggshells” around her partner.

They’d go through a cycle where he’d become angry and she’d try to calm him down. Banfield told police she considered leaving, but he had threatened to hurt her family, and she still loved him. Prior to April 2020, he hadn’t been violent toward her in three years, she said. 

N.S. gunman's spouse, set to undergo restorative justice, lived 'in survival mode,' says lawyer
Erin Breen, an attorney in St. John’s, is representing several women’s groups in the Mass Casualty Commission. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Medical records released through the public inquiry examining the mass shootings show Banfield spent five nights in hospital after suffering a fractured rib and vertebrae as well as extensive bruising and scrapes on the night of April 18, 2020. She told police the gunman fired at her and tried to lock her in his replica police cruiser before she finally managed to escape into the woods, hiding overnight. 

Breen said she hopes the public inquiry will explore some issues that can help address the roots of intimate partner violence, and that it’ll look at education and how community members can identify and address abusive behaviour. 

“Things that may seem benign or just a little odd, when they start to add up, I think people have to take them seriously,” she said. 

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