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N.S. mass shooting report says change needed to end ‘epidemic’ of gender-based violence

The final report from the inquiry examining the 2020 mass shootings in Nova Scotia calls for sweeping change to end gender-based violence.

It describes it as an epidemic that, like the COVID-19 pandemic, warrants a “meaningful, whole of society response.”

“We agree that recognizing gender-based, intimate partner, and family violence as an epidemic is a valuable first step …needed to prevent and eradicate these forms of violence,” write the members of the Mass Casualty Commission.

“The word ‘epidemic’ signifies the scope of the problem as prevailing and sweeping, and also speaks to its toxic and unhealthy character.”

The commission made 17 recommendations to address gender-based violence, including “epidemic-level funding” for agencies and organizations devoted to intervention. Amid the calls for systemic change by governments, law enforcement and regulators is an appeal to men to take up “individual and concerted action” to contribute to ending the epidemic.

“Our aim is not to demonize all men as perpetrators of violence,” reads the report.

“At the same time, we believe men can take responsibility for ending violence in our communities by disrupting traditional norms and harmful expressions of masculinity.”

On Thursday, commissioner Michael MacDonald said it’s time men start acknowledging the realities of gender-based violence and do their part.

“Women have been carrying, through community-based organizations, the burden of protecting women almost exclusively for far too long,” he said. “Men who are leaders in society have to call it out for what it is — it’s an epidemic. 

The commissioners note the April 2020 shootings happened after a number of systemic failures around enforcement and intervention, primarily by police, in the years before the mass shootings. The gunman had a history of violent behaviour against his patients, neighbours and his common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield. 

The failure of police to respond to multiple reports of the gunman’s violence is an example of the ways “in which we fail to adequately address gender-based violence,” write the commissioners.

“For far too long, we have misperceived mass violence as our greatest threat without considering its relationship to other more pervasive forms of violence,” states the report. “We do so at the expense of public safety and community well-being.”

Missed opportunities to intervene

The authors write that the gunman’s pattern and escalation of violence could have been addressed before the killings, noting “many red flags” about his violent and illegal behaviour were known by a broad range of people.

“All too often, gender-based, intimate partner and family violence are precursors to the forms of violence that are more readily seen as being of broader ‘public’ concern,” states the report.

“We ignore these forms of violence at our collective peril.”

Relatives told the commission the gunman was abused by his father as a child, and Banfield described the abuse she suffered during their 19-year relationship in detail during several interviews with police and the commission. 

Neighbours and friends of the couple also described several incidents of the gunman attacking Banfield in front of them — though the report notes “no effective action was taken” to interrupt the perpetrator’s violence. On two occasions, other people had reported the assaults on her to police, but the police never tried to speak with her.

Three individuals sit behind a table. A crowd of people are seen sitting in the foreground.
The MCC report was released Thursday morning in Truro. (Brooklyn Currie/CBC)

The report notes that the gunman benefited from preferential treatment and implicit bias in police decision-making due to his status as a white, wealthy man who owned his own denturist practice.

It describes barriers to reporting by women who were assaulted as well as community members, which included a fear of retaliation and a lack of faith in an adequate police response. The impediments to reporting “resulted in missed red flags and opportunities to intercede in his behaviour.”

It also notes a dismissive response by police to the complaints that were made about the gunman in 2010, 2011 and 2013, citing the speed with which the files were closed and the failure to seek out or interview any witnesses.

“The perpetrator’s violence … was reported to, investigated by, and in some cases witnessed by the police with minimal repercussions or intervention,” states the report. “We identify several problematic patterns in the police response: implicit bias, failure to investigate, poor note-taking and record keeping.” 

Banfield re-victimized

Despite this history, the commission notes that RCMP did not treat Banfield as a survivor of the mass casualty. Months after the mass shootings, she was charged along with two of her family members with providing ammunition to the gunman. Those charges were resolved when Banfield was referred to a restorative justice process.

The report details further re-victimization in the wake of the killings — and charges against Banfield — by members of the public who held Banfield “somehow responsible for the mass casualty (despite the same RCMP confirming that their investigation revealed no such responsibility).”

“This unfair treatment flows from and perpetuates stereotypes and biases and has a potentially chilling effect on other survivors of gender-based violence,” wrote the commissioners. 

“She is in no way responsible for the perpetrator’s actions but rather is a victim of his violent acts. She was not aware of what he was planning, nor is it reasonable to hold her responsible for the lack of reporting on his prior violent behaviours.”

A collage of 22 people shows the faces of the people who died in four rows
Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. 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)

“The way she was treated in the aftermath of this massacre, which began as an assault against her, is disgraceful,” said Banfield’s lawyer Jessica Zita on Thursday. “But this report is the first step to preventing that from ever happening again.”

The report calls for significant reform in police responses, citing systemic failures to respond to reports of threats, failure to charge even where mandatory charging policies are in place, failure to search for prior complaints, charges or convictions and failure to take the situation seriously.

Most notably, the report calls for a change to the Criminal Code to recognize “reactive violence” by women who are subject to coercive control as self-defence.

The recommendation is in response to input from advocates who say mandatory charging policies have failed — either presenting a barrier to reporting or further imperilling women who face charges.

“The policies have contributed significantly to the criminalization of women survivors of intimate partner violence because, when survivors retaliate as a form of self-defence, they are also charged,” write the commissioners. 

Mass casualties can be prevented, says commission

The report notes that mass casualties are a gendered phenomenon almost universally committed by men and the pattern of escalation from gender-based violence to mass casualties is “well-documented.”

While specific events like the mass shooting can’t be predicted, the authors say they can be prevented by creating a system that can better recognize the warning signs and risk factors.

“While no person or institution could have predicted the perpetrator’s specific actions on April 18 and 19, 2020, his patterns and escalation of violence could have and should have been addressed,” write the commissioners.

It was entirely predictable that he would continue to harm people until effective intervention interrupted his patterns of behaviour.” 

The report provides multiple examples of areas needing reform in order to provide better security to women experiencing gender-based violence, including access to safe and affordable housing; the elimination of social or economic barriers for women leaving their partners; and most critically, stable, long-term funding for all services to prevent, intervene in and respond to gender-based violence.

“Simply stated: our collective and systemic failures are attributable to the fact that we underfund women’s safety,” reads the report.

Other recommendations include:

  • Governments, service providers, community-based organizations, and others engaged with the gender-based violence advocacy and support sector take a systemic approach to learning about and removing barriers to women survivors, with a focus on the diverse needs of marginalized women survivors and the needs of other women who are vulnerable as a result of their precarious status or situation.
  • Police and prosecutors should carefully consider the context of intimate partner violence when criminal charges are being contemplated against survivors of such violence; and should engage subject matter experts to help ensure that the dynamics of intimate partner violence are understood; 
  • Provincial and territorial governments should bring in mandatory gender-based violence and bystander intervention training in grades Primary to 12
  • Automatically revoke the firearms licences of people convicted of domestic violence or hate-related offences, and suspend the licences of anyone charged with such offences.

If you are experiencing distress or overwhelming emotions at any time, you can call the Nova Scotia Provincial Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-888-429-8167. The Nova Scotia Provincial Crisis Service can also provide contacts for other crisis services that are available if you live outside Nova Scotia.

If you or someone you know is struggling in any way, you can call 211 or visit 211.ca. 211 offers help 24 hours a day in more than one hundred languages and will be able to connect you directly to the right services for your needs.

The Kids Help Phone is a national helpline that provides confidential support at 1-800-668-6868 or Text CONNECT to 686868.

Additional supports for across Canada are available at www.wellnesstogether.ca. 

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