When Jessica Zita opened the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report this week, she says she felt deeply moved by the focus on gender-based violence and specifically how her client Lisa Banfield has been mistreated.
“It’s validating for her,” said Zita. “It validates her experience and her feelings, which have been challenged and brought into question significantly the last three years.”
Banfield was in an abusive relationship for two decades with Gabriel Wortman — the man responsible for killing 22 people in Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020. His shooting rampage started in Portapique with a violent attack on Banfield, who managed to escape in the woods near their home.
In the weeks and months that followed, an undercurrent of skepticism burbled across the province about Banfield’s role that night and the fact she never reported his abuse.
The commissioners made a point in their final report to call out those critics.
“In our view, this powerful myth or stereotype led to the perception that Ms. Banfield had some level of responsibility for the mass casualty and contributed to the ensuing victim-blaming dynamic,” the report said.
“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.”
Banfield knew her spouse owned illegal guns and smuggled them across the U.S. border. She told the public inquiry last July she never went to police about the violence she endured because he held a gun to her head and threatened to hurt her family.
She testified that’s exactly what she believed he intended when he couldn’t find her the night of the rampage.
In the final report, the commissioners stated that Banfield was not only a survivor of the mass casualty event — she was also a victim.
“I take that as almost a communication that Lisa should not be apologetic for being a victim and being a survivor and that’s such a powerful statement,” Zita said.
‘Single most important’ lesson
The commissioners declared their position on gender-based violence, stating “we believe this
lesson to be the single most important one to be learned from this mass casualty.”
They described it as an epidemic that, like the COVID-19 pandemic, warrants a “meaningful, whole of society response.”
“It is alarming to know that some people responded to the early RCMP communications on the night of April 18, 2020, by thinking, ‘It’s a domestic situation.’ The mistaken implication is that a ‘domestic situation’ is not one that sets off warning bells.”
The commission’s report also takes aim at the RCMP for its “failure to take meaningful steps” to follow up on a report from former neighbour Brenda Forbes, who claims she told police in 2013 that Banfield was a victim of domestic violence and that Wortman had illegal guns.
The commissioners concluded that Forbes’s complaint was never properly investigated.
“The failure to take meaningful steps in response to Brenda Forbes’ report concerning the perpetrator’s 2013 assault on Lisa Banfield is an example of a more general pattern of systemic inadequacies in response to gender-based violence,” the commissioners wrote.
“This failure is striking given Ms. Forbes’ third-party report of the assault including information about the perpetrator’s illegal possession of firearms and her ongoing concerns about Ms. Banfield’s safety.”
The RCMP’s handling of Banfield in the months following the mass casualty also caught the attention of the commissioners.
“The RCMP’s treatment of Lisa Banfield during the RCMP’s H-Strong investigation is an example of the kind of revictimization that makes it less likely that women survivors of gender-based violence will seek help from police,” said the report.
She was initially interviewed as a witness by officers while she was in hospital with injuries inflicted by Wortman. She fully co-operated with police as they spent several hours interviewing her. Unbeknownst to Banfield, she later turned into a suspect and was criminally charged in December 2020 for supplying ammunition to the gunman.
But that happened weeks after investigators videotaped a re-enactment with Banfield in Portapique, as she walked them through step-by-step what happened to her on the night of the mass shooting.
The charges were later withdrawn after the case went to restorative justice.
Zita and her law firm have repeatedly argued that RCMP officers manipulated Banfield’s vulnerable status as a victim to benefit their investigation.
“The RCMP did not treat Ms. Banfield as a surviving victim of the mass casualty; that is, as an important witness who required careful debriefing and who would need support services.”
Zita says that finding alone is “powerful.”
“If the report is read carefully and implemented — that’s its purpose. It’s to make sure that there are no more Lisa Banfields,” she said.