Important to recognize abusive behaviour as a red flag, advocates say
The gunman who would kill 22 people across Nova Scotia in a mass shooting had controlled and abused women around him for years, including his longtime partner and others who were in vulnerable situations.
The public inquiry into the mass shooting is examining what happened on April 18-19, 2020, when Gabriel Wortman destroyed several homes and killed neighbours and strangers across the province — including a pregnant woman — while driving a mock police car.
Documents released by the inquiry include accounts from his common-law spouse Lisa Banfield about his years of emotional and physical abuse, and women who had sexual relationships with the gunman or met him briefly while partying in his garage.
Kaitlin Geiger-Bardswich, a spokesperson for Women's Shelters Canada, said one of these interviews, from a woman dubbed EE in inquiry transcripts, caught her attention.
EE lived near the gunman's Portapique cottage, and first met him around 2014. She told police she'd do odd jobs around the gunman's property, cleaned his cottage, and helped build the large garage that would eventually house his police paraphernalia.
She had a small place with no running water. EE said she relied on the gunman for everything from firewood in the winter to food and liquor, since she didn't have a car or job at the time.
"He'd take me up to his house and run my tub for me and put out all nice warm towels and he always had a little special soap for me, it was all done up pretty and stuff and then he'd feed me," EE told police.
"At that point in my life … he was like a miracle to me."
EE said they were always good friends, and also had an ongoing sexual relationship.
Geiger-Bardswich said the situation is concerning and fits a larger trend of the gunman's predatory behaviour with women.
"He was a smart person. He knew that there was this power dynamic. He knew that he could use and exploit women's vulnerabilities and their needs, their basic needs to get what he wanted," said Geiger-Bardswich.
EE described one time when she and the gunman had group sex with a young woman who was a patient at his denturist clinic in Dartmouth, N.S.
The gunman would focus on patients who were on social assistance or lived on "the streets," EE said, and he would bring them back to his cottage and "treat them like queens."
The Department of Community Services has confirmed the Atlantic Denture Clinic, which the gunman owned, received provincial funds to deliver services to clients receiving Employment Support and Income Assistance, and those in the Disability Support Program.
Between 2015 and 2020, he received $434,406 from the province for these services.
Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson, two Truro nurses who advocate for women's rights, heard other stories about the denture clinic. They have successfully pushed for the inquiry to consider gender-based violence in its mandate.
After the gunman's name and face went public, MacDonald and Sarson said they got a call from a woman who had once been his patient. She was so "terrified" about what he did to her while she was in his clinic that she didn't finish her treatment.
"She felt he got her alone in the room in the chair, and sexually assaulted her," MacDonald said. "This woman didn't even like taking that route around his office anymore."
A Portapique neighbour, Brenda Forbes, has said no one believed her when she told RCMP in 2013 that Wortman had abused Banfield. Nothing came of her complaint.
Then, on April 18, 2020, the rampage started when the gunman attacked Banfield and threw her into the mock cruiser. She has told police she was able to escape through the partition in the car, and hid in the woods overnight.
It wasn't the first time. Banfield said there'd been at least 10 other physical assaults over the years, and the gunman was controlling about where she went. Banfield said he didn't like that she spoke with her siblings every day, because he wanted all of her attention.
She described one time where two of the gunman's friends were in the Portapique cottage as the gunman choked and punched Banfield on a bed. The men asked the gunman to "leave her alone" but never stepped in, she said.
Banfield has told police the gunman would often blame her after the assaults.
"He'd always say like, why did you make me do that? It's your fault. Like, and I knew it's not my fault, I'm not stupid. But yet, you know, why I put up with it, I don't know," she said.
Sarson said there's still a long way to go in today's society to change beliefs and attitudes about intimate-partner violence, which she said is often still considered a "family matter".
"It still is — 'well, that's happening in their relationship, it's none of our business,' but it is our business. I think we have to make it our business," Sarson said.
Another woman said she wanted to report the gunman's fake police car and odd behaviour — but felt too intimidated to take that step.
EE's daughter, who also partied at the gunman's garage, told police following the mass shooting that the gunman's fully marked RCMP car and uniforms scared her. She was convinced he was either an officer or hosted parties with "dirty cops."
DD later revealed to the commission she thought reporting the gunman would only make things worse, or she wouldn't be believed.
"You can't just walk into a police station … because we didn't know and potentially, like, we don't know how deep this goes into the police. I could have been in danger," DD said.
One of the gunman's acquaintances in Portapique, Rob Doucette, said the gunman would make aggressive advances on women in the area at parties, sometimes getting into a hot tub nude. One time, Doucette said he and another man saw him go after Lisa McCully and they "physically had to take his hands off her."
McCully was one of the first people the gunman killed on April 18.
Doucette said he'd see the gunman get mad if a woman rejected him — "he'd like start calling them whores and this and that."
An expert report for the inquiry said that many mass murderers have been violent to the women in their lives — and their partners are usually the first victims of such attacks.
An analysis of twelve years of mass shootings in the United States between 2009 and 2020 concluded that mass shootings are often "intermingled with acts of domestic violence." Based on reports of 262 incidents, it found that in at least 53 per cent of mass shootings, the attacker shot a current or former intimate partner or family member during the attack.
Women's Shelters Canada is a participant in the inquiry, represented by legal counsel, in a coalition with the Transition Houses Association of Nova Scotia and Be the Peace Institute. Sarson and MacDonald are also participants but self-represented.
The inquiry is expected to hear more from Banfield in the coming weeks, but there has been no decision released yet on when or how she will testify.
The next phase of the inquiry, expected to last through the summer, will also delve deeper into various issues including how intimate partner and gender-based violence played into the mass shooting.
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