Nova Scotia Shooting Should Be a Turning Point in How We Address Abusive Men

Male attacks on women are often minimized as "only a domestic," but ignoring this violence makes everyone less safe, experts say.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
April 29, 2020, 9:30am
Nova Scotia victims memorial
A memorial for victims of Canada's worst shooting in modern history is seen in Wentworth, Nova Scotia. Photo courtesy The Canadian Press

Well before it was revealed that the Nova Scotia shooting rampage that ended 22 people’s lives started with a domestic assault, feminist advocates saw it coming.

“We immediately of course thought of the Montreal massacre and the (Toronto) van attack,” said Leighann Burns, a family lawyer who works with survivors of violence. “There’s often a patriarchal, misogynist sort of violence that underlines the acts and it’s often targeted specifically at women. But often the coverage that happens just erases that element.”

Global News first revealed that the gunman had been reportedly arguing with his girlfriend on the night of April 18, before he assaulted her and tied her up at his cottage in Portapique, Nova Scotia. She managed to escape, fleeing into the woods where she hid overnight. When she emerged, at around 6:30 a.m. the next morning, she gave police key details that helped them look out for him, including that he was wearing a police uniform and had another replica cop car that was unaccounted for.

It turned out the gunman had a history of violence. The Toronto Star reported on an altercation between the suspect, Gabriel Wortman, and his girlfriend 10 years ago in which Wortman threw the wheels from the back of her truck into a ditch and refused to let her come into his house to gather her things, warning one of their friends that he had guns inside.

The gunman also pleaded guilty to assaulting a teenage boy in 2001, and was given a conditional discharge. The boy, Matthew, now 34, told Global News the gunman “ended up punching me as many times in the head as he could.”

As part of his discharge, he was ordered not to contact the victim, to stay away from weapons, and to take an anger management course.

“I wish he would’ve lost everything back then. Basically, this might not have happened,” Matthew said.

Violence against women is a 'pandemic'

This isn’t the first time a mass murder in Canada has been linked to misogyny.

The Victims of Canada's Deadliest Mass Shooting

The shooter who killed 14 women at École Polytechnique in 1989 said he hated feminists, while the Toronto van suspect cited incels (men who consider themselves involuntarily celibate) before allegedly killing 10 people with his vehicle in 2018.

Burns described violence against women—82 women are killed every day by intimate partners—as a “pandemic that’s been going on worldwide that’s never gotten the kind of attention COVID-19 is getting.”

She wants the Nova Scotia shooting to be a turning point that powerful institutions including the criminal justice system and media learn from.

Police and journalists have to acknowledge misogyny

One of the major issues, according to Burns, is the framing of violence against women, which she said should be described as male violence against women to emphasize the role of men as perpetrators.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, she said the RCMP didn’t acknowledge that the gunman’s first victim was his partner, nor did journalists ask many questions about it. With the École Polytechnique shooting, a plaque recognizing that it was an attack against women was only created in 2019, 30 years after the massacre. Initially, Burns said it was framed as the act of a “lone madman,” even though the killer had a hit list of women he hated.

“We have to start honestly looking at these cases and acknowledging that male violence against women is a hugely destructive force in the world,” Burns said.

Victim blaming can be subtle

The RCMP revealed the Nova Scotia shooting started with domestic violence during last Friday’s press conference, almost a week after the rampage: a reporter asked if there was “a sense that this assault and the escape of his girlfriend was the trigger that set off this series of events.”

Supt. Darren Campbell, Officer in Charge of Support Services for Nova Scotia RCMP, responded, "That could have been a catalyst to this however we're open to all possibilities and we're not excluding the possibility that there was any premeditated planning.”

Women’s rights advocate Julie Lalonde said both the question and the answer potentially frame the shooter’s girlfriend as being at fault for the rampage: she escaped and it set him off.

“No one’s saying she was responsible for the fire, but they are saying she was part of lighting a match,” Lalonde said, noting that women are criticized if they stay with an abuser but are also viewed as “sacrificial lambs” who could have prevented an attack against others had they taken the brunt of the violence. She said the police could frame it better by stressing “how grateful we are that this woman survived” and provided key information that helped the investigation.

On Tuesday, Campbell clarified that his "catalyst" comment wasn't meant to imply that the gunman’s partner set off the killing spree.

Police response to 911 calls needs scrutiny

Often, Burns said police downplay assaults as being “only a domestic”—an attitude that can result in women dying because they’re not taken seriously. She pointed to the case of Ottawa woman Sherri Lee Guy, who in 1995 was killed by her common-law husband on the same day she called police three times; police said they never came because she “didn’t have enough alarm in her voice,” Burns said.

Burns said Ontario’s solicitor general used to release detailed data about every domestic-violence-related 911 call and how it was responded to by police, but they stopped doing that in the 1990s, which makes it harder to scrutinize how police are treating these crimes.

Perpetrator's privacy prioritized over victim's rights

Holly Campbell is the founder of Because Wilno, an organization dedicated to highlighting the systemic failures that led to the murders of three women in Wilno, a rural community in the Ottawa Valley, in September 2015.

Campbell said there should be more transparency around a violent man’s interactions with the justice system. In the Wilno shooting, the killer was released early from jail for an assault and refused to sign an order stating that he would stay away from the victim, Anastasia Kuzyk, who he ended up killing. He also didn’t show up for anger management.

With anger management, “There's no pass or fail, they basically just have to show up,” Campbell said. “There doesn’t seem to be real metrics where policymakers can determine: is this even effective?”

She said victims are denied access to that type of information because it’s a privacy issue.

A lack of transportation and housing options can make it difficult for women in rural communities to leave a partner—leaving can mean relocating. Plus, limited police resources coupled with large areas of land means police response times can be slow.

Male violence against women affects everyone

Campbell said society needs to fight the urge to other domestic assaults because these crimes don’t just affect women. Children are also killed, or they grow up without mothers, which has long-term effects.

“This is why it's so difficult to get provinces to commit to adequately funding women's shelters and rape crisis centres. This is why it's so difficult to get the criminal justice system to incorporate victim-centred training for police, Crowns and judges,” she said. ”When we think that an issue is ‘only’ harming women, it is easier to brush it aside to focus on ungendered issues like the economy.”

But she said women are canaries in the coal mine. Too often, “less serious” acts go without intervention, which may lead to fatal violence.

And in the most atrocious cases, such as the Nova Scotia shooting, members of the public die, too.

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