Nova Scotia

N.S. mass shooting inquiry hears domestic violence often downplayed in rural areas

Domestic violence is likely under-reported in rural communities, an expert in rural economy and society said Thursday at the public inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shooting that led to the deaths of 22 people.

Community closeness and social cohesion in rural areas 'has a double edge,' sociologist says

An aerial view of Portapique taken in May 2020. (Mass Casualty Commission)

Domestic violence is likely under-reported in rural communities, an expert in rural economy and society said Thursday at the public inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shooting that led to the deaths of 22 people.

The community closeness and social cohesion that is typical of rural areas "has a double edge," Dalhousie University sociologist Karen Foster said.

The same closeness that may lead rural residents to solve issues among themselves and protect one another can result in them collectively hiding domestic abuse, she said.

"Certain crimes are thought to be shameful, something you don't bring up in public," Foster said, adding that members of rural communities might downplay or ignore domestic violence in order to avoid involving authorities.

A woman is seen sitting in front of a microphone at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry.
Karen Foster, a Dalhousie University sociology professor, participates in a roundtable session dealing with crime, firearms and policing in rural communities at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020, in Halifax on June 30, 2022. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

"In rural communities, there are often big, well-known families, whose reputation matters to them," she said. "So these kind of things get dealt with quietly or not at all."

She added that there's often a tendency to disbelieve women or minimize the violence they might be experiencing.

The man who killed 22 people in several rural communities on April 18 and 19, 2020, began his rampage after attacking his spouse, Lisa Banfield. Inquiry interviews have found that the gunman's history of violence against women spanned decades and that he assaulted both Banfield and his first wife, who is not named by the inquiry.

Brenda Forbes, a former neighbour of the gunman, has told the inquiry that in 2013 she told police that Wortman possessed illegal weapons, when she filed a complaint about an alleged incident of
domestic violence involving him and Banfield in Portapique, N.S.

The inquiry on May 3 released a summary of evidence — known as a foundational document — stating that responding officers took "minimal notes" at the time of Forbes's complaint and that other information had been purged from RCMP files.

Among other things, the public inquiry's mandate includes investigating the role of gender-based violence.

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)

In a research report commissioned by the inquiry, two professors at Monash University in Australia found that all mass shootings in western countries in recent decades have been carried out by men.

The paper concludes that there is a "significant minority" of mass shootings that also involve the targeting of specific women, "often an intimate partner as the first victim," and that there is growing evidence of the linkages between gender-based violence and mass shootings.

"In order to better understand, prevent and respond to mass casualty attacks, there is a need to better understand, prevent and respond to gender-based violence," the paper says.

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