Nova Scotia

Spouse of Portapique gunman to have criminal charge resolved

Lisa Banfield was one of three people charged with providing ammunition to the gunman. She will now have her criminal charge resolved, clearing the way for her to testify in a public inquiry.

Lisa Banfield was one of 3 people charged with providing ammunition to gunman

Lisa Banfield, second from left, leaves Dartmouth court on Wednesday. (CBC)

The spouse of the gunman who killed 22 people in a horrific mass shooting that began in Portapique, N.S., will have her criminal charge resolved, clearing the way for her to testify about what she knows for the first time in a public inquiry.

Lisa Banfield appeared in Dartmouth provincial court Wednesday morning in relation to a single charge of supplying ammunition to her common-law partner, which he used in the April 2020 rampage.

"This case today was really all about Lisa not having a will of her own. She was completely under the control of this man, Gabriel Wortman," Banfield's defence lawyer James Lockyer told reporters outside court.

Her trial had been scheduled to start March 22, but on Wednesday the Crown said public interest would be best served by referring the case to restorative justice. 

Crown lawyer Cory Roberts told reporters they took this route because the focus of Banfield's trial would be "narrow," and only examine whether the Crown could prove the ammunition charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

"And at the end of the day, it would not allow for the public, and in many ways the victims, to have a forum to understand the larger picture," Roberts said.

"The restorative justice program allows for a different kind of justice. A different kind of holistic, community-based, victim-focused justice that we felt is more in the public interest in this case."

He said it is now up to the restorative justice program to decide who will participate in the process, and whether that includes Portapique families.

Banfield appears in Dartmouth provincial court Wednesday, where her single criminal charge was referred to restorative justice. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Lockyer has withdrawn Banfield's not guilty plea. If she completes the program, the criminal charge will be withdrawn.

The court heard that the restorative justice program is preparing to accept this case. 

Banfield's matter returns to court May 3.

Lockyer also said he and Banfield planned to meet with the Mass Casualty Commission heading up the inquiry Wednesday afternoon. The inquiry's chief commissioner, Michael MacDonald, confirmed that Banfield will be called as a witness. 

"She's now prepared to tell her story," Lockyer said.

"lt's devastated her and it's devastating for her. But ... she really wouldn't want me to talk about that. She's more worried about the even greater devastation that's happened to the families."

Banfield to testify at inquiry

The issue of domestic violence and how authorities in Nova Scotia respond to it is an important topic in the public inquiry, and Lockyer said Banfield will "play a big role in that."

Lawyers for the commission previously said they hoped to hear more from Banfield, but that it made sense to wait and "reassess the situation" in April when her original trial would have ended.

More information on Banfield's background with the perpetrator will also be presented later in the inquiry.

MacDonald said Wednesday it was never a matter of whether the commission would hear from her, but "how and when." He said the afternoon meeting would be the first of several, and Banfield would appear under subpoena later in the inquiry process. 

A that time, she will be able to answer questions about what happened on April 18, 2020, in Portapique, MacDonald said. 

It's not clear if Wednesday's meeting with the commission will be recorded and entered as evidence, said Emily Hill, counsel for the commission. She said regardless of the format, the plan is to discuss the meeting with participants. 

The commission has presented documents summarizing what it believes happened in Portapique. They state the gunman attacked Banfield and proceeded to kill 13 neighbours after she escaped and hid in the woods. 

The inquiry has based its preliminary findings on lengthy interviews Banfield gave to the RCMP after she emerged, hours after the shootings began. 

Families called for Banfield's testimony

Families were adamant they wanted to hear from Banfield. Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law told the inquiry "it's plain and obvious that there is no witness more critical" than Banfield, particularly given she was with the gunman in the days and hours leading up to the killings.

Banfield can shed light on "what preceded his change, countenance and behaviour," said McCulloch, whose firm is representing 23 participants in the inquiry, including the majority of the families of people killed. 

Given where Banfield told police she hid, McCulloch said the location was also "critically located to potentially enable [Banfield] to observe a great deal of the activity that took place in Portapique overnight," including the movements of community members and RCMP officers.

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)

Banfield is suing Wortman's estate, which was initially valued at more than $1.2 million. In her statement of claim, which was filed with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, she said she was the victim of an assault and battery, and she suffered physical, emotional and psychological injuries and trauma. In June 2020 she also renounced her right to be the executor of his will

But some have raised concerns about the impact of Banfield testifying publicly.

Lawyer Anastacia Merrigan, who represents a coalition of groups including the Transition Houses Association of Nova Scotia, Be the Peace Institute and Women's Shelters Canada, said it would be "neither appropriate nor trauma informed" to call Banfield as a witness. 

"Requiring Ms. Banfield to relive this trauma and to face the criticism and the sort of detailed testing of evidence as suggested by counsel this morning, causes other victims of intimate partner and gender-based violence to fear the reporting process," she said last week.

Two others charged on same issue

Banfield was one of three people alleged by RCMP to have provided the gunman with .223-calibre Remington cartridges and .40-calibre Smith & Wesson cartridges in the month leading up to the massacre that started in Portapique.

When RCMP first announced the charges in December 2020, the force said the three had no knowledge of what the gunman would do.

Banfield's brother, James Banfield, pleaded guilty to the charge in January. The third man, Banfield's brother-in-law Brian Brewster, is scheduled to go to trial in July of this year. 

Before the inquiry began, Brewster's lawyer accused the RCMP of using his client as a "scapegoat" in order to deflect attention away from the force's own failings during the 13-hour killing rampage.

Investigators have previously said they don't believe the gunman had a firearms licence. Police have said he obtained pistols and rifles illegally: three came from the U.S. and one came from the estate of someone he knew in Canada.

With files from Blair Rhodes and Elizabeth McMillan

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