Nova Scotia

N.S. shooting rampage highlights public threat of domestic violence: victim advocates

Advocates for women say the mass shooting in Nova Scotia highlights a disturbing trend of domestic violence in Canada and how such brutality can quickly become a public threat.

'It's a really troubling trend, and it is the base of how these situations escalate'

A memorial for shooting victim Lisa McCully at Debert Elementary School, where she was a teacher. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Advocates for women say the mass shooting in Nova Scotia highlights a disturbing trend of domestic violence in Canada and how such brutality can quickly become a public threat.

On Friday, Nova Scotia RCMP confirmed the incidents began after the shooter assaulted a woman with whom he was in a long-term relationship.

She was forcibly restrained, but managed to escape. She hid in the woods overnight and survived.

Heather O'Brien was a licensed practical nurse, a wife, mother and grandmother. She worked for the Victorian Order of Nurses for nearly 17 years. She was one of the victims of the shooter's deadly rampage. (Heather O'Brien/Facebook)

Supt. Darren Campbell, the officer in charge of support services for the Nova Scotia RCMP, said Friday the assault was potentially a "catalyst" for the events that followed.

The scenario is all too familiar for Ginger MacPhee, executive director of Chrysalis House, a women's shelter in Kentville, N.S.

"Knowing that the underlying cause of this is hatred towards women is something that we deal with in our work all of the time," said MacPhee.

"It's a really troubling trend, and it is the base of how these situations escalate into something so extraordinarily horrific."

Kristen Beaton is shown in a handout photo from a GoFundMe page. Beaton was among the victims of the mass killings in Nova Scotia. (GoFundMe/The Canadian Press)

MacPhee noted that people known and unknown to the shooter were murdered in the Nova Scotia tragedy, exemplifying the potential public threat of escalating domestic violence.

"Unfortunately, if something in a moment sets someone off into this rage, then anybody that is present can be part of the damage that happens," she said.

"If we look at the core of where this began, it is based on his belief in that superiority, that sense of ownership, the jealousy."

MacPhee added that victims of domestic violence often stay with their abusers because they're concerned about putting their family members and friends at risk.

Lisa McCully, a teacher at Debert Elementary School, was among the victims of the shooting rampage. (Submitted by Bonnie Williams)

According to Statistics Canada, more than a quarter of all violent crimes reported in 2016 resulted from family violence, and 67 per cent of those victims were women and girls.

Linda MacDonald, a member of the group Nova Scotian Feminists Fighting Femicide, said there is evidence that many mass killings begin with violence against women or people close to the perpetrator.

According to a 2017 study by Everytown for Gun Safety, an American gun violence prevention non-profit, 54 per cent of mass shootings in that country between 2009 and 2016 involved domestic or family violence.

MacDonald said such crimes need to be examined through the lens of domestic violence, as a way to recognize the issue and prevent it from happening again.

"Misogyny kills, and femicide affects all of us," said MacDonald, explaining that femicide is a term similar to homicide meaning the killing of a woman or girl.

'We want their suffering not to go in vain'

She urged people not to refer to the rampage as "senseless" as that reinforces the attitude that it was not preventable.

Jenny Wright, an expert panellist with the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, said such language is harmful and fails to acknowledge the problem.

"We've had mass shootings within our country and they have similar traits: they are rooted in violent misogyny and they're often perpetrated by white males," Wright told CBC's The Current.

"We need to start focusing on what the research is, what the patterns are, what the real factors are in this.... But there has to be the political will there in order to make the changes we need to make. We can't do it on our own."

She also argued the assault on his girlfriend was not the catalyst for the shooting — it was a "premeditated, very intentional event."

We now know the shootings in Nova Scotia started with domestic violence. We hear from experts and advocates who say the violence fits into a wider pattern of misogyny. 19:46

"He's the catalyst. Violent hatred of women was the catalyst for this mass shooting," said Wright. 

"If we don't start to change that kind of language around, we're going to continue seeing these harmful narratives."

MacDonald said there needs to be more education for young people and women about the warning signs of an abuser, and about the resources available to people in abusive relationships.

"Education will bring more awareness, more healthy relationships and less violence," said MacDonald, adding that such education should be instituted provincially in schools and perhaps legislated by the federal government.

"We feel very sad for the families that are left to mourn and the victims who lost their lives, and we want their suffering not to go in vain. We need to start looking into prevention and look at some hope, in that education will bring prevention."

Rachael Collins, a criminology professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said the gunman displayed "strong patterns" consistent with those of a mass shooter.

Collins, who studies risk factors for mass shooters, said one of those patterns was a history of anger. The suspect was ordered to undergo anger management as part of a conditional discharge for an assault.

She said angry people often start to blame their loved ones for their own failures and losses as a way to cope with their anger and hate.

"What we're looking at is if there is a history of abuse with any shooter or all of these shooters, it's actually not surprising because they have been angry for so long," Collins told CBC's The Current.

"This anger is taken out on individuals that are the closest to them, a lot of times because … they may blame them for anything in their lives."

Based on RCMP reports, audio recordings and interviews, this is what we know about what happened during a gunman's rampage that left 22 victims dead. 7:21