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Inquiry into N.S. killings calls for bold change to tackle family violence ‘epidemic’

Commissioners called findings on domestic violence ‘single most important’ lesson of inquiry

The sweeping calls for change stemming from the public inquiry into the 2020 deadly mass shootings in Nova Scotia include a push to overhaul Canada’s approach to the “epidemic” of gender-based, intimate-partner and family violence — something one advocate says will require transformative change.

The Mass Casualty Commission — which examined the shooting spree in rural Nova Scotia that left 23 people dead, including the gunman — released a report last week that makes 130 recommendations aimed at improving public safety and policing.

The commissioners singled out their findings about domestic violence, saying they believe it to be the “single most important” lesson to be learned.

There is growing evidence, the report says, “that many men who commit mass casualties have previously committed gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, or family violence,” and that many mass violence events begin with an attack on a specific woman, as it did in Nova Scotia.

“It is alarming to know that some people responded to the early RCMP communications on the night of April 18, 2020, by thinking, ‘It’s a domestic situation.’ The mistaken implication is that a ‘domestic situation’ is not one that sets off warning bells,” the report said.

The women initially targeted are frequently seen as “triggers” rather than victims of the violence, the report noted. Nova Scotia RCMP publicly characterized gunman Gabriel Wortman’s attack on his partner Lisa Banfield the night of April 18, 2020, as a “catalyst” for the ensuing 13-hour rampage.

But the commissioners say that perpetuates the false belief that there is a distinction between private and public violence.

“We need a bold, transformative approach to this, because our current systems and structures and institutions are not working,” said Kristina Fifield, a trauma therapist at Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, one of the groups that participated in the public inquiry.

The commission said the first step in preventing mass violence is recognizing the danger of escalation inherent in all forms of violence and calls for a “prevention-oriented public health approach” to the issue, which should include treatment for perpetrators.

Fifield said organizations like hers will need stable funding from governments to help both survivors and victims.

“We also need to have adequate services funded for men who experience violence, but also for men that perpetrate violence,” she said.

Similar recommendations flowed from another public inquiry in Ontario that probed a 2015 triple homicide targeting the perpetrator’s former intimate partners.

The Renfrew County inquiry probed the deaths of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam and released its findings last June.

It recommended that Ontario declare intimate partner violence a provincial epidemic. The Nova Scotia commission report uses the same language but stops short of making a similar recommendation.

The Renfrew Commission’s 86 calls to action also included providing services for perpetrators of violence, such as launching a support hotline for those at risk of committing violence, establishing an independent commission dedicated to ending intimate partner violence, and ensuring that public education campaigns reflect the voices and experience of men and prompt them to seek help for their behaviours.

The province responded to the 75 recommendations that fall under its jurisdiction in February, saying 29 of them — including those listed above — require “further study.”

“The government’s response does not address the significant gaps between official policy and what is happening on the ground in a number of key areas; in particular, in the area of perpetrator intervention,” said a press release from the group End Violence Against Women Renfrew County issued at the time.

Fifield said Avalon has new funding to extend its programming to cis men who have experienced sexual violence and sexual abuse in Nova Scotia starting April 1.

“For males, or any individuals using violence, oftentimes there’s a very complex trauma history there,” she said.

But there are limited treatment options, long wait lists, and for victims and perpetrators, fear that seeking treatment will make things worse.

Canadian law requires police to lay charges of assault in cases where they have reasonable grounds. The Renfrew County jury asked the province of Ontario to study the possibility of ending those mandatory charging policies.

The Mass Casualty Commission took that a step further, saying the federal and provincial governments must end mandatory arrest and charge policies in favour of what it calls a “public health prevention model.”

The commission noted there will be cases where arresting a perpetrator is necessary, but it should not be the first or only option.

“We conclude that mandatory arrest and charging policies have failed in significant ways and have had unintended impacts that contribute to our collective and systemic failure to protect women and to help women survivors protect themselves,” the commission said.

So far, Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has only committed to reviewing the recommendations in detail.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

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