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Gender-based violence key part of Nova Scotia mass shooting probe

Last Updated May 18, 2021 at 8:19 am EDT

An inquiry is underway to investigate the worst mass killing spree in Canada, reviewing what happened when a gunman killed 22 people in Nova Scotia last April, including examining the role of gender-based violence in the mass shooting.

The Mass Causality Commission, a joint public inquiry by the federal and Nova Scotia governments, launched the probe in response to the killings which occurred on April 18 and 19, 2020.

Three commissioners will be conducting interviews that will investigate the RCMP’s response, community safety, as well as examine the role of gender-based violence, intimate partner violence and access to firearms.

“We need answers. There was a series of events that transpired that led to 22 people losing their lives,” said Emily Stewart, Executive Director of Third Place Transition House. “It was a shock to Nova Scotians that this could happen in our rural community, and I think the impact for everyone’s sense of public safety was certainly shattered over those 13 hours.”

The families of the victims who were impacted by this violence will be participating in the probe while several other organizations will contribute to give a voice to a variety of issues surrounding the tragedy.

Following the mass killings, there were calls to review police responses and investigate the role of gender-based and intimate partner violence.

It was reported that prior to the killings, the shooter assaulted his girlfriend in Portapique, a rural community that was one of several crime scenes. Police said she was able to escape and hide in the woods, eventually providing key information to police the following morning.

Over a 13-hour period, the 51-year-old Halifax man killed 22 victims — some he knew, others he met randomly as he fled. He was fatally shot by two Mounties at a gas station about 35 kilometres north of Halifax.

His victims included an RCMP officer, two nurses, two correctional officers, a family of three, a teacher and some of his neighbours in Portapique.

“We were saddened but we were not shocked to hear that gender-based violence lay at the heart of this heinous tragedy,” said Shiva Nourpanah, Provincial Coordinator at Transition House Association of Nova Scotia. “These events really highlighted the insidious presence of domestic violence in our communities.”

Megan Stephens, a lawyer in Toronto, will be representing Women’s Shelter Canada at the inquiry. She’ll be assisting during the hearings, asking witnesses questions, participating in policy discussions, and providing input on behalf of the organization. Stephens said the organization is mainly focused on gender-based and intimate partner violence and access to firearms.

“They’ve been tasked with looking at gender-based and intimate partner violence, they’ve been asked to look into the impact and access to fire-arms, prior interactions and relationships between the perpetrator and police or social services, police actions in relation to those events, and police policies, procedures and training.”

The commission is expected to provide an interim report by May 2022, and then a final report along with findings and recommendations by November that same year.

Advocacy groups are hoping some of these outcomes will help to fill the gaps, and include supports and systems that will be put in place to address gender-based and intimate partner violence.

“One of the most important parts is ultimately that the recommendations are realistic and will be taken seriously by governments, and implemented so to avoid future tragedies like this from happening again,” says Stephens. “To think of it as an isolated incident and to think of it as something that couldn’t happen somewhere else is unfortunately misguided and not the case.”

Stephens says it was refreshing to see that the mandates crafted by governments recognized that gender-based violence was a core issue that needed to be reviewed.

“It’s one of the top of the lists in terms of the issues to inquire into, I really think it is ground-breaking,” she said. “Public inquiries can have a great impact at looking at deep seeded systemic problems. This is an inquiry where different people will come at it from different perspectives.”

A key issue in this inquiry

Among the 60 groups and individuals who applied to participate in the inquiry, including a number of organizations that work to address gender-based violence, Third Place Transition House, Women’s Shelters Canada, and Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, will all be represented at the probe.

“A lot of people in our sector had a gut feeling that there was likely a connection with domestic or gender-based violence,” Stewart said. “Typically with mass shootings, there’s usually a history of violence against women.”

While the roots of this tragedy are local, Stewart, who moved to the region shortly after the mass killings, said it had ripple effects throughout Canada.

She added that there needs to be an acknowledgement of the gaps, challenges and barriers that prevent women from coming forward and disclosing the violence they experience.

In addition to that, why domestic violence isn’t investigated to the degree that’s needed, which Stewart notes can be attributed to history, and the fact that there’s no national, cohesive, evidence-based strategy.

“What we hear from the general public is why would somebody stay in a situation as these, and this was the worst-case scenario to this answer,” she said. “A lot of the times the threats aren’t only directed to the woman and the victim themselves, but towards their family members, their friends, and their community.”

Some of these organizations have looked at how gender-based violence intersects in relationship with service providers, access to firearms, and policing. Front-line staff who are on the ground, are also aware of the myths and stereotypes that victims and survivors face, and the greater impacts this violence can have on a community.

“We felt it was important that our voice was heard in terms of representing domestic violence and the societal impacts it can have outside of the home,” Stewart said. “This was a truly tragic example of what could happen when private violence becomes public.”

“So something like this doesn’t happen again”

Nourpanah said these tragedies show how rampant domestic violence is, and the impacts it has at home and in wider communities. Despite the years of calls to address gender-based violence and increase funding to support organizations, there are still many barriers that victims and survivors of domestic violence experience.

“When people do speak out about their experiences, they’re dismissed, not believed, they’re belittled and minimized,” said Nourpanah. “Hopefully one of the effects of this inquiry will be a society where we’re not so afraid to talk about domestic violence.”

At the heart of this work, organizations say it’s vital to take steps to prevent any future tragedies from occurring anywhere in Canada. The organizations hope to participate in roundtable discussions that will lead to the development of systemic responses to these long-standing problems.

The end goal for these organizations is to make sure the recommendations are sound, robust and are implemented effectively by governments.

As many of these groups have also been working and advocating for a national action plan on gender-based violence, there are hopes that the findings will somehow intersect with this work.

“I hope that that not only does this inquiry get conducted in a very thorough way but the recommendations that come out of this, need to be put in place and funded,” Stewart says. “The resources that are highlighted as perhaps lacking, will need to be invested. This inquiry is a first step into broad, social and systemic change.”

With files from The Canadian Press