Commissioner Michael Macdonald at Mass Casualty Commission public proceeding in February 2022.
Commissioner Michael Macdonald at Mass Casualty Commission public proceeding in February 2022. Credit: Mass Casualty Commission Media Centre Credit: Mass Casualty Commission Media Centre

Content warning: The following contains descriptions of torture and abuse. Please proceed with caution and care. If you require support, there are resources available

The final report from Nova Scotia and the federal government’s Mass Casualty Commission, published March 30, proclaimed: “our efforts must be to eradicate all forms of gender-based violence and its impact on all survivors.”

It declares, “we believe this lesson to be the single most important one to be learned…Let us not look away again.”

Yet, gender violence experts Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald maintain the Mass Casualty Commissioners did in fact grievously look away.

The report is the culmination of an independent public inquiry created in response to the April 18 and 19, 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia that killed 22 people including a pregnant woman.

The report connects the mass casualty to intimate partner violence and coercive control. But it fails to recognize the specific role that gender, race, and class bias played in the tragedy. Nor does it recognize the importance of Non-state torture (NST) in framing the perpetrator’s pattern of violence.

Early warning signs ignored

The perpetrator was a denturist providing publicly funded health care services to marginalized communities. That gave him access to vulnerable and marginalized women.

Melinda Daye, a noted African Nova Scotian community leader, school principal, and activist, had previously reported concerns about the perpetrator to the RCMP.

Daye alleged that he was using his privilege and status within the African Nova Scotian community to proposition women under his care. But there was no follow-up from the RCMP and no additional interview with Daye.   

Misogyny and racism within the RCMP is well documented. The racialized and gendered status of the alleged victims in Daye’s complaint is the likely reason that the RCMP failed to investigate.

It is also documented that the perpetrator had terrorized his intimate partner, Lisa Banfield, for 20 years. That included strangling her and dragging her by her hair. Other women have also accused the perpetrator of strangulation.

Strangulation is considered a high-risk predictor of lethality and femicide. Considered by many in the gendered violence field to be a red flare, it is often overlooked by police, responders, medical professionals and the criminal justice system.

Non-state torture

Sarson and MacDonald furthermore suspect that if more details had been released, there would be ample evidence that the perpetrator inflicted NST on his intimate partner, Lisa Banfield, and perhaps other women.

Like state-sanctioned torture, NST involves the deliberate infliction of pain or suffering on a person. Forms of torture include rape, electroshock, waterboarding, starvation, and sleep deprivation among other things.

The distinction lies in the fact that NST is carried out by non-State actors like family members, family friends, human traffickers, pornographers, pimps, and off-duty police officers.

Sarson and Macdonald first came to start researching NST while working as Public Health Nurses in Truro, Nova Scotia, when a client revealed being tortured and trafficked by her parents from infancy.

Thirty years after they began their research, Sarson and MacDonald’s groundbreaking work has garnered international recognition and accolades. The pair have presented multiple times at the United Nations; met with various Attorneys General; been asked to present to the Standing Committee on the Status of Women several times; and now, testified twice each to the Mass Casualty Commission.

Commission turns a blind eye

Still, policies and laws in Canada continue to ignore the gender-based human rights violation known as NST.

A Feedback Report submitted to Commissioners Michael MacDonald (chair), Leanne Fitch (retired Fredericton Police Chief), and Dr. Kim Stanton, by Sarson and MacDonald stated in part:

“The failure to include the women and children who suffer non-State torture crimes is about looking away; it’s discriminatory, invisibilizing, marginalizing, and exclusionary, creates on-going vulnerabilities, disregarding of their humanity, and will perpetrate ongoing harms as this inquiry report will be catalogued for others within society to learn or not learn from.”

Sarson noted that the Commission felt it shouldn’t address the issue of NST because it didn’t know if that was the trigger for the mass shooting. On the day of our interview, she found that incomprehensible.

“Of course, we don’t know. Because we are not even asking the question. We are not even assessing whether the violence that went on amounted to torture inflicted by private actors,” Sarson said.

She also noted that the Commission had a responsibility to listen and pose questions for clarification. They could have asked NST experts questions like “how do you know women suffer NST?” “How do you know that NST can trigger a mass killing?” But experts were not asked a single thing, said Sarson.

“I’m massively disappointed in the lack of respectful listening and them not respecting that Linda and I worked really hard to participate with due diligence,” Sarson stated.

Cultural shift needed

It’s not that the Canadian government denies the existence of torture inflicted by non-State actors. But not recognizing NST minimizes the crime to one of aggravated or sexual assault.

“It’s like silence all the way through. We pushed for a feminist analysis and that’s really what brought in the gender-based violence,” maintains MacDonald.

She added, “we were leaders in Canada. The Nova Scotia feminists fighting femicide were leaders in Canada asking for a feminist analysis.”

That sentiment was echoed by Kristina Fifield, who works at Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Nova Scotia, during a Learning Network webinar held in June.

Fifield stated that gender-based violence organizations were initially not accepted as part of the Commission. Both the community and the Commission questioned their involvement.

“I think this just speaks to the cultural shift that is needed. We are still very far away from being where we need to be in addressing violence and the normalization of violence that took place with this mass casualty event and the perpetrator’s history with violence,” Fifield shared during the webinar.

Sounding the alarm on NST

Fifield’s organization realized they needed to be proactive, They launched a media campaign before Banfield testified at the Commission. They created and distributed a kit intended to educate the media around victim blaming and the importance of both the language used and the details shared when reporting on trauma.

Normally, there aren’t the funds to create these resources. Fifield is calling for proper funding of gender and intimate partner violence organizations.

However, that is going to take a major shift in the way power and privilege perceive the epidemic of violence against women, and girls.

“If as Canadians we want to really figure out how we want to develop the values of our country, what does that mean when we decide to look the other way as [the commissioners] with positional power did?” asked Sarson.

She noted that the ripple effect of that silence will mean women experiencing gender-based violence, including NST, will be reluctant to risk saying anything or to seek help from authorities,

Sarson said. “we know there’s enough systemic misogyny in the police and the justice system. And here, the misogyny reared its head in the mass casualty too.”

A version of this article first appeared on Small Change.

Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...