The Mass Casualty Commission focused its attention today on masculinity, past violence committed by Gabriel Wortman, and gender-based violence in rural Nova Scotia. Two California professors presented their research on how data in the US shows how men tend to be the perpetrators in mass shootings, there was a Foundational Document presentation on Wortman’s past violent behavior, and there was an expert on family and gender-based violence in Atlantic Canada.
This is the beginning of a week where the MCC will focus on family violence and gender-based violence more generally. The week will culminate with Wortman’s common-law spouse of 19 years, Lisa Banfield, speaking on Friday. The MCC would say that Ms. Banfield is “testifying” on Friday, but whereas she will not be cross-examined by any other lawyers, I prefer Patterson Law lawyer Michael Scott’s description, that we will be getting an oral version of a statement that was given behind closed doors.
I took some time to review the statements that Ms. Banfield has provided to the MCC. You may have noted that MCC lawyer Emily Hill has been publicizing that Ms. Banfield has sat down for five ‘lengthy’ interviews and has provided documents to the Commission. There may be something slightly misleading about this statement. Listening to it, one might expect that Ms. Banfield has sat down for five sessions with Commission investigators in recent months, since having her criminal charge referred to restorative justice (which effectively means the charges have been dropped), but in fact four of those five interviews were done in the ten days following the events of the mass shooting back in April, 2020.
The most recent of the five interviews has not been posted to the MCC website as of this afternoon. The other four have been, either entirely, or in a (somewhat) detailed summary. Ms. Banfield spoke with Cst. Terry Brown the morning of April 19, 2020 (37 pages), with Staff Sgt. Greg Vardy on April 20, 2020 (54 pages), with SSgt Vardy on April 21, 2020 (19 page summary), and SSgt Vardy again on April 28, 2020 (124 pages).
Ms. Banfield gave long answers to questions about what happened to her the night of April 18, 2020, the time leading up to that weekend, and her relationship with Wortman. She gave details on guns that her spouse purchased, his efforts to create a mock RCMP cruiser, and his infidelities. Most of this has already been reported publicly. The fifth statement is likely to cover similar ground. Ms. Banfield was able to tell a consistent story throughout her first four interviews, and now that she has a renowned, Toronto-based lawyer on her side, it seems unlikely that she would be giving out any inconsistent facts or admissions at this late stage.
Two curious things emerged from my reading of Ms. Banfield’s statements. First, while she spoke at length about many things, she seemed to have very little curiosity or concern about the people who her spouse killed. She mentions at one point that had she not hid, perhaps he would have just taken her to Dartmouth and burned their other home, rather than going after anyone else.
In fact, if you took someone who did not know anything about the mass shootings, had them read Ms. Banfield’s four statements, and then asked them to say what Ms. Banfield’s spouse was charged with doing, their answer would likely be twofold – unlawful confinement of Ms. Banfield (in the back of the police car, until she escaped), and arson. It is far from clear after reading her statements that 22 people were killed. There is no real sense that the magnitude of the events had sunk in with her in any meaningful way. She was giving long answers about people in the Portapique community, who she mostly avoided, and did not seem to like or trust.
The second thing I noticed may explain why Ms. Banfield is not facing any criminal consequences, and seems not to have been investigated with potential criminal involvement in mind. Early on after the shootings, it may be recalled, there was some question as to whether Wortman had any help obtaining firearms or planning his killing spree. Superintendent Campbell’s notes which were released and which sparked a national political controversy referred to the risk of jeopardizing an ‘ongoing investigation’. One might naturally expect that those closest to Wortman would be treated with some suspicion in that regard, including his spouse.
When police question a suspect, they start off by advising them of their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which gives citizens the right to not answer questions and to have legal advice before speaking to police. I have watched many such police interviews over the years, and the Charter warning is typically done slowly and deliberately, and parts are often repeated to ensure the person understands correctly. By the end of the Charter warning, it should be obvious to any suspect that they have little to gain by speaking to the police, and should really be speaking with a lawyer.
Despite being a potential suspect, Ms. Banfield was not provided with a Charter warning at the beginning of any of the four interviews. This would suggest that the police were viewing her, from the very beginning, as a victim witness and not a suspect in any way. This may have been a mistake on their part, a mistake which SSgt. Vardy appears to try to correct in the very late stages of the fourth interview.
At pages 96-98 of the April 28, 2020 interview, SSgt. Vardy gives a paraphrased version of a Charter warning to Ms. Banfield, after she explained what she knew about how Wortman illegally imported guns from the United States. That the warning was at such a late stage of the interview, and with it being paraphrased rather than given verbatim, would likely have lead to anything Ms. Banfield said in the four interviews not being able to be used against her in a criminal context.
After he gave her the paraphrased Charter warning, Ms. Banfield (reasonably) asked whether she should have a lawyer (page 97, line 3026), to which SSgt. Vardy replied “No, I’m saying to you that this is, those are your rights.” The word “Charter” is not uttered.
SSgt. Vardy then tells her that if she “knowingly” transported guns with Wortman on any of their trips across the US/Canada border, that she could be charged. As you read the questions and answers, it is clear that he was effectively telling her how to answer his next series of questions. She should deny any knowledge of the guns, and only admit to overhearing possible references to guns being purchased and hidden in Wortman’s F150.
All of this would have created a major problem for any criminal prosecution of Ms. Banfield, which would have reflected poorly on the initial RCMP response and their interviews with her. Perhaps this helps explain why, instead, the RCMP adopted her version of events at face value, and why the NS Public Prosecution Service agreed to refer her charges to Restorative Justice.
I will have more to say about the particulars of her statements as the week unfolds. As I noted above, much of what is in the statements has been in the public realm through other reporting, but there are still questions remaining from what Ms. Banfield has outlined, and it will be important for whichever MCC lawyer is questioning her on Friday to be prepared to ask those (in some cases basic factual) questions.
In the proceedings themselves today, things started with a presentation from professors Tristen Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober, from the University of California Santa Clara, dealing with “Mass Shootings and Masculinity”. The professors made the (very obvious) point that mass shootings are almost always committed by men, often for some perceived lack of or slight to their perceived masculinity.
Next was a presentation on the history of the Wortman family. Gabriel Wortman’s father and grandfather were both miserable, violent abusers, and Wortman himself was a victim of violence as a youth. None of this provides any kind of excuse for what he did of course but can help explain. In this case, there is a also a ready-made counterfactual, which is Wortman’s biological brother, Jeff. Jeff was given up for adoption in the Boston area as a baby, and turned out just fine. It is a stark demonstration of the nature/nurture debate.
Finally, there was a presentation by Dr. Deborah Doherty, who has studied intimate partner and gender-based violence in rural Atlantic Canada, gave a presentation. She spoke about how it is different in a rural context to report anyone to the police or help them, just because the people involved are often all known to each other and there can be personal consequences.
She also discussed the Death Review Committee idea, which has taken root in Ontario, and is coming to Nova Scotia as well. These Committees examine deaths and determine any risk factors which could have been noted prior to the fatality. This is an idea which was examined during the Desmond Inquiry, and will no doubt form part of the recommendations emerging from that process.
Tomorrow we will receive a presentation from the Commission on Wortman’s violence towards others, and we will also hear from Brenda Forbes, who had reported Wortman’s behaviour and possession of firearms to the police years prior his killing spree. Ms. Forbes and her husband had to move away from Portapique as a result of Wortman’s attempts to retaliate against Ms. Forbes for having contacted the police.