July 20, 2022

MCC Day 51 – Police and Institutional Understanding and Responses to Intimate Partner and Family Violence

The Mass Casualty Commission continued its focus on the various contextual elements of domestic, intimate partner, and family violence today with two further panel discussions. These represented the seventh and eighth sessions of the MCC which have focused on these topics, each of which provided ‘context’ rather than specific analysis of the April 18-19, 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting.

In her introduction to the first panel discussion, Krista Smith from the MCC noted that these discussions were designed to set up the discussions which are anticipated to take place in Phase 3 of the MCC proceedings, where potential recommendations will be formulated. This would seem to be hopeful sign that the many experts who have been retained by the MCC will actually discuss the events which have lead to the establishment of this inquiry, but that remains to be seen, and given what we have seen to date it would be unsafe to assume that will actually happen.

Anyone who has been watching the MCC proceedings over the past two weeks may have noted that each of the experts who have been asked to contribute their thoughts have been female. The ten experts today were all women. I mentioned this last week as an observation, rather than a critique, but as we get further into these topics, it may be time to ask whether it may have been better to have a wider variety of expertise in terms of gender. I have stated elsewhere that I think there has been too much total expertise focused on these topics, but if we are going to have up to ten independent discussions on family or intimate partner violence, it might be good to hear from both genders.

The experts this morning called for “major paradigm shifts”, “full system changes”, and “tearing down the system”, as evolving solutions to the issues we are facing. Those views applied to the police and the justice systems more broadly. It is not always clear how these suggested overhauls are supposed to manifest themselves in real life, or in clear, specific language. “Collaborative police action” sounds like a good phrase for combating domestic violence, but is open to many potential interpretations, to the point of being effectively meaningless.

The speakers had a long discussion on a Nova Scotia case, but it was not that of Gabriel Wortman and Lisa Banfield, but rather that of Nicole Doucet and Michael Ryan. Ms. Doucet was the victim of abuse at the hands of Mr. Ryan, and was then the victim of an RCMP sting operation when they contacted her in the guise of a hitman offering to kill Mr. Ryan. The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, after Ms. Doucet was acquitted at trial on the basis of a duress defense.

Interestingly, Commissioner MacDonald was on the NS Court of Appeal panel which upheld Ms. Doucet’s acquittal at trial, and was the main author of the decision. The Supreme Court disagreed with the expansive definition of “duress” adopted by then Chief Justice MacDonald, but held that it would be improper to subject Ms. Doucet to another trial, and stayed the charges.

One of the notions emerging from the morning session was to criminalize “coercive control”. This was suggested by Dr. Chambers, though other panelists cautioned that it might be risky to expect an unreformed and problematic justice system to properly address the complex issues around coercive control. The other experts tended to support something akin to a public health approach to the problem.

The afternoon panel dealt with the topic of police and institutional understanding and responses to sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence. The discussion included Emilie Coyle, Executive Director, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, Lana MacLean, a Clinical Social Worker, Co-Creator of Impact of Race and Cultural Impact Assessment, Sunny Marriner, National Project Leader for the Improving Institutional Accountability Project, Deepa Mattoo, Executive Director, Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, Dr. Pamela Palmater, Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Professor Isabel Grant from the Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia.

Dr. Emma Cunliffe, director of research for the MCC, echoed Krista Smith’s comments from the morning, saying that these discussions were not going to delve into the actual events (purportedly) being studied by the Commission. Dr. Cunliffe said that these would come up in later discussions, but did not attempt to explain or justify why the decision was made to bifurcate the topics in this manner.

The early portions of the discussion involved a review of the basic elements of criminal harassment and consent in the modern legal context. It is unlikely that any reasonably educated or experienced adult would be surprised by any elements of this discussion, other than the notion that someone thought the discussion was needed here at the MCC.

There was further discussion of the myths, stereotypes, and inherent biases that affect women, viewed both as a whole, and aimed at minority women specifically. These myths, stereotypes, and biases persist, despite years of efforts by these women, the organizations they lead, and many others. It may be the case that, rather than aiming for paradigm shifts or systemic overhauls, the MCC should seek manageable goals that respond to the specific circumstances of the April 18-19, 2020 events.

Tomorrow will feature the ninth panel discussion on domestic violence-related issues.