Of all the potential witnesses who could be called to testify at a public inquiry into the mass shooting that terrorized Nova Scotia in April, 2020, few people may be more able to answer key questions at the centre of the tragedy than the gunman’s common-law partner.
But as public proceedings for the Mass Casualty Commission begin in Halifax, Lisa Banfield’s appearance at the inquiry is in doubt. That concerns some families of the attack’s 22 victims, who say her knowledge of what happened in the first hours of the rampage in Portapique, N.S., must be shared publicly.
“For a number of our clients, it’s a non-starter,” said Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer with Patterson Law, the Halifax firm that has named Ms. Banfield in a lawsuit against the gunman’s estate, valued at $2.1-million.
“There’s no question Ms. Banfield has important information to provide to this inquiry. The whole purpose of this inquiry is to properly understand what happened. … Without a fulsome, factual basis for that work, it’s difficult to see how the commission can complete its mandate.”
Nova Scotians have waited a long time for the joint provincial-federal inquiry, and the first week of its public proceedings began on Tuesday with plenty of drama. Premier Tim Houston accused the commission of being disrespectful to families of victims by withholding basic information around whether key witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify, and if there will be an opportunity to cross-examine them. The commission pushed back, saying the Premier was interfering in what’s supposed to be an independent process.
Nearly 150 people have already been interviewed by the commission. Ms. Banfield – who says she was also a victim of violence from her partner, Gabriel Wortman – is not one of them.
She has so far declined to speak to the inquiry’s investigators because she’s still dealing with criminal charges related to the attack – namely, allegations that she unlawfully provided Mr. Wortman with .223-calibre Remington cartridges and .40-calibre Smith & Wesson cartridges in the month leading up to the massacre.
“We have asked to interview her, and as her counsel indicated, she’s not able to be interviewed until her criminal matters are wrapped up,” the commission’s senior counsel Emily Hill told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s too early to say if we would have to issue a subpoena, and have her come and share her information with us.”
Ms. Banfield, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, is set to face a judge-only trial scheduled to begin in late March. Her lawyer, James Lockyer, told The Canadian Press he’s advised his client not to talk to the inquiry.
He said Ms. Banfield, “would have been in the commission’s office within 20 seconds of being asked,” were it not for the criminal charges. “It’s the criminal charges and nothing else,” he said.
There are concerns that any delays in Ms. Banfield’s criminal trial could continue to complicate her co-operation with the inquiry, and questions over whether she’ll face cross-examination if she does appear.
“As we all know, legal proceedings can be subject to adjournments and delays and complications. … If the commission is taking the position that they won’t attempt to compel her to testify until her criminal matters are done, that causes me great concern,” Ms. McCulloch said.
“If they’re declining to use their powers to compel her to testify, even for the time being, that’s not understood to me.”
She argues that because Ms. Banfield has first-hand knowledge of a critical window in the early stages of Mr. Wortman’s attack, the inquiry can’t do its job if she doesn’t testify. Ms. Banfield told police she escaped from her spouse and hid in the woods overnight while the RCMP searched for him, according to warrants released through a legal challenge.
“It’s impossible for the commission to move forward without obtaining that information from her,” Ms. McCulloch said.
Ms. Banfield’s brother, James Blair Banfield, and her brother-in-law, Brian Brewster, were also charged with providing the shooter cartridges used his attack. Mr. Banfield pleaded guilty in January and will be sentenced in June. Mr. Brewster has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer says he has not been asked to testify at the inquiry.
Nova Scotia RCMP say all three had no prior knowledge of the shooter’s plans. Ms. Hill added that Ms. Banfield’s evidence could provide further information about the gunman’s personal history and state of mind and may also be key to the commission’s mandate to examine the “role of gender-based and intimate partner violence” in his actions.
In statements given to police in 2020, Ms. Banfield alleged her partner assaulted her at their rural cottage the night of April 18, before beginning his rampage, and that she’d suffered prior domestic abuse over the years.
Ms. Hill said the inquiry will monitor Ms. Banfield’s criminal case “and take steps as we need to, so that the commission and participants have the opportunity to learn from her what we can.” She also said that even though the preliminary report of the commission is due at the end of April, Ms. Banfield’s evidence could be taken into account before the final report is ready.
Questions over which witnesses will be called to testify at the inquiry have dominated the early stages of the public proceedings. Commission chair Michael MacDonald said they need to rein in the number of witnesses so the inquiry can meet its tight deadline.
It must submit a final report by November, outlining recommendations intended to prevent similar tragedies in the future. The public proceedings, which were supposed to begin in October, 2021, have been delayed twice because of the volume of interviews and evidence the commission needs to go through.
Lawyers for the families of the victims say it’s deeply troubling they still don’t have information around how some evidence will be used in the inquiry. Not only do they not know who will be called as witnesses, but they also don’t know how the inquiry will handle those people – which makes it difficult to prepare for their participation in the process.
“There’s a lack of clarity around witnesses that we need to hear from. Without having knowledge about these witnesses and how the commission will bring them forward, we still feel quite in the dark,” Ms. McCulloch said.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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