More than two years after the worst mass shooting in Canadian history, one of the most anticipated witnesses in the public inquiry into that tragedy will finally testify Friday about what she saw and heard before and during the attack that left 22 people dead.
It will be the first time Lisa Banfield, the common-law spouse of the gunman responsible for the April, 2020, rampage in rural Nova Scotia, has told her story publicly.
But a decision by the Mass Casualty Commission, the body conducting the joint federal-provincial probe of the killings, to shield her from cross-examination has once again shaken faith in the inquiry among some of those most closely connected to it.
Ms. Banfield will only answer questions from the commission’s counsel, not from lawyers representing families of the gunman’s victims. That has angered inquiry participants who say there are inconsistencies in previous statements she has made to the commission’s investigators.
Ms. Banfield has been charged with supplying her spouse with ammunition used in the attack, but those charges were expected to be dropped after she was deferred to Nova Scotia’s restorative justice program, an alternative to the criminal courts that cleared her to testify at the inquiry. Her lawyers did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Families of the gunman’s victims, who had hoped the independent probe would finally give them the answers they’re seeking, are threatening to walk away from the inquiry altogether after learning they won’t be allowed to question Ms. Banfield.
“To say they are extremely upset is an understatement. This is not what they expected. This bears no resemblance to what we told them an inquiry would be,” said Michael Scott, whose Halifax firm Patterson Law represents 14 families of victims. “They’re largely ready to wash their hands of this commission.”
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The Mass Casualty Commission says Ms. Banfield, who has already given five interviews to commission investigators, has suffered enough as a victim of the gunman’s violence and will be allowed to testify with two support people at her side. Lawyers for the families will also be allowed to suggest questions to be asked, the commission said.
On Wednesday the commission released a document detailing the abuse and violence Ms. Banfield endured over the years at the hands of her partner.
“(He would) pull me up by my hair to get me off the ground until my scalp felt like it was going to rip off – punch me (body, face, neck), and kick me. Though I remember he only raped me once. I felt that I was his wife and what could I do?” she told investigators.
It’s not the first time the commission’s “trauma-informed” approach, which prioritizes protecting the mental health of witnesses, has caused an uproar. A decision in May to allow senior RCMP commanders to avoid cross-examination prompted protests and a boycott from families of victims.
Mr. Scott says the idea that families’ lawyers are incapable of cross-examining Ms. Banfield without berating her on the stand or further traumatizing her is offensive.
“We keep getting confronted by people who seem to have a perception of what a cross-examination is from television,” he said. “They say, ‘Why do you want to berate this person?’ That really shows a misunderstanding of what this is.”
The principles of cross-examination and testing a witness’s evidence through questioning have been a foundation of the courts for centuries, he said. It’s a fundamental part of even the most traumatic sexual-assault cases and can be done sensitively while balancing the need to ask difficult questions, he said.
Many of the questions his clients want answered are focused on the story Ms. Banfield told police after the mass shooting. In particular, they want to know how she freed herself from the handcuffs she said the gunman put her in and how she managed to survive a night hiding in the woods in sub-zero temperatures wearing nothing but a T-shirt and yoga pants, he said.
“They don’t just want answers to questions. They want the truth,” he said. “Provincial and federal taxpayers have paid Broadway prices for a three-ring circus.”
Ms. Banfield has become a polarizing figure among those closest to the killing spree.
It was yet another violent assault against her that precipitated his rampage on the night of April 18, 2020. Her defenders say that’s proof of the role of gender-based violence in some mass shootings. Yet some people say her close relationship with the gunman as he prepared for his attack needs to be more deeply examined.
“In the face of unfathomable trauma and loss, looking for someone to blame is understandable,” said Erin Breen, a lawyer representing the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, and a women’s prison rights group. “But Lisa Banfield is not responsible for the perpetrator’s violence.”
The gunman was unquestionably a violent, obsessive man with a history of abusing his common-law wife. Multiple people told police they saw him assault his spouse but were too scared to intervene. Complaints that did go to the police went nowhere.
“The guy was a psychopath,” his former neighbour Brenda Forbes told the RCMP a week after the mass shooting.
“He beat the crap out of her one day and she ran to my house,” Ms. Forbes told the RCMP. “She told me point-blank she was too scared to leave because he would find her and kill her.”
With a file from The Canadian Press
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