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A house in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is marked off with yellow police tape on Oct. 25.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Northern Ontario gunman who shot and killed a woman and three children in Sault Ste. Marie this week before killing himself had previously been the subject of intimate-partner violence complaints, police said on Wednesday.

“Police can confirm the offender has been involved in intimate-partner investigations in the past,” Chief Hugh Stevenson of the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service told reporters. He said one domestic violence report related to the man had been made “in the days previous” to the massacre.

The police chief declined to provide details about those prior cases, including whether charges had been considered or laid. Police have said they believe the killings themselves were also an act of intimate-partner violence. They have not released the identities of anyone involved, including the killer, saying grieving family members need their privacy.

The attacks began shortly before 10:30 p.m. on Monday, when the 44-year-old gunman shot and killed a 41-year-old woman in her home. Then he went to a second property, located a short drive away, where he wounded a second woman, aged 45, and killed the three children, aged 12, 7 and 6, before turning the gun on himself.

“I cannot update you on the medical condition of the victim at this time,” Chief Stevenson said of the survivor.

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Sault Ste. Marie Police Chief Hugh Stevenson speak to the media during a press conference on Oct. 25, 2023.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The police chief said he would support an eventual coroner’s inquest into the mass killing, in part because he sees intimate-partner violence as a growing problem.

Sault Ste. Marie, an industrial town near Ontario’s border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, has its police headquarters on Second Line, a busy roadway about a kilometre away from the home where the children were killed, which is located on the same street.

Police tape now surrounds that property. It’s a house with beige clapboard siding, decorated with now-toppled jack-o’-lanterns. Passersby have laid flowers on the lawn, including a bouquet of white chrysanthemums placed Wednesday to commemorate the young victims.

Last summer, a jury at an inquest into a triple femicide in rural Ontario made a series of recommendations intended to prevent intimate-partner violence. The first of those was that the province declare such violence an epidemic.

Marit Stiles, leader of Ontario’s Opposition NDP, expressed support for that course of action on Wednesday. “You know, we have seen tragedy after tragedy. It’s not going to end,” she told reporters. “We need to address it in a systemic way.”

But the province’s Progressive Conservative government said this summer, in a written response to the inquest’s findings, that it would not follow through on the recommendation. Asked by reporters whether he would declare an epidemic, Ontario Solicitor-General Michael Kerzner said Wednesday that “today is about the community, and really our thoughts are with them. It’s an unspeakable event that occurred.”

Chief Stevenson said intimate-partner violence needs to be brought to the public’s attention. “I’m a firm supporter that something has to be done to raise awareness of the issues,” he told reporters. “So if it’s a matter of putting the label of epidemic on it, then so be it.”

The police chief said he anticipates that the public will soon know the identity of the gunman, and that a public review process could in the future delve into the killer’s mindset, to determine what went wrong. “All governments have to look at this situation, in light of what’s happened here,” he said.

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Flowers are placed on a police barricade outside the home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. on Oct. 25, 2023.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Intimate-partner violence researchers say it’s crucial that authorities disclose to the public what they can about such crimes. “Unless we can identify – not out of some prurient curiosity – who it is, who’s involved, it makes it difficult for even those of us who work in the area to be able to even begin to analyze what it is that might have happened,” said Pamela Cross, an advocacy director at Luke’s Place, which offers legal counselling for women and children fleeing abusive relationships.

Ms. Cross said killings related to intimate-partner violence are often preceded by escalating violence. “In the vast majority of cases, people other than the immediate family know that there’s trouble,” she said.

Police say they have seized a rifle and a handgun from the house where the children were killed, but they have yet to determine where the firearms came from. “Naturally speaking, we’re wondering: how did the individual acquire the guns?” Chief Stevenson said.

The pervasiveness of intimate-partner violence in this country is well documented. On average, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days in Canada. With attempted murders included, the figure becomes one almost every other day.

According to the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, which puts out a monthly report, there have been at least 46 killings of women and girls for reasons related to their gender confirmed in Ontario in 2023, as of last month. Between 2018 and 2022, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability has tracked 850 killings of women or girls throughout the country. Research into child homicides by the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative found that about 30 children are killed by a parent in Canada each year.

With reports from Jeff Gray, Mike Hager and Stephanie Chambers

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