Skip to main content
opinion

Lisa Banfield, the common-law spouse of Gabriel Wortman, testifies at the public inquiry into the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting, in Halifax, on July 15.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The relationship between the perpetrator of the Nova Scotia massacre and his common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield, was one of textbook domestic violence.

During her five interviews with the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC), Ms. Banfield described how, over the course of their 19-year relationship, she became increasingly isolated from her friends and family. He encouraged her to quit her bank job and come work for him at his denturist clinic, as well as move in with him to his homes, which were kept in his name. He convinced her to get rid of her car because she had driven it while in a previous relationship, and got her a new car that was also in his name (eventually, the ownership was changed). He told her she wasn’t allowed to see one of their neighbours after the neighbour told Ms. Banfield about his infidelity. And he discouraged her from seeing her family, restricting her use of their vehicles and limiting her time with her nieces and nephews.

Ms. Banfield was also physically abused. She described incidents of choking, punching, kicking, hair-pulling and slapping. He threatened her with guns and said he would harm her family members if she ever left him. “For a long time I was on egg shells and I didn’t know, like … it’d be no rhyme nor reason for it, he’d just, he would just lose it and I would just try to calm him down,” she told the Commission. Family members, friends and people in the community all knew about the violence, though only one – neighbour Brenda Forbes – reported the abuse to the police. But nothing happened. Ms. Banfield stayed with her spouse until the night he tried to kill her. He would go on to kill 22 others.

Despite this evidence of abuse, which is outlined in detail in MCC documents, there are some in the Portapique community who still see Ms. Banfield as complicit in the perpetrator’s crimes (or, at minimum, suspect she might not be telling the whole story). They wonder how she managed to squeeze out of the handcuffs he had her in that night (which she does explain in interviews with the MCC), how she survived hiding in the woods overnight in just a thin shirt and tights (though an officer who saw her that morning observed that her lips were blue and she was likely hypothermic) and why she lied to police when they were called to the home in 2010 and inquired about whether there were weapons in the house (which is really not hard to understand from the perspective of a woman repeatedly beaten and threatened with her life).

The community’s suspicion has been stoked by two compounding factors: one, the decision by the RCMP, in late 2020, to charge Ms. Banfield for supplying ammunition to the perpetrator; and two, the decision by the MCC to shield Ms. Banfield from cross-examination.

The charge laid by the RCMP was resolved when Ms. Banfield opted to complete a restorative justice program, though the police’s rationale for laying the charge in the first place was dubious: Ms. Banfield was clearly a victim (she spent five nights in hospital after the April 2020 assault) and police have repeatedly emphasized she had no knowledge of the perpetrator’s intention. What’s more, she co-operated fully with police for weeks after the massacre. If anything, the RCMP’s decision to charge a domestic violence victim with a crime months later, absent any discernible public interest, all while pressure was mounting on police to explain how they let a madman terrorize a community for 13 hours, raises suspicion about police intention more than it does Ms. Banfield’s culpability.

The families are justified, however, in being frustrated with the Commission’s decision to spare Ms. Banfield from cross-examination by their lawyers, in accordance with its “trauma-informed” approach. Ms. Banfield was the sole witness to the perpetrator’s mindset that evening: she watched him snap, douse their cottage in gasoline, then go off to systematically hunt down their neighbours. The whole purpose of the Nova Scotia inquiry is to provide answers, and Ms. Banfield may be able to supply some that no one else can. The MCC’s decision may end up, paradoxically, hurting Ms. Banfield’s reputation in the community more than it ends up sparing her additional angst.

But none of those extraneous factors makes Ms. Banfield any less of a victim. She was physically and financially trapped for years by an abusive partner who threatened to kill her family if she ever left. Had Ms. Banfield been slightly less fortunate, or perhaps less determined to survive, she could have easily been among the Nova Scotia massacre casualties – in which case there would likely be no question whether she was complicit in the attack. One man was ultimately responsible for what happened on those days; Ms. Banfield was one of his victims.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.