After more than three months of anguish and activism, the people of Nova Scotia are getting a full public inquiry into the worst mass killing in recent Canadian history.
This inquiry will wrestle with questions around the deaths of 22 people in mid-April, 13 of them women. Among them: how the gunman and arsonist’s alleged history of violence against women was overlooked. The murders came after the killer handcuffed and brutally assaulted his girlfriend following an argument. In the weeks after the deaths, former neighbour Brenda Forbes said she had warned police about the killer’s domestic violence and stash of weapons years ago and that the warning fell on deaf ears.
The public probe is a necessary step in moving forward as a community, says Jenny Wright, a Newfoundland-based member of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, which tracks and analyzes homicides of women and girls in this country. But it’s also a crucial chance to more broadly examine misogyny’s role in the murders of so many Canadian women.
“The inquiry is for the families to understand and to heal, and for Canadians to drop the narrative that this was a senseless one-off incident,” she says.
The mass murder happened at a time when Canada is experiencing a rise in domestic violence, thanks in part to the restrictions and tensions brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown.
One in 10 Canadian women reported being concerned about the possibility of violence in the home during the pandemic. Violence against women has surged over the past few months — a 30% increase globally — along with an uptick in these types of homicides nationwide. Femicide, the killing of a woman or girl, usually by a man, happens every other day in Canada, and, on average, a woman is killed by her male partner every six days in Canada, an act typically preceded by many warning signs. Since the beginning of April, more than a dozen women have been killed by a current or former partner across the country.
While other forms of violent crime in Canada are declining, domestic homicide rates have held steady for the past 40 years, and marginalized women are disproportionately affected. (Intimate partner violence makes up nearly one-third of all police-reported violent crimes in Canada, according to Stats Can.)
“There has been no change in decades,” Wright says. “We now have decades of amazing research, survivors who have courageously come forward... We have so much awareness globally. The answer to [why we’ve seen no change] is that we are okay with the levels of violence against women and girls in this country "
So what can Canada do to turn the tide on violence against women and domestic homicide? What are the hurdles we’re facing? And what will it take to see real change? The experts explain.
Public awareness is lacking
There is just not enough of it — even in the year 2020. Wright thinks a lot about how drunk driving used to be socially acceptable (despite being illegal) and then with public awareness and political will (more on that later), it is now something you would never let a friend or loved one do. “We saw a societal change [in the 1980s]. We saw political will at many levels and a groundswell that changed that,” she says. “And we have all of that evidence, all of that research [on domestic violence] and more, and yet we see no groundswell and very little change.”
Wright says public education about healthy relationships needs to start in schools. There are countless early red flags in relationships that we need to build awareness of, such as extreme jealousy or controlling behaviour disguised as gallantry, deep interest, and even love. This can creep into psychological or emotional control, extend to financial abuse, isolation, and can escalate to physical abuse.
A lack of awareness on the impact of domestic violence also keeps women from accessing help — they don’t necessarily see what’s happening to them in this way, they feel shame or take responsibility for violence they endure.
Police and courts don’t intervene in the right way, at the right time
Most provinces and territories have death review committees that study domestic violence that escalates to murder. They have plenty of data showing it’s common for victims to contact the police about violence before they are killed. “If the police don’t take those offences seriously and lay the proper charges, if the criminal courts don’t hand out appropriate outcomes, if family courts continue to give [suspected or even confirmed abusers] extensive time with their kids, then of course the behaviour continues and escalates,” says Pamela Cross, the legal director of Luke’s Place, an Ontario not-for-profit that provides legal advice to women leaving abusive situations. “How many times have you read that women have had between five to 20 contacts with the police before she was murdered?” Wright adds.
This well-documented escalation of violence, particularly when a woman tries to leave her abuser (women are six times more likely to be killed by an ex-partner than a current one), demands proactive and educated police forces and courts to intervene in a meaningful way, Cross says. That means rethinking court-ordered partner assault response (PAR) programs, where abusers attend group meetings in which they’re taught about healthy relationships. The problem there, Cross says, is there is often no actual willingness to change: “He could be sitting there fantasizing about what he’s going to do to his wife when he gets home.”
Back in the mid-1980s, it was a well-intentioned idea to bring in mandatory charges for domestic abuse calls, meaning that the police lay the charge, rather than putting it on the woman to decide to bring one against her partner, Cross says. But the unintended effect is that police must lay a charge while responding to a domestic violence call, so Cross has seen examples where both parties are charged by that officer if the true perpetrator isn’t immediately clear to them. That just further escalates the tension at home.
Politicians haven’t treated this as a serious public health and safety issue
If there’s a strong public desire for change, like there was with drunk driving, Wright says politicians will get behind it and bring forward meaningful legislation. Unfortunately, violence against women is “still seen as a special interest as opposed to what it should be seen as, which is a public health crisis,” says Wright. And the women's organizations that drum up public support and lobby for change haven’t recovered from the decade of defunding under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the conditional rule he created that organizations can’t do advocacy if they want government money. These organizations are “scrambling to stay alive,” says Wright, which makes advocacy for action on one particular issue — for example, stronger legislation to prevent domestic homicides — that much harder.
Despite Justin Trudeau’s government reinstating funding and ability to advocate, having a so-called “feminist government” in power hasn’t led to enough meaningful change. In 2016, then-chief public health officer Dr. Gregory Taylor issued a report on family violence in Canada, which identified it as a crisis yet admitted that “despite the work of many researchers, healthcare professionals, organizations and committees, we still do not have a good understanding of why family violence happens, nor do we know how best to intervene.” It got no political traction, even with Trudeau in office, Cross says. Yes, Trudeau made Status of Women a full ministry (and renamed it to include Gender Equality), but the department is still grossly underfunded compared to others.
It doesn’t help that every new government comes with a different set of priorities and interests, both experts say — the very nature of politics becomes a barrier in achieving meaningful progress.
We don’t have proper intersectional data
Canada continuously fails to put an intersectional lens on gender-based violence: Indigenous women are eleven times more likely to be murdered than other women, just as sex workers, migrant and undocumented women are also at elevated risk, Wright says. There is also little to no data about domestic homicides of Black and racialized women, revealing a failure to understand the particular risks they might face.
In the same way violence against women gets viewed as a partisan issue, it also gets dismissed as ideological. Cross has been thinking a lot about the media coverage of domestic violence in the wake of the Nova Scotia shooting, how there is, sadly, an opportunity for people to finally understand the impact of unchecked escalating domestic violence on us all. “It was only when he killed 22 people, not his partner who had been victimized by him for years, that his violence was taken seriously.”
Abusers still have access to weapons
In early May, the federal government banned hundreds of military-grade assault rifles, including two types of long-guns used by the Nova Scotia mass shooter. This was welcome news to researchers at the Femicide Observatory, who’ve reported that guns are the most commonly used weapon in the murder of women and girls in Canada (37%). It’s also a much more common murder weapon in rural areas where a third of femicides occur, a disproportionate amount given that 18.5% of Canadians live in rural areas. There is great hope that the gun ban will help, but critics say it will likely just fuel the underground economy for guns. Federal public safety minister Bill Blair told Global News that the government will introduce “red flag” laws to take legally registered guns, such as hunting rifles, from people involved in domestic violence cases, but that hasn’t happened yet.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please visit the Ending Violence Association of Canada to find a local hotline. In the event of an emergency, call 911.