Domestic violence not epidemic, N.S. justice minister says on mass shooting anniversary

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N.S. justice minister faces backlash over domestic violence comments
WATCH: On the fourth anniversary of the worst mass shooting in Canadian history, Nova Scotia's justice minister is facing scrutiny – and some opposition calls to resign – for his comments on domestic violence. As Megan King reports, the minister's words even prompted a response from the premier – Apr 18, 2024

Nova Scotia’s justice minister has apologized for saying he doesn’t believe domestic violence is an epidemic on the four-year anniversary of the province’s worst mass shooting.

Minister Brad Johns made the comment at the legislature while responding to a reporter’s question about the province’s progress following through on recommendations from the Mass Casualty Commission, which investigated the incident and released a wide-ranging report last year.

One of the commission’s recommendations was that “all levels of government in Canada declare gender-based, intimate partner, and family violence to be an epidemic that warrants a meaningful and sustained society-wide response.”

Johns said he disagrees with calling domestic violence an “epidemic.”

“I think that an epidemic – you’re seeing it everywhere, all the time – I don’t think that’s the case,” he said.

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He said while he agrees domestic violence is an issue, he believes there are “bigger issues, too,” listing guns, drugs, and “violence in general” as examples.

On April 18-19, 2020, a gunman murdered 22 people in several Nova Scotian communities. The victims included a pregnant woman and an RCMP officer.

The murders were preceded by a domestic assault against his spouse, Lisa Banfield, on April 18, 2020. The inquiry examining the tragedy has collected evidence indicating that he used the tactics of coercive control against her throughout their 19-year relationship, as well as against other women.

“The evidence shows clearly that those who perpetrate mass casualties often have an unaddressed history of gender-based, intimate partner or family violence,” Mass Casualty Commission chair Michael MacDonald said following the release of its report last year.

“Many mass casualties begin with an act of such violence. That was the case here in Nova Scotia in April 2020, and we saw that again in Saskatchewan in September 2022.”

According to Statistics Canada, the overall rate of police-reported family violence in Canada in 2022 was 337 victims per 100,000 population, and the rate of intimate partner violence was 346 per 100,000 population.

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However, Statistics Canada said these numbers only reflect incidents reported to police, “and past research has highlighted that these types of violence are often not reported to authorities.”

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“As such, the data presented here likely underestimate the full scope of these types of violence,” it said.

Women and girls are two times more likely to be victims of family violence, and three times more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence compared to men and boys, it said.

Minister apologizes

Minutes after Johns’ comments, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston told reporters that the justice minister will be issuing an apology.

“I want to be very clear about this government’s position on domestic violence. This is an issue we take very seriously. As the Mass Casualty Commission included in their report, domestic violence is an epidemic in Nova Scotia and in Canada,” he said.

“The commission was also clear that it played a role in the tragedy that occurred in 2020, and we will do everything we can to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.”

The premier also said the province has provided more than $7 million to community based organizations to help address gender-based violence.

Later in the afternoon, Johns issued a written statement saying his comments “were wrong and have caused pain.”

“Domestic violence is a serious issue in Nova Scotia. I want survivors of domestic violence to know that they will be supported when they come forward and have confidence that when they do, they will be believed and treated respectfully,” he wrote.

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“The pervasiveness of domestic violence and the harm it causes in our communities is not something that should ever be minimized and I am truly sorry that my words did so. This government, my department and I agree that domestic violence is an epidemic.”

Both opposition leaders are calling for Johns to be removed from his post.

Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Zach Churchill called the minister’s comments “disgusting,” and said an apology isn’t enough.

“I think if we have a minister of justice that doesn’t think domestic violence and gender-based violence is a major concern in this province, he should resign or be removed from that post,” Churchill said.

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NDP leader Claudia Chender said it is “abundantly clear” that Johns should resign.

She said the Mass Casualty Commission was clear in their recommendation to address the epidemic of intimate partner violence.

“For the minister of justice – who is in charge in many ways of implementing the recommendations – to deny the notion that that epidemic exists, says that he is not fit to lead the department,” she said.

Houston said he will “have a chat” with Johns about his comments.

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