Advocacy groups speak out against domestic violence comments by Nova Scotia minister

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Advocacy groups speak out against domestic violence comments by N.S. minister
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 19, 2024

Several Nova Scotia organizations that assist women spoke out Friday against comments on domestic violence made by the province’s justice minister, and one called for his departure.

Natasha Hines, executive director of Wellness Within, which deals with the reproductive health of women, transgender and nonbinary people, called comments by Brad Johns “ignorant and dangerous,” and she said in an interview that he should either resign or be fired.

On Thursday, Johns disputed a public inquiry’s finding that domestic violence is an epidemic and said drugs and gun violence are more serious problems. An epidemic of domestic violence would mean “you are seeing it everywhere all the time, and I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. He later apologized after being corrected by Premier Tim Houston.

Hines said it was “shocking” to hear the minister downplaying the severity of domestic violence. “I really don’t think there’s a way forward without minister Johns resigning or his removal from his position,” she said.

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Johns was responding to a reporter’s question on the inquiry into the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting, which recommended that domestic violence be treated as an epidemic. Thursday was the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the rampage in which a gunman killed 22 people after first attacking his spouse.

Houston immediately followed up by telling reporters that addressing domestic violence is a priority and an issue his government takes seriously. He also said that his government had already committed to $7 million in funding for 16 community-based organizations who work to prevent gender-based violence.

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The premier’s intervention did little to placate the province’s opposition Liberals and NDP, whose leaders both called for Johns to either resign or be fired.

For her part, Hines acknowledged Houston’s statement as “an important first step” but said her organization has lost confidence in the minister’s ability to continue in his post.

“If they are going to claim that they are supporting victims of domestic violence … the removal of Brad Johns is a necessary step to really mean that sincerely,” she said.

Sheri Lecker, executive director of Adsum for Women and Children, which operates shelters in the Halifax area, also questioned whether Johns is the person to lead the provincial Justice Department, but she stopped short of calling for his removal.

“Words really do matter and this has done a lot of harm to people,” said Lecker. “Gender-based violence and intimate partner violence warrant a meaningful and sustained societal response, and we need leaders who understand that.”

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In a statement on Instagram, Adsum quoted provincial statistics indicating that Nova Scotia’s rates of police-reported domestic violence were higher than the national average with 35 women killed by their intimate partner between 2002 and 2021. In 2021 alone, 86 per cent of domestic violence files designated as having a high risk for fatality — 750 total files — involved female victims.

According to the World Health Organization, a 2018 analysis found that nearly one in three women worldwide had been subjected to physical or sexual violence.

Anita Stewart, executive director of the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association, called the minister’s apology “damage control.”

“To not have a clear understanding of what domestic violence looks like in our province is quite concerning to me,” said Stewart. “I would love for him (Johns) to come to our centre and sit down and get educated.”

When asked about the criticisms and the call for the removal of Johns, a spokeswoman in the premier’s office said Friday that there was nothing new to add from Houston’s statement on Thursday.

“The minister of justice has since apologized and is in the process of personally reaching out to organizations that work to support women and survivors of gender-based violence,” said Catherine Klimek. “We want all Nova Scotians to know that their government understands that domestic violence is a pressing issue and addressing it continues to be a top priority.”

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The controversy comes just days after Newfoundland and Labrador Justice Minister John Hogan apologized for comments he made in the provincial legislature. Hogan said that it was “impossible” for lawyers to retraumatize survivors of sexual assault in a courtroom, a statement that also prompted calls for his resignation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2024.

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