A week has gone by since the deadliest shooting in Canadian history, and calls are mounting for acknowledgment of the gender-based violence that occurred as part of the Nova Scotia gunman’s rampage.
The RCMP released a detailed account on the attack on Friday, saying that on the night of April 18, the shooter assaulted someone “who was known to him.” The public was told that the person escaped and hid in the woods. And they were told that this assault was a possible catalyst to a killing spree that has claimed at least 22 lives.
Police didn’t clarify — until asked by a reporter — that the person assaulted was the gunman’s girlfriend.
According to experts interviewed by Global News, therein lies the problem.
The Transition House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS) said in a statement they were saddened, “but in no way shocked” by the violence, calling out those who dismissed the killings as a “senseless” act.
“We must not dilute this problem by speaking of a single act of rage but rather recognize that male violence is part of a bigger social problem of entitlement and toxic masculinity,” the statement read.
“We need to recognize the underlying attitudes and beliefs that tolerate and normalize smaller acts of violence against women and perpetuate an environment that leads to deadly outcomes.”
On Friday, a group of Nova Scotian feminists wrote a statement that said misogyny and domestic violence were part of the shooting’s narrative. In the letter, they urged the RCMP to provide clarity on what they outlined as the “femicidal” aspects of the murders, demanding an inquiry into the investigation that would provide feminist analysis.
The letter acknowledged that not all of the victims were women or girls — nine victims were men — but the group said they viewed misogynist violence as being at the root of the attack.
The RCMP told Global News they were unable to comment in time for publication.
“Pandemic” of violence
Linda MacDonald, one of the letter’s signatories who co-founded human rights advocacy campaign Persons Against Non-State Torture, said this is a problem that affects the entire country, not just Nova Scotia.
“We have a pandemic of violence against women and girls,” she said. “But it’s still so invisible, and I just don’t think it’s everyday conversation or everyday thinking or everyday framework.”
The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability’s 2019 mid-year report showed during the first six months of 2019, 60 females were killed in 58 separate incidents. The number of women and girls killed each month remained steady from January to May, ranging from 10-12 killings per month.
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On average, they said one woman or girl is killed every 2.5 days in Canada — which has been a consistent trend for the last four decades.
In Statistics Canada’s 2018 report of police-reported homicides throughout the country, they said women account for about eight in ten victims killed by a current or previous spouse or an intimate partner.
Despite this, MacDonald said often in mass murders women are often an “invisible” element in the equation. This is where feminist analysis comes in, which would seek to “put a gendered lens” on the investigation.
“There’s no mention of violence against women. It’s been so difficult to even get any truth to the story about whether it started out with violence against women,” said MacDonald.
Specifically, in the case of white male killers, Johannah May Black, who works as a bystander program coordinator with the Antigonish Women’s Resource Center and Sexual Assault Services Association, told Global News a “softening” of the perpetrators’ character occurs that makes these crimes appear senseless or rare.
“This notion that I’ve seen pop up in the media that violence is very unexpected or unthinkable in these quaint little Nova Scotia rural communities, that is a false notion,” said Black, who also co-signed the letter.
“Violence happens in our communities all the time. It’s just not something that we recognize or think about because it’s gender-based violence, and so that violence has stayed mostly invisible in this province.”
Black said one of the most common predictors of future violent behaviour is domestic violence, either against their partners or daughters.
“If we look at the history of mass shootings, we can see that in many cases they begin with an act of gender-based violence, whether it’s femicide or intimate partner violence,” said Black.
“When violence against women and girls is at such a high rate in our society, that means that it’s time to really take a stand on working towards ensuring those fundamental human rights or women and girls in our society.”
A clear example that came to Black’s to mind was the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., in which the perpetrator was known to have been violent against his wife prior to the shooting.
Canadian examples of hate-motivated attacks on women include some of the deadliest killing sprees the country has ever seen, such as the Toronto Van attack in 2018, in which a self-proclaimed incel (someone who blames women for their inability to have sex) ran over dozens of people on Yonge Street, and the Montreal École Polytechnique shooting of 1989, where 14 women were killed at the hands of a misogynist gunman.
Peter Jaffe, the academic director for Western University’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, said when it comes to murder, a history of domestic violence can be found in at least 60 per cent of cases.
“Domestic homicides rarely happen out of the blue,” he said. “We see these patterns repeatedly.”
Three-quarters of mass murder cases in Canada have seven or more well-known risk markers prior to the homicide, said Jaffe.
While a perpetrator’s main target may be a spouse or ex-lover, he said that there are many cases where they also target other people that can include children, police, extended family or professionals who may have been involved, including police.
“What people often overlook is the emotional, psychological abuse, controlling behaviour, threats. The general public often thinks domestic violence is simply somebody beating up their partner every night when they’ve been drinking. And in fact, it’s a lot more complicated,” said Jaffe.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ending gender-based violence, Jaffe said acknowledging its existence as well as educating communities and police about the different forms it can take is a good start.
“Violence against women doesn’t end with just violence against women. It affects everyone. It affects children growing up in a home where there’s violence in terms of their attitudes and beliefs. It affects men who are friends, neighbours trying to help victims at all,” he said.
“It affects the whole community.”
Want to learn more about gender-based violence, like sexual harassment, the complexities of violence against trans people, the shelter crisis, and the importance of teaching your kids to say vagina rather than ‘hoo-ha’? Read the full Broken series.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or violence and needs help, here are resources you can access across Canada.