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She witnessed the N.S. mass shooter’s violence. She’s still struggling to be heard

Nova Scotia gunman’s ex-neighbour says she tried to stop him earlier
WATCH: Nova Scotia gunman's ex-neighbour says she tried to stop him earlier

Brenda Forbes, 62, wanted proof.

So the other day, Forbes balanced her iPad on her lap, set it to start recording, and called Glynn Wortman on the Messenger app from her phone.

“Hi,” Wortman can be heard saying. His voice is slightly muffled and the screen is dark, the iPad having slipped and fallen against Forbes’ body while they spoke.

“How’s it going?” she asked back.

Multiple witnesses to Nova Scotia shooter’s violent past
Multiple witnesses to Nova Scotia shooter’s violent past

READ MORE: A detailed timeline of how the rampage unfolded

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Wortman and Forbes met in Nova Scotia around 2007, friends through cadets but tied together now by Wortman’s nephew, who killed 22 people last month in the worst mass murder in modern Canadian history.

The rampage started in Portapique, a community of about 100 people 40 kilometres west of Truro, N.S., where the gunman was — for about a decade  — Forbes’ neighbour and, for a time, locked in a property dispute with his uncle Wortman.

Global News has verified the audio with Wortman, who said he witnessed his nephew abuse his partner repeatedly.

Forbes, who says she finally left the community in 2014 with her husband because of the gunman, called Wortman because she wanted proof. It felt necessary, she says, after the RCMP told Global News it had “not found a record” of Forbes reporting the gunman to them in 2013 for domestic violence and a cache of weapons.

Their response worried her.

“I don’t want people not to believe me,” she told Global News. “I tell the truth.”

New photos provide look at Nova Scotia gunman’s home
New photos provide look at Nova Scotia gunman’s home

Forbes worried about finding herself in a scenario where nobody else spoke up about the gunman’s history and then finding that turned back on her somehow; she imagined people saying, you’re lying.

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“No the hell I’m not,” she says. Then, almost immediately, she apologizes for the swear word.

A couple minutes into the taped call with Wortman, she asked him if he remembers when she asked him to tell the RCMP that he saw the gunman beat up his partner.

“I should have,” Wortman said. And then a few moments later: “He would have killed me if I still lived there.”

The proof Forbes wanted.

***

The first time Forbes and her husband George met the gunman was in 2003 or 2004, just a year or two after the couple moved nearly 5,000 kilometres from Edmonton to be closer to George’s ailing parents.

His house was a five-minute walk from theirs and when they sat on their deck, they could see him on his — years later, Forbes says, she’d see him shoot guns off that deck. The gunman recognized both Forbes and her husband as military, she says, and invited them over.

He showed them weapons, she says: rifles and pistols. Then, the gunman asked his new neighbours if they could help him get certain types of weapons or even a few live rounds.

“Both me and my husband looked at each other and went, ‘No, Gabriel, that’s illegal,’” Forbes recounts. The alarm bells in her brain were blaring.

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READ MORE: What a national action plan on gender-based violence might achieve — if Canada gets it right

The RCMP did not answer specific questions about the gunman’s weapons collection in the early 2000s. However, Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said via email that any complaints that don’t result in charges are protected under the Privacy Act.

Forbes remembers being introduced to the gunman’s partner around that time. But it wasn’t until a year or so later that his partner — the same woman who hid overnight in the woods on April 18 — ran, crying, to Forbes’ house, saying the gunman had beaten her and wouldn’t let her leave, blocking her car in the driveway with his truck.

Forbes remembers telling her she needed help and that there were organizations who could keep her safe. But the woman said, “He’ll find me.”

RCMP say no evidence of “hatred towards women” in Nova Scotia mass shooting
RCMP say no evidence of “hatred towards women” in Nova Scotia mass shooting

The woman went home, says Forbes. After that, they saw each other but mostly in passing at community gatherings. It felt like any time his partner started to have fun, the gunman would “drag her away from us,” she says.

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Forbes says at the time she felt dismissed by her neighbours when she raised her concerns.

“Oh no,” she says they told her, “he’s such a nice guy.”

The myth that nice guys don’t commit assaults is pervasive, even still. Chanel Miller, the woman whose victim impact statement at the sexual assault trial of Brock Turner went viral, wrote as much in her acclaimed memoir, Know My Name.

“During trial, the jury was forced to pick; is he wholesome or monstrous… I need you to know it was all true,” Miller wrote.

“The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they aren’t mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.”

Meet the woman who tried to stop N.S. killer’s abuse years ago
Meet the woman who tried to stop N.S. killer’s abuse years ago

READ MORE: More men are killed than women, so why focus on violence against women?

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In 2013, Forbes heard the horrifying story of the gunman beating and strangling his partner in front of two men, illegal weapons visible nearby. Wortman told her, she says, because he was there.

He told her that when the other man went to intervene, the gunman’s partner called him off, something to the effect of, “Don’t, stop, you’re just going to make it worse.”

Forbes called the Mounties, but says they didn’t get too far because none of the witnesses were willing to speak with them.

Forbes remembers her call with Wortman. She asked if he would speak to the RCMP and she says he told her, “No way, because (the gunman) already told me that he’s killed somebody in the United States. He’ll kill me if I say anything.”

N.S. shooting victim remembered as loving mother and teacher
N.S. shooting victim remembered as loving mother and teacher

In response to the allegation the gunman may have killed before, a spokesperson for the RCMP told Global News it is “looking into every possible investigative avenue.” She reiterated that the force has received no complaint from Forbes.

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A Mountie Global News is not identifying because they’re not authorized to speak about the case, said that could be for one of only a few reasons: that Forbes is wrong, that the officers who responded to the case didn’t log it or that they logged it but found no criminality so the record management system purged it for space after a few years.

“Any complaint made to the RCMP where no charges are laid is protected under the Privacy Act, and as such, I am not able to provide further detail,” said Cpl. Clarke in an emailed statement.

READ MORE: Feminism met gunfire at École Polytechnique. It’s taken 30 years to call it what it was

Sometime after the 2013 incident, Forbes says she saw women who were not the gunman’s partner coming in and out of his house for a while and mentioned it once to Wortman. She thinks he must have gotten drunk and let it slip to the gunman, who came to her house one night screaming at her husband.

When George went on a military tour, Forbes would see the gunman drive up to her house, park out front, and stare at her for half-hour stretches, over and over. When George came back and saw it happen, they were done.

This time, she didn’t call the police. “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going,” Forbes says; it’s a military mentality ingrained in her.

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The couple moved to Halifax in 2014 and then back to Alberta in 2019.

***

Every single person has a responsibility to take the warning signs of gender-based violence seriously, says Linda Macdonald, a human rights advocate in Nova Scotia who’s been supporting Forbes in publicly sharing her story.

MacDonald doesn’t use the term warning signs or red flags to describe the precursors to mass murder, of which domestic violence is one of the biggest.

“I call them red flares because I feel they were brighter than red flags.”

MacDonald is one of many feminists calling for Nova Scotia to hold an independent inquiry into the shootings, one she says needs to include a look at how the red flares got missed. Forbes wants that too.

“People have to pay attention… (domestic violence) should not ever go hidden,” she says. “It should be reported and acted on right away.”

École Polytechnique massacre: Why we remember 30 years later
École Polytechnique massacre: Why we remember 30 years later

That it isn’t and people don’t is borne out of horrifying statistics: Two-thirds of Canadians say they know at least one woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse and while domestic violence amounts to one in every four police-reported violent crimes, the vast majority of cases do not get reported to the cops.

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It’s borne out, too, in lived experiences. Before Forbes joined the military, she worked on an oil rig. There, she says, she was assaulted.

“I had nobody to help me,” she says. “So, I’m an advocate.”

Are you or someone you know experiencing abuse? Here is a list of resources.