Nova Scotia justice minister steps down after domestic violence comments

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia Justice Minister Brad Johns resigned Friday evening, one day after he made comments downplaying the severity of domestic violence.

Premier Tim Houston announced in a brief news release that he had accepted his minister's resignation. "Domestic violence is an issue our government takes very seriously," Houston said.

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. His comments came on the anniversary of the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting, which led to an inquiry — the Mass Casualty Commission — that recommended treating domestic violence as an epidemic.

Several organizations that assist women in the province denounced Johns's comments on Friday, and opposition politicians called on him to resign. Houston sought to reassure the violence-prevention groups as he announced that Johns was stepping down.

"We will continue to work with partner organizations to do everything we can to support the important work being done in response to the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report and in response to the ongoing epidemic of domestic violence across Nova Scotia and Canada," he said.

The commission had heard that the gunman behind Canada's worst mass shooting had a history of domestic violence and had seriously assaulted his spouse moments before he began a 13-hour rampage that left 22 people dead.

Johns had said 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 tried to minimize the political fallout by apologizing Thursday after Houston appeared before the media to correct him and say that addressing domestic violence was a government priority.

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

Hines said it was "shocking" to hear the minister downplaying the severity of domestic violence.

The leaders of the province’s opposition Liberals and NDP had both called for Johns to either resign or be fired.

Sheri Lecker, executive director of Adsum for Women and Children, which operates shelters in the Halifax area, also questioned whether Johns was the person to lead the Justice Department.

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

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, had 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,” Stewart said. “I would love for (Johns) to come to our centre and sit down and get educated.”

When asked earlier Friday about the criticism and the calls for the removal of Johns, a spokeswoman in the premier’s office said there was nothing 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,” Catherine Klimek said.

Klimek said Friday night that Johns will remain in the Progressive Conservative caucus, and Environment Minister Tim Halman will serve as acting justice minister.

The controversy comes just days after Newfoundland and Labrador Justice Minister John Hogan apologized for comments he made in the provincial legislature. Hogan said 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.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press