Criminalize tactics of 'coercive control' of women used by N.S. mass killer: expert

·4 min read

HALIFAX — An expert on gender-based violence is urging an inquiry into Nova Scotia's mass shooting to recommend criminalizing isolation and intimidation tactics like those the killer used against women.

The method referred to as "coercive control" occurs over time and often involves abusers instilling fear in their partners, micromanaging their daily lives, taking power over finances and gradually isolating the partner from friends and family, according to definitions presented before the public inquiry.

"Coercive control effectively traps victims and removes their sense of individuality and freedom in the relationship," says one definition prepared for the inquiry.

The killer's 22 murders were preceded by a domestic assault against his spouse, Lisa Banfield, on April 18, 2020, and the inquiry 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.

During a roundtable discussion on Wednesday, Carmen Gill, a sociology professor at the University of New Brunswick, told the three commissioners she favours a federal law prohibiting coercive control, as currently exists in the United Kingdom.

"For me, this form of violence is a crime. I cannot see someone terrorizing women for 15 years and that's fine," Gill said at the conclusion of a panel discussion.

The Canadian Criminal Code, and most police training, is currently aimed at specific incidents of sexual violence. A coercive control law like the one in the United Kingdom could allow witnesses to report long-term tactics of isolation and degradation similar to what the spouse of the perpetrator experienced.

The British legislation says coercion applies if the partner's behaviour is repetitive and has a serious effect on the spouse, and they know or ought to have known it will have that effect. A guideline by the prosecution service outlines a number of examples of coercion, including isolating a person, monitoring their phones, depriving them of access to support services, threatening family members and controlling their finances.

In an interview following the roundtable, Gill said she believes the killer's spouse was a victim of such control. "I really hope the commissioners are going to see the value of criminalizing coercive control," she said outside the hearing.

The inquiry has documented Gabriel Wortman's gradual assumption of control over most aspects of Banfield's financial life, his insistence that ownership of her vehicle be in his name, and incidents where witnesses would see the killer drag her away from social gatherings if she was enjoying herself.

"Gabriel controlled everything including my work, finances, social life and home life, so that if I didn't obey he would take things away to punish and control me. He'd take my keys, my phone, even my salary," Banfield wrote in a summary to the inquiry. "I was totally under his control. He wanted me to know that without him I had nothing."

The summary also noted neighbours and family witnessed both overt violence and daily emotional abuse. "They would watch and not do anything about it," Banfield wrote about neighbours who observed her abuse. "I knew no one could help me; they were all scared of him too."

Gill said a criminal law would bring coercive control more prominently into public consciousness, but added, "It won't be a solution to everything, it's just one piece of the puzzle."

During the roundtable, she also called for added training of police officers, courts and other institutions in how to recognize this form of abuse.

Nancy Ross, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University's school of social work, said during the roundtable that while it's important to recognize the seriousness of coercive control, she isn't in favour of turning it into a criminal offence.

She said the majority of people involved in domestic violence, whether they are perpetrators or survivors of the violence, have "experienced prior trauma."

"Looking at (coercive control) legislation does acknowledge the seriousness of these issues, but it doesn't address the root of the problem," she said during the panel discussion.

"We need to look to ways that we can provide support for families, and that we can address the pervasive issue of adverse childhood experiences and childhood trauma and gender-based violence as societal issues."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2022.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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