HALIFAX — The gunman who killed 22 people in rural Nova Scotia in April 2020 was known to exchange denture work for sex and to exploit marginalized women, says a report submitted to the inquiry investigating the mass shooting.
The report by members of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund released Thursday details and findings from meetings held in the Halifax area with survivors of Gabriel Wortman’s violence and others who interacted with the killer.
Kristina Fifield, a trauma therapist at the Avalon centre and one of the report's authors, told the inquiry that the gunman's power and privilege as a white denturist "allowed a continuum of violence to occur."
"This violence oftentimes looked like preying upon individuals that were vulnerable, marginalized and racialized," Fifield said, adding that it spanned "many years."
Participants in these meetings said the gunman used his clinics in Halifax and Dartmouth, N.S., to exploit African Nova Scotian women and sex workers. It was also reported that Wortman bragged about providing denture work at a reduced price and would exchange his services for sex when people could not pay the full cost.
The report said that some participants said they felt they could trust Wortman because he was subsidized by the provincial Department of Community Services to provide denture work to people who were receiving employment support, income assistance or disability support.
He encouraged some of his clients who received income assistance to refer their friends and family to his clinics with the promise of cash compensation, the report said. Wortman also encouraged some marginalized and racialized people to have their teeth pulled "so he could give them 'a mouth full of beautiful teeth.'"
The report also said the killer was known to make sexually suggestive comments to marginalized clients who visited his clinic.
Fifield said she learned from participants that the gunman often targeted Black women and "was a well-known household name among many African Nova Scotian communities."
The participants told the report's authors they did not feel safe reporting the incidents of sexual violence or harassment to police because of previous experiences in which marginalized people were not believed. The report also noted that "formal institutions have perpetuated, and continue to perpetuate, acts of violence and oppression" against many marginalized people, particularly Indigenous people and Black people.
Fifield said there should be an alternative to reporting sexual assault to police. "This is important for individuals who have had long history and continued history of violence being used against them by police and people in positions of power," she said.
Establishing a "third-party" reporting program for sexual assault is one of 21 recommendations in the report, which was the result of conversations with survivors of Wortman's violence.
Other recommendations include more government funding for services for sex workers and people who experience sexual violence, improved screening of professionals who provide services to marginalized people, and a mandatory school education program that covers gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and bystander intervention.
The report also calls for a 24-hour phone line for victims of sexual assault, increased funding for transition houses for victims of gender-based violence, and funding to community organizations to hire African Nova Scotian and Indigenous advocates who help people navigate the legal system and other services for victims of gender-based violence.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press