RCMP 'at the highest level' knew N.S. gunman's spouse was being investigated

·4 min read
Chief Supt. Chris Leather testifies at the Mass Casualty Commission on Thursday. (CBC - image credit)
Chief Supt. Chris Leather testifies at the Mass Casualty Commission on Thursday. (CBC - image credit)

One of Nova Scotia's top Mounties says the charges against the spouse of the gunman responsible for the April 2020 mass killings in the province were serious and there was "corporate awareness at the highest level" within the RCMP about them.

Chief Supt. Chris Leather testified at the Mass Casualty Commission Thursday about the criminal charges laid against Lisa Banfield, who was accused of supplying ammunition to the gunman, Gabriel Wortman. The charges, laid in December 2020, were dismissed this week after the case completed restorative justice.

Michael Scott, lawyer for many of the victims' families, asked Leather whether the charges were intended to delay or obstruct the inquiry into the rampage, which left 22 victims, including a pregnant woman.

Commission counsel has suggested the charges could be seen to prevent certain evidence from being subpoenaed to the inquiry because it would be protected while any court case was active.

Leather denied that. "The idea of — even the sentiment of — obstructing any agency is foreign to me."

'We were going to pursue that with all our ability'

He said while the RCMP was aware the inquiry had just been called, it didn't impact their decision to continue investigating and present the evidence against Banfield to the public prosecution service.

"We were going to pursue that with all our ability unless we were directed to do otherwise, and there are very few sources that can provide that kind of direction to have us halt an investigation," he said. "We certainly did not receive any such recommendation or direction from any authority above us to do so."

Leather said members within the RCMP's national headquarters had been briefed.

"There was corporate awareness at the highest level of our decision to continue the investigation and submit it to public prosecution."

Optics not a factor in charges

Chief. Supt. Darren Campbell testified earlier this week that senior officers, including Leather, discussed the optics of charging Banfield, who is a survivor of domestic violence perpetrated by the gunman.

Leather testified Thursday that while there were discussions about how charges would be perceived, they did not factor into the decision to charge her.

"We make many unpopular decisions," he said.

Mass Casualty Commission
Mass Casualty Commission

Just weeks before she was charged, Banfield re-enacted for police investigators what she saw and experienced the night of the mass casualties. Her lawyer has suggested she was never cautioned beforehand that she was under investigation or had a right to consult a lawyer.

Scott asked Leather whether he was ever privy to discussion about the idea the charges might not be viable because she wasn't cautioned. He said he was not.

Scott also asked if he viewed the charges as "minor," as they have been characterized by some during the inquiry.

"Of course, depending on the circumstances, they may be looked at as rather benign in the terms of the scale of firearms offences that we typically investigate, but that of course that is not the lens that I would look at these particular charges. They would be high profile, serious under the circumstances."

'Institutional betrayal' by RCMP

Kristina Fifield, a trauma therapist at the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, said in an interview with CBC on Thursday that Banfield should never have been charged.

She said the control and manipulation the gunman subjected Banfield to should have been better understood, as well as what the long-term abuse meant for her safety.

"She was a victim that night. Just because she survived … some individuals in the public have placed blame on her, and that is not fair. That is not OK. She's lucky she survived that night. She was victim No. 1."

Eric Woolliscroft/CBC
Eric Woolliscroft/CBC

Fifield, who is a participant in the inquiry, also called the RCMP's request to have Banfield re-enact what she had gone through the night of the rampage "harmful."

"I can't imagine putting any survivor or victim through that. It should never have happened. That is not ethically, morally OK, and again goes to the lack of understanding and compassion for human beings. Lisa should not have had to do that.

"When you talk about harms, when you talk about wounding, when you talk about betrayal, that was institutional betrayal and secondary wounding by the RCMP."

Fifield said she is concerned about what message is being sent to victims of domestic or intimate partner violence because of Banfield's treatment, and said victim-blaming can prevent some people from seeking help or leaving dangerous situations and further isolate them.

The Mass Casualty Commission is expected to file its final report with recommendations in November. Fifield urged the commission to include accountability measures in that report.

"Too often, recommendations in these inquiries … on paper they look great, and then they sit on shelves," she said. "We really truly need to look at how we hold systems accountable."

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