Declaring hard truths

Last week, the final report of the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission, entitled Turning the Tide Together, was released. The Commission was an independent public inquiry convened by the federal government and the government of Nova Scotia in October 2020 to examine the mass casualty event — in which a sole perpetrator killed 22 people throughout rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020 — with the goal of developing meaningful recommendations for change.

Like the Commission’s proceedings, the report is a lengthy document: 3,000 + pages, in seven volumes, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the Commission’s work. The Executive Summary alone is more than 300 pages long, and there are 130 recommendations for system changes.

As could have been predicted, many are focused on the RCMP, which came under close scrutiny during the Commission’s proceedings, both for its response during the hours of the mass casualty event itself and for larger, longer-standing internal structural issues. Those recommendations focus on the need for major changes to RCMP oversight, processes and culture.

Perhaps less predictably, the Commission’s report and recommendations also take a close look at intimate partner violence and its role in the events of April 2020, calling for “a greater focus on addressing and preventing the root causes of violence in our communities, including gender-based violence, intimate partner violence and family violence.”

The report notes that:

“Misogyny and unhealthy traditional conceptions of masculinity are root causes of mass casualty incidents. . . . The division between public and private violence is illusory and problematic.”

“Keeping women unsafe”

The recommendations aimed at improving responses to IPV are strong and positive. Obviously, I am pleased to see them — especially in the face of the denial that IPV was part of the story by family members of some of those killed – and I will explore some of them here.

However, it is deeply troubling that it took the deaths of 22 people who were not in an intimate relationship with the perpetrator to get a national inquiry. Why has there not already been such an inquiry into the so-called private violence to which countless women across this country – including this perpetrator’s partner – are subjected; violence that sometimes leads to their deaths and sometimes, as in this case, to acts of what we call public violence? How many women’s lives might have been saved had such an inquiry been held?

The seriousness and endemic nature of intimate partner violence has long-since been well established. The increase in the rates of that violence, including lethal violence, during the pandemic should have made it all but impossible to ignore that reality.

As the report says:

“Our collective and systemic failures to prevent gender-based violence are not attributable to a lack of knowledge. . . . We, as a society, perpetuate women’s exposure to risks and contribute to their lack of safety.”

Last year’s femicide inquest in Renfrew County, Ontario, offers a clear roadmap for moving forward to improve our responses to IPV and, ultimately, to eradicate it, yet the provincial government has all but ignored those 86 recommendations. It is gratifying to see how often the Commission report refers to the CKW inquest and its recommendations – maybe some of them will get the attention they deserve housed within this higher profile report.

Not shying away

Commission Chair Michael MacDonald, when presenting the final report, said:

“We do not shy away from declaring hard truths.”

He’s right. This report is hard hitting and doesn’t mince words. It calls for “transformative change,” for prevention and intervention rather than prediction, for an understanding of a “violence continuum” rather than two silos of private and public violence. It says a “whole of society” approach is required to make the changes needed to create safe communities.

Encouragingly, the recommendations intended to improve responses to intimate partner violence repeatedly call for governments and other institutions to work with and support “community-based groups and experts in the gender-based advocacy and support sector.”

Among many very interesting recommendations, a few strike me as especially inspiring.

One calls for action to counter victim blaming and hyper-responsibilization of women survivors of gender-based violence. The report defines hyper-responsibilization — not a word that exactly rolls off the tongue — as the holding of an individual to higher standards than what would typically be expected of the average person. Those of us who work with survivors see this all too often.

The report also notes:

“The unacceptably low rate of reporting of gender-based violence is a result of factors such as systemic barriers rooted in the criminal justice system. . .  the complex interactions among the criminal, family law and immigration law regimes; and the fact that these systems do not adequately take into account the reality of women’s lives.”

Another recommendation would replace mandatory charging policies and protocols with “frameworks for structured decision-making by police, with a focus on violence prevention.” This recommendation, similar to one made by the CKW inquest jury, is long overdue. We know that mandatory charging policies – while helpful when they were introduced in the mid-1980s – have proven to cause great harm to women, especially those from marginalized communities.

Coercive control, the newest buzz word in the world of IPV, gets some attention as well, with a recommendation that effective approaches be found for addressing it: the establishment of a federal, provincial, territorial advisory group to include community experts and advocates; public awareness campaigns, and changes to family laws to ensure proper consideration of family violence, including coercive control. This recommendation also proposes that the Criminal Code be amended to recognize that “reasonable resistance violence” by a victim of coercive control be considered self-defence.

Epidemic-level funding for GBV prevention and intervention is called for, as are external accountability mechanisms for policing responses to IPV and a shift away from carceral responses and towards primary prevention.

We all know that, without accountability, implementation of these recommendations – like so often in the past – is not likely. And so, this report proposes the establishment, by statute, of an “independent and impartial gender-based violence commissioner with adequate, stable funding and effective powers, including the responsibility to make an annual report to Parliament.”

It’s not just government that is responsible for ending gender-based violence and making all of our communities safe for everyone. As Commission Chair MacDonald reminded us at the end of the public presentation of the report:

“This is not the first report to make findings and recommendations like these, but with all of your help, it could be the last.”

The Commission report gives us a powerful tool; now it is up to all of us to use it.

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