For many of us, the news that, before he shot and killed at least 22 people in rural Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19, Gabriel Wortman had assaulted his partner, was no surprise. There had been many hushed conversations within the violence against women community throughout the week about this probability. Our only question was why the RCMP was not saying anything about it.
Speculation ended on April 23rd, with the Global News story confirming what we had suspected. But even so, the RCMP remained cagey: in a media conference on April 24th, Superintendent Darren Campbell said only that Wortman “assaulted someone who was known to him.”
Let’s not talk about it
It would be easy – but wrong – to explain this away by saying the police wanted to protect the woman’s privacy or they were too busy hunting for Wortman to make the connections.
Of course, the woman’s privacy matters, but the fact of his ongoing mistreatment of her was not a secret in the community where they lived. As one neighbour, interviewed before information about the domestic assault was made public, said to the media:
Since the RCMP knew about Wortman’s assault on his partner by Sunday morning, when the woman provided the police with important information to assist them identify him, why could this not have been shared with the public by early in the week, thus laying to rest the speculation and rumours – many of them inaccurate – that were circulating across the country?
Maybe for the same reason that violence against women is always shoved to the back: we just don’t want to acknowledge how pervasive it is.
As Andree Cormier tweeted on April 24th:
“It’s easier to believe that the shooter was crazy and blame mental illness rather than try to dismantle a culture of misogyny and male violence.”
Calling it what it is
“The massacre in Nova Scotia this weekend became Canada’s deadliest. The second and third deadliest also had misogyny and violence against women at their core. In the Montreal Massacre in 1989, the perpetrator explicitly targeted women and ‘feminists.’ In the Toronto van attack, almost two years ago to the day, the perpetrator was involved in the incel movement . .
We recognize how far-reaching and impactful these tragedies are on the families and their communities. Until we acknowledge the role that misogyny and violence against women played in this tragedy, we cannot begin to prevent others like it.”
“We are saddened but in no way shocked to hear mainstream media now confirming that violence against women lay at the heart of this heinous crime. . . .We need to recognize the underlying attitudes and beliefs that tolerate and normalize smaller acts of violence against women and perpetuate an environment that leads to deadly outcomes. . . . The male violence inflicted upon women and their children every day is a pandemic in its own right. The violence is not exclusive to the woman: it can include threats against children, the woman’s extended family, friends, neighbours, pets and often lasts for years, even after the relationship has ended. Violence against women takes place in quiet rural communities as well as large cities.”
None of this should be news to us or to the authorities investigating mass killings. As I wrote here almost three years ago, there is a well-documented link between the “oh-so-private world of intimate partner violence and the oh-so-public world of mass killings.”
In one mass killing after another, authorities have found a history of violence against women and/or misogyny on the part of the killer. That – not mental illness – is the most significant common factor among mass killings, especially those involving the use of firearms.
The United States leads the world in mass killings, so that is where most of the research can be found. A study conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety found that in more than 50% of all mass shootings between 2009 and 2017, an intimate partner or family member of the shooter was among the victims. Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, notes:
“Most mass shootings are rooted in domestic violence . . . It’s an important red flag.”
It’s time to change the narrative
We need to take steps to change the narrative on both intimate partner violence and mass killings. We know enough now that we should be making the link automatically rather than denying it, as seems to have been the case in Nova Scotia.
We need to understand the violence that happens within families as a form of terrorism rather than as a private matter between two individuals. It would also help if intimate partner violence were seen as the public health and safety issue that it is.
If men who commit acts of violence against women were held accountable for their actions at the individual level, rather than being given a pass or a slap on the wrist, not only would women and children be safer, we just might reduce the level of mass killings, too.
As we continue to live through COVID-19, let’s consider the words of Lana Payne, in a recent tweet:
“Misogyny kills. So much effort. So much work. So much energy. So many tears. By so many women and advocates and survivors. All spent trying to end VAW. I feel such anger. And such sorrow. Let’s all remember one thing: VAW is also a pandemic.”