Early in the pandemic there were frequent reports that domestic violence was increasing not only in frequency but also in intensity. Supports available to those experiencing domestic violence, limited before the onset of the pandemic, were shown to be completely insufficient in a moment of lockdowns that limited women’s access to the privacy needed to reach out for help.
Then came the news that was somehow both shocking and expected at the same time: a mass shooting in Portapique – a rural Nova Scotian community – completed by a man with a history of violence against his female partner. This is a worst-case scenario that has doubtlessly played out in the minds of too many women closely connected to domestic violence, whether she was verbally threatened by a male abuser or not. Violence in the home always has a possibility of spilling over into the community.
Political leaders grieved with Nova Scotians. In the wake of the incident the federal government altered gun legislation. The provincial government urged Nova Scotians to come together by displaying Nova Scotia tartan and flags, blue ribbons, and signs of ‘Nova Scotia Strong.’ One year later politicians recognized the tragic day with moments of silence, tweets of remembrance and kind words, and speeches honouring the victims.
Yet, none of these acts have significantly shifted either public policy or the societal normalization of intimate partner violence. This lack of action stems from the masculine nature of the state, which has a tendency to subvert feminist issues and voices. Real change necessitates a disruption of the masculine state.
The Context and Place in Nova Scotia’s Mass Shooting
The events of April 18 and 19 in 2020 have been rightly termed a mass murder inflicted by Gabriel Wortman. 22 individuals were killed, and several others were injured by Wortman’s actions. However, there is more to this case than what appears on the surface. Details of the killer that started to come out in the days after the tragedy revealed the significance of both context and place.
A key point in the context of the events was the revelation of a long history of intimate partner violence towards his common-law spouse. The theme of domestic violence was a minor thread in the broader news reports of the tragic events. Domestic violence was shown to be an issue with the inclusion of accounts made by current and former neighbors. The most disturbing account was made by a male friend of Wortman who upon hearing Wortman make threats towards his common-law spouse brushed it off as the perpetrator having had ‘too many drinks.’ Other accounts made by women showed a greater degree of understanding. One neighbor was quoted as not being “surprised to some degree” that Wortman inflicted this level of violence in the community given the level of violence against his partner she had witnessed. Yet another neighbour expressed being disappointed in the lack of action taken by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) when she reported domestic violence and illegal weapons in 2013—seven years before the deadly days in 2020.
What is interesting in the case of the latter neighbors account is that the first time (or perhaps several times) she encountered the violence that Wortman’s common-law spouse was experiencing, she simply encouraged the woman to seek help without further action. This is a common strategy in rural towns. In rural communities, this strategy is often paired with others that shield the perpetrator from consequences. These strategies include the assumption that domestic violence is either a private matter that neighbors should not get involved in or the assumption that domestic violence is normal.
Prior to the covid-19 pandemic, the supply of intimate partner violence supports was inadequate with women and children being turned away from domestic violence shelters on an average of 620 times a day. As heart-wrenching as this statistic is, it is important to recognize the urban/rural divide in available supports. Studies suggest that in rural areas the prevalence and severity of domestic violence is higher on average than in urban areas.
In the context of the Nova Scotia mass murder, while Wortman undeniably had connections to the Halifax Regional Municipality given how the shooters’ business was located in downtown Dartmouth, the rural roots of the events should not be ignored. The isolation of rural areas is marked not only by the culture that treats domestic violence as a private household matter but also means that domestic violence shelters are geographically further away. One story that came out in the following days was how the male perpetrator removed the back tires of his common-law spouses car while they were at a party together and she wanted to leave early. This shines great light on how difficult it can be to leave an abuser in a rural area where vehicles are a necessity for getting around. Alternatively, if there is a shelter that is geographically close in a rural community, it is easy for the abusive partner to locate his victim. Altogether, these factors make it incredibly difficult for women to escape abusive relationships.
Yet, the inability to prevent violence in the home and the broader violence that unfolded in the community cannot be fully blamed on the normalization and isolation of domestic violence at an individual, community level. The fact that at least one neighbor did bring this issue to the RCMP and seemingly no action was taken points to larger structural issues in society. It points to the existence of a feminicidal state—a state that reaffirms the power of men and reinforces the vulnerability of women. Preventing domestic violence should not be individualized given how it is occurring within a broader social structure and set of power relations.
#NovaScotiaStrong: Marginalizing Feminism
In the aftermath of April 18-19, politicians upheld the feminicidal state. The gendered nature of the events were undermined. First by the linkage of #NovaScotiaStrong to the broader struggle to stop the spread of covid-19 and next by the struggle to have a public inquiry with a feminist lens called to investigate the mass murder.
At the time of the mass shooting, Premier Stephen McNeil and chief medical doctor Dr. Robert Strang were providing daily weekday briefings to Nova Scotians in lockdown on the state of covid-19 in the province. On April 20, the daily briefing addressed the mass shooting. This was a moment where domestic violence, and the gendered nature of the mass murder, could have been addressed. The sentiment of Nova Scotia Strong could have been used to compel Nova Scotians to take care of one another at a time of increased domestic violence. However, the sentiments fell short of this. The core theme of the address was the need to come together, without physically coming together to honor the victims of the tragedy without increasing the risk of the spread of covid-19 (Figure 1). As can be seen, there is no—or little—mention of the misogynistic nature of the mass murder, the roots of domestic violence, nor even the word ‘women’ even though the majority of victims were in fact women.
Figure 1: Wordcloud Generated Using Premier McNeil’s Address to Nova Scotians on April 20, 2020
The tweet following the attachment of the video emphasized “The best way we can honour the victims of this senseless tragedy is to continue to act in ways that protect our fellow Nova Scotians amid #COVID19NS.” This tweet, while effectively influencing Nova Scotians to take care of one another in the context of the pandemic, fails to emphasize how there needs to be more openness surrounding conversations of domestic violence; it does not challenge the normalization of silence around this issue. Rather, such sentiments necessitate an individualization, which reinforces the status quo of male dominance, female subservience.
Feminists in Nova Scotia, however, rallied against this neutralizing rhetoric that treated the mass murder as a one-off event amidst a more serious public safety threat (covid-19). These women called for a public inquiry, with a feminist lens, to get a fuller understanding of the events, which would hopefully compel governments to take domestic violence more seriously. At first, the provincial and federal government attempted to jointly launch a private review, but the activism of feminists successfully had this decision overturned, and the private review turned into a more exhaustive public inquiry. Yet there was no promise of a feminist lens.
A more specific example of how feminist insights are overshadowed by the masculine state is how the common law partner of Wortman has been charged with illegally transferring ammunition that was later used during the mass murder. What this criminal charge fails to recognize is that the common law spouse was acting under duress. With frequent physical and psychological violence, it should be clear that the common law spouse was not acting under her own free will. Rather, she was likely just trying to survive.
The lack of an organized women’s movement decreases the ability of feminists to hold governments to account for their (lack of) actions. Additionally the lack of organization can mean that focuses become narrowed to one-off victories and not long-term change. The amount of time the public inquiry is slotted to take can disconnect the feminist intention from a potential feminist outcome. This is why greater attention must be paid and why feminists must be paying attention as a collective act to ensure that the work does not fall on the shoulders of only a few.
The Path Forward: Disrupting the Masculine State
While the planned moments of silence and other events to remember the victims are necessary, we also need more. Moments of silence are for remembering the past, not for creating an alternative future. While the joint public inquiry is a sign of a positive step in the right direction, now is not a time to hope that the report set to be published in 2022 will result in the substantial level of change that is needed.
Change is not an easy task. The normalization of domestic violence at the individual and community levels has been accomplished by the broader normalization of a masculine state that does not serve the benefits of women but rather serves to re-inscribe hierarchies that place (white) men at the top. While close feminist scrutiny is needed throughout the process of the joint public review, there is additionally a need to disrupt the broader status quo of who is able to make decisions and how those decisions are enforced. Right now the decision-making processes and enforcement mechanisms are dominated by (white) men—this very clearly has not benefited all, or even most, women. This needs to change. All feminist eyes need to be on the joint public review process while all feminist voices need to be making clear that domestic violence, whether in urban or rural spaces, is not normal. We need to have a frank discussion on what supports are missing and how we can disrupt the masculine state to fill in the identified gaps to ensure that the events of May 18 and 19 are not a constant fear in the back of the minds of women experiencing or women who have survived intimate partner violence.