What is a woman’s life worth? A Tale of Two Inquiries

There have been a lot of foundational documents produced by the Mass Casualty Inquiry, the public inquiry created to examine the massacre in Portapique and environs in April 2020. And there have been a lot more material and facts uncovered by journalists including those at The Chronicle Herald, Elizabeth McMillan, Tim Bousquet, Stephen Kimber and Paul Palango.

What seem like smaller details provide clues into much bigger issues that are fundamental to a serious investigation of the killings of 22 people, and the reign of terror that occurred for 14 hours over that April weekend.

Let’s compare the Portapique Inquiry to another inquiry. the Lionel Desmond Fatality Inquiry which wrapped up a few months ago. As many will remember, Desmond was the former Canadian forces infantry soldier who had been diagnosed with PTSD. He fatally shot his wife, his 10 year old daughter, his mother and then shot and killed himself in rural Nova Scotia in early January 2017. The preceding evening, he had visited St Martha’s hospital in Antigonish where he was seen by nurses and a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist thought Desmond was healthy enough to leave hospital the following morning. That morning Desmond visited Leaves and Limbs, a hunting store in town where he bought an SKS 762 semi-automatic rifle.

Later in the day, around 4 pm and dressed in army fatigues, Desmond drove to his in-laws’ home in Upper Big Tracadie where he and his family were living. It was there that he carried out the murder-suicide. Desmond is one of eight members of his battalion who took their own lives after returning to Canada from serving in Afghanistan.

One difference in the two inquiries is that in the Desmond Fatality Inquiry there was sworn evidence. That means something. Virtually every witness who gave evidence was sworn. And all were subject to cross examination. Neither is the case in the Portapique inquiry.

Another difference between the two inquiries was that witnesses could not attend the hearing until after they gave evidence at the Desmond Inquiry– this is standard procedure because it is not a sound idea to allow one person’s testimony to influence what the next witness has to say.

Panel of RCMP; from left Adam Merchant, Aaron Patton and Stuart Beselt (Credit: Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press)

The Portapique Inquiry featured what Canadaland host Jesse Brown calls the “talk show panel”. Three RCMP officers at the Mass Casualty Inquiry are relating what they saw as the first officers on the scene on Apr. 18, 2020 in Portapique. None of their evidence is sworn and each officer can listen to the other’s testimony and then choose what he himself wants to divulge. Or they can launch into a line of talk prompted by another “panelist.

Yet another difference between the two inquiries is, unlike in the Portapique Inquiry, at the Desmond Inquiry there was no special treatment accorded to the “professional” witnesses including psychiatrists, social workers and therapists. Indeed, under oath, all had to testify about Desmond as a patient and assess his level of risk to himself and others. He had spent about three months at a residential treatment centre, Ste Anne’s near Montréal which caters to veterans with PTSD and other illnesses related to military service. His time at Ste Anne’s was months prior to the murders. The federal dept of Veterans’ Affairs was not let off the hook either. Judge Warren Zimmer at the Desmond Inquiry noted that Desmond “fell through the cracks” as he went from the structured environment of being an in-patient to receiving virtually no therapy or psychological care for the final months of his life. No one, including Veterans’ Affairs, was keeping tabs on him.

Contrast this to the hullabaloo set up by Nasha Nijhawan, the lawyer acting for the National Police Federation (the RCMP officers’ union). On behalf of her client, she determinedly sought to exclude any RCMP officers from testifying due to their alleged fragile mental health. She called Dr. Nicholas Carleton, a “specialist” in police trauma from University of Regina. Nijhawan was not successful in blocking the testimony of the front-line cops, but she did succeed in the “go softly” approach.

In the Portapique case, we now know that a key person needed to shed light on the events of the night of April 18, and possibly something about the murders on April 19, will probably not testify. Lisa Banfield, Gabriel Wortman’s spouse, was almost certainly also victimized by him. She was there with him at a party in their cottage earlier on April 18. She says she went to bed after an argument with him. According to Banfield, Wortman was in a rage when he entered the bedroom where he handcuffed her and threw away her shoes to prevent her from running off. She says that somehow she escaped him by running and hiding in the woods overnight. She was wearing a light top and yoga pants, no coat, socks or shoes. The temperature fell to zero degrees that night. But we will know little else in the absence of sworn and cross-examined testimony except through taped interviews—she gave four of them — to police. Whatever she said on tape, is likely the last we will hear from her on the subject.

Many men suffer from PTSD but very few kill their immediate family

At the Desmond inquiry a glimmer of hope shone in when some people – notably Dr Ardath Whynacht a sociologist at Mount Allison University attempted to use a feminist lens to explain what had happened.

“I think we really need to be careful about making an easy assumption that PTSD, with this particular veteran, caused him to murder his family,” she said. “We know the research on PTSD … studies do show an elevated risk of violence for veterans returning home from war.”

She warned that “we really need to be careful about making an easy assumption that PTSD, with this particular veteran, caused him to murder his family.” She noted that one woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days in Canada. Heather Byrne, Executive Director of Alice House, a Dartmouth-based second-stage housing program for women, said that intimate partner violence has to be confronted and dealt with. She noted,

“There are certainly services for women here, I don’t think we have enough services for men. I think what we have to do is listen to women, and hear them and believe them right off the bat.”

Many who watched –and even those who participated in the Desmond Inquiry– fought to keep the gender element out of discussion. Some insisted – especially supporters of the military — that Lionel Desmond was a troubled man with complex PTSD who was mentally ill. But Dr Whynacht noted that many men suffer from PTSD and serious mental health issues and very few kill their immediate family.

Indeed there was a nasty backlash against Whynacht for daring to ask “Where in [Desmond’s] life did he learn that it was up to him to take the lives of the three women he was most close to? That’s not a question that we’ll be able to answer by looking at PTSD … We can’t ignore the role of family violence here.”

““Family and friends have said he [Desmond] was suffering from his wartime experiences… But let’s not forget that this was also a brutal act of domestic violence and take whatever facts we can … to use it as an opportunity to address the massive problem of family violence.”

Gail Lethbridge, Columnist for The Chronicle Herald

For merely questioning the dominant narrative that Desmond’s PTSD caused him to commit the crimes, Dr Whynacht faced a storm of death and rape threats and harassment by internet trolls.

But she wasn’t the only one who doubted the mainstream narrative. Gail Lethbridge, a columnist for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, wrote four days after the killings:

“Family and friends have said he [Desmond] was suffering from his wartime experiences… But let’s not forget that this was also a brutal act of domestic violence and take whatever facts we can from the Desmond tragedy to understand that, and to use it as an opportunity to address the massive problem of family violence.”

RCMP has to take some blame for victim’s death

So far, in the Portapique Inquiry there are few glimmers of the role gender-based violence played, though the inquiry was specifically charged with looking into gender-based violence—as 13 of the 22 victims were women.

Banfield was clearly abused by Wortman and there were broad hints that she was under his coercive control. The fact she bought ammunition for him, at his request, has not been fully explored. For example to purchase ammunition, one must first have taken the 11 hour long course, the Canadian Non-Restricted Firearms Safety Course (CFSC). After successfully completing the CFSC, a person has to apply for a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL). Banfield must have been certified in order to buy ammunition. She likely did not know what the ammunition was to be used for—but she bought it anyway.

“… But you know, we had to let her just pass on.”

RCMP Cst Ian Fahie, who did not get medical help to save Heather O’Brien

Heather O’Brien, on left, and three of her daughters. Photo submitted by daughter Darcy Dobson.

Another issue of gender violence – albeit at arm’s length — occurred on Sunday, April 19 at 10 am. Of course it was Gabriel Wortman who shot Heather O’Brien in the head. O’Brien, a nurse and a mother of eight, stopped her car on Plains Rd close to the killer, who was dressed as a Mountie standing near his tricked-out police car. He probably flagged her down. Fifteen minutes later, the killer was gone when two RCMP officers Cpl Ian Fahie and Cst Duane Ivany came on the scene, found Ms O’Brien and took her pulse. One officer thought her pulse was weak, the other thought she had no pulse. Though one officer called for an ambulance, the other cop cancelled the call minutes later insisting that O’Brien was deceased.“… But you know, we had to let her just pass on.” RCMP Cst Ian Fahie said in his statement to the Commission investigators.

Since when have the police been experts in establishing if a victim is terribly wounded or dead? The RCMP officers never thought to call headquarters to demand a local doctor or ambulance come to the scene? As columnist Paul Schneidereit observed in The Chronicle Herald, “…police officers are not highly trained medical professionals.”

Chilling read-out from O’Brien’s FitBit shows her heart kept beating till 6 pm. Submitted by victim’s family.

And as he wrote here, O’Brien was not dead at 10.18 am. In fact her heart was beating at 90 beats per minute even two hours after EHS (the ambulance service) was told they were not needed because O’Brien had died. However, her heart continued to beat until 6 pm the same day according to her FitBit. O’Brien’s family checked her Fitbit, which had tracked and recorded her heartbeat; it proved she was alive for the next eight hours, and perhaps could have been saved. But the Mounties did little for her but drag her from her car, lay her on the pavement and cover her with a tarp for hours. The family claims their mother was left to die. This is just one of a stupefying cascade of errors and incompetence by the RCMP.

To top it off, the RCMP pointed guns at one of O’Brien’s daughters, Michaella Scott, and told her to leave when she came rushing to find out if her mother was all right. She drove off, only to return minutes later to demand to know the truth about her mother.

To add insult to injury, statements by RCMP officers Fahie, Ivany and two others are missing from the public website of the Mass Casualty Commission. Never posted was the statement by O’Brien’s family which pointed out how their mother could have been saved, according to heart-beat tracking information captured by their mother’s FitBit. Instead, the O’Brien family was left no option but to post the FitBit information and a denunciation of the RCMP inaction on Facebook.

Minutes before Wortman killed Heather O’Brien, he had killed Kristen Beaton, a nurse on her way to work that morning. Beaton’s car was parked at the side of Plains Rd when O’Brien stopped her car, no doubt to lend a hand to whom she thought was the cop at the scene (Wortman). Beaton’s husband Nick had been in touch with her by text since she left their home. Before 10 am, Nick Beaton reported Kristen missing to the RCMP when she did not show up at work. But police refused to give him her coordinates gleaned from her phone. When a concerned relative of the Beatons did show up on the scene, police chased the person away.

Surely the treatment meted out to O’Brien, her family, and to Nick Beaton was way below the standard of what any of us would expect from arguably the best-trained police in Canada. The shooter had long gone; the cops were not directly under threat at the time, and relatives do show up to ask after their missing loved one. But the RCMP officers’ callousness tells us a lot – and it may tell us a lot about the value they put on women victims. One thing is for certain: after reading this and this, there is not a woman out there who wants an RCMP officer to determine her fate.

At the end of the day, what can we learn? 3 things

What can we learn from comparing the two inquiries? By looking at my blog NS murders: Two tragedies must be viewed thru a feminist lens published two years ago – just after the Portapique Massacre – one can see that both inquiries had to deal with three common elements. First there is the issue of how an argument or domestic falling out, or a woman’s plan to leave her spouse or resist his control, can trigger murder, notably femicide. Second, the role of power, specifically power of men with a military or policing background, or men who want the power of police and use a uniform, and (in one case) a mock police cruiser as part of an elaborate murder plan. Finally, the open secret that both Nova Scotia shooters amassed guns, ammunition and even assault weapons. Lionel Desmond bought his assault weapon on the very day of the murders – but was never challenged or stopped. He bought his assault rifle legally – – but a firearms officer rubber-stamped the shooter’s firearms renewal, because Desmond had received an “all clear” recommendation from Dr Paul Smith in Fredericton –despite notes in Desmond’s file that he was mentally unstable. In the Wortman case, his wife Lisa Banfield and two of her relatives had purchased ammunition for him and likely never asked why he needed it.

But the common elements don’t take away from the fact that the Mass Casualty Inquiry has circumvented sworn evidence of police officers and others, and has dropped posting and mentioning events on their public website that tend to show the RCMP in a bad light. At least the Desmond Inquiry got close to the core of what took place and who were responsible. Will that ever happen with the Portapique Inquiry?

Featured Image: Wild Cherries, Spring by Tom Thomson (1915). Thomson was a Canadian artist and a member of the Group of Seven.

One comment

  1. FYI, the Mass Casualty Commission has updated the source documents for the Plains Road foundational document, probably this morning (as there were many new documents since I checked yesterday afternoon). I’ve noticed there is usually a delay in posting all the documentation.

    The FitBit info is shocking and I’m very interested to see if the MCC dares to address it.


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