In Portapique rampage investigation, Lisa Banfield is not – and should not be – on trial

The public has long struggled with domestic abuse survivors to believe. Support often relies on the expectation that they will be perfect, as if that were remotely possible. The reality is that survivors are complex, like all of us. Over time, they find themselves trapped in a nightmare they think they can’t escape.

Lisa Banfield survived the night of April 18, 2020, when her common-law husband tied her up, brutally assaulted her and went on a murderous rampage in Portapique, Nova Scotia. Before that, she survived 19 years of abuse from him.

Twenty-two members of this community did not survive this night of violence. Neither did the murderer, who was killed by the police in an effort to end his attack – and for this reason there is no criminal trial. Instead, there is the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry, a fact-finding process intended to prevent future such massacres.

Banfield has been fully cooperative since the night of the murders, including providing a statement to police from his hospital bed. When she testified before the commission on Friday, many family members of the victims left the courtroom ahead of her testimony. The commission had made the wise but controversial decision to shield her from cross-examination, a shield also granted to witnesses, including the RCMP.

Critics argue that although Banfield granted five interviews to the Commission and at least four others to the RCMP, there are gaps in his testimony. How did she survive a night in the woods in her yoga pants? How did she unravel? These fit into a tale of suspicion that she was somehow complicit in her ex-partner’s plan for the mass shooting. Police have not brought charges, suggesting they don’t believe Banfield knew what his attacker had planned. The only charge against her – supplying ammunition – has been stayed and will be dealt with through a restorative justice process.

The request to push her into inconsistencies is an attempt to satisfy the devastating but understandable need to turn the commission into a criminal trial. This effort has unfortunately relied on victim-blaming tropes that expect perfection from survivors of domestic violence. Banfield is not and should not be judged.

Observers on social media continually asked, “If the abuse was so terrible, why did she stay? Why didn’t she report it to the police? These erroneous questions do not make it possible to understand the complexity of conjugal violence, especially over a long period. Banfield testified that his ex-partner kept guns all over the house and moved them around except for one constant spot – the gun on his bedside table.

Banfield said she was terrified for her safety and doubted anyone would believe her. This reflects the experiences of victims of domestic violence across the country. Women stay for many reasons, especially if their abuser is someone like Banfield’s partner, who was wealthy and respected in the community. It was reported that dozens of people were aware of the abuse, including the police, who were called at least twice by concerned community members – with no apparent action taken.

The question shouldn’t be why Banfield stayed; that should be the reason why we still live in a society that couldn’t allow him to leave safely. Intimate partner violence is often seen as a private issue, the responsibility of the people in the relationship. This massacre has revealed that this is a raging public health and safety issue that needs to be treated like the epidemic that it is – an issue that can be a harbinger of a mass violence.

As the commission continues its work, we must remember that Banfield is not an extension of his violent partner; she is a survivor of his violence. Vilating her won’t bring back the 22 people murdered that day.

Farrah Khan and Sarah Boesveld are gender justice advocates in Toronto.

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