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Lisa Banfield Was Abused For Nearly 20 Years. Her Abuser Murdered 22 People. Why Is She On Trial?

An inquiry into Canada’s most deadly massacre in Nova Scotia examined the role of intimate partner violence in the killings. But should it also have looked deeper at the violence directed at Banfield after the mass murder?

Lisa Banfield turns and looks to her left during the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in July 2022.

(Photo: The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story contains descriptions of coercive control and violence.

Lisa Banfield spoke in a timid voice, raspy to start, describing the first time her common-law spouse attacked her. It was 2003, two years into her relationship with Gabriel Wortman, and the couple had a disagreement about staying the night at a party. Wortman was supposed to be the designated driver but had started drinking, so Banfield left the party without him. Wortman then tracked her down and erupted in anger. “I was driving, and he jumped in,” Banfield recalled. “And then he started smacking me in the face.”

She jumped out of the vehicle and ran toward the forest, a half-hour drive from their cottage in Portapique, N.S. Wortman dragged her out of the woods and continued to beat her until the lights of two passing all-terrains flashed in his face. Banfield broke up with Wortman after that night. But like most abusive relationships, it didn’t end there.

In April 2020, 17 years after that first attack, Wortman would become responsible for Canada’s worst mass killing, murdering 22 Nova Scotians over 13 hours before police shot and killed him. In July 2022, at a provincial-federal inquiry tasked with examining what gave rise to the killings, Banfield publicly recounted her relationship with Wortman for the first time since the massacre: that fateful first night of violence, the years of coercive control and abuse that followed and his final attack on her before committing mass murder.

The public, including loved ones of those killed during Wortman’s rampage, had waited more than two years to hear directly from Banfield, the woman who might hold answers to why her long-term spouse inexplicably murdered their family and friends. And though Banfield was also on the receiving end of Wortman’s violence, and had escaped the gunman herself before he went on his killing spree, many directed their ire toward her. The day of Banfield’s inquiry testimony—in a conference room at a downtown Halifax hotel—security was heightened, with metal detectors, a canine unit and tough-looking, plain-clothed cops with arms folded over their chests. Banfield looked straight at commission counsel Gillian Hnatiw, seemingly bracing herself against the hostility in the room. Despite her descriptions of the pain and abuse she endured, some people in attendance continued to disbelieve her and blame her for what transpired.

The day of Banfield’s appearance, a Halifax women’s shelter posted on social media, pleading with the public to avoid victim-blaming. “Not doing so prevents society from acknowledging and confronting misogyny and violence,” read the statement from Adsum for Women and Children. “Lisa Banfield is not responsible for the violent actions of the perpetrator committed in April 2020. Lisa is a survivor of decades of abuse and carries no blame.”

Still, the vitriolic comments flooded in. “She should carry half the blame and go to jail for the rest of her life,” one Facebook user wrote. “And I would be terrified to go out in public if I were her.” Another commenter wrote, “I hope she never has a good night’s rest again, walk in fear Lisa.”

That middle-of-the-road attack and the violence Banfield experienced at the hands of Wortman foreshadowed what he was capable of—something that, according to an expert report prepared for the commission, precedes the vast majority of all mass shootings. Yet, despite doing five lengthy interviews with the commission and four interviews with the RCMP, as well as submitting to a re-enactment video and undergoing a psychological assessment describing the assaults, threats, humiliation and intimidation she was subjected to by Wortman, some people have called into question her recollection of the night the attack started and have suggested she is somehow to blame. They’ve said she assisted Wortman by purchasing ammunition for him, something Banfield was criminally charged for following the attack. That she just wants to cash in on Wortman’s estate, which was left to her. That she was with him for the money. That she shouldn’t have stayed with him. That she should’ve done more to stop Wortman from committing the massacre the night it began.

The Mass Casualty Commission concluded proceedings in September 2022 and will submit a final report and recommendations next March. In addition to examining the cause, the commission will look at the response of police and the role of gender-based violence and intimate partner violence in the massacre. But should the inquiry also be looking deeper at the violence directed at Banfield after the mass murder?

***

Banfield was like Wortman’s “Barbie doll,” a woman he could manipulate to do whatever he wanted, the inquiry heard. He saw himself as the man of the house and he treated Banfield like a servant, according to a psychological assessment written by Dr. Peter Jaffe, director emeritus of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University. The report describes the coercive control Banfield suffered in her relationship with Wortman. (That assessment is based on Banfield’s diary and police interviews with her and her siblings, ordered by Banfield’s lawyer James Lockyer after she was charged for providing Wortman with ammunition.) “After pulling her down the stairs and demanding she leave the house, he told her she could come back if she was willing to change her ways, because he was the captain of the ship. No one would ever tell him what to do,” it reads.

Banfield was under Wortman’s total control: She cooked and cleaned and waited on his every need, eventually quitting her job at a bank and working for him at his Dartmouth denturist office, making and polishing dentures. If Banfield didn’t behave as he wanted, Wortman would punish her by withholding her pay. Sometimes he threatened to cut Banfield off and throw her out. Sometimes he held a gun to her head. “He said he could blow off my head,” Banfield told the inquiry. (Despite multiple requests for interviews, Lisa Banfield did not speak to Chatelaine for this story.)

Wortman called Lisa his “trophy wife c-nt” and treated her like a “whore,” according to a description of his emotional abuse in Banfield’s psychological assessment. On Christmas Day in 2004, he raped her during a fight. Another time, during a vacation, Wortman said he would take pleasure in bashing her head into the wall and demanded she reimburse him the cost of the holiday. Throughout their relationship, he isolated Banfield from others and threatened to hurt her family, according to her sister Maureen Banfield; that worsened during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The night of the rampage, the couple was celebrating 19 years together, having drinks in their garage-style rec room, which they called the warehouse, near their sprawling waterfront Portapique log home. It’s where Wortman stored the decommissioned Ford Taurus police cars he had purchased in recent years, including one he had recreated to be a fully marked RCMP car. (At the time, it was legal to sell or possess police vehicle decals or equipment, though illegal to impersonate a police officer.) They were video-calling friends and described their plans to have a commitment ceremony. Banfield, upset by hearing one female friend say, “Don’t do it,” decided to leave. “I’m done,” she told Wortman and left to go home. But on the way to the cottage, she decided to go back and apologize. Wortman was too angry, so she left again. When Wortman arrived at the cottage, he ripped the blankets off of Banfield in bed. He yanked her by the hair onto the floor, kicked her and punched her. “Get dressed,” he demanded. Wortman shook gasoline all over the home, slipping as he pulled Banfield by her wrist out the door and toward the nearby ware- house. The log home exploded in flames. “It’s okay,” she pleaded with him, realizing the seriousness of his acts. “It’s not that bad.”

“It’s too late for that, Lisa,” she told the RCMP he said, ripping off her sneakers and dragging her by the hair. She squirmed out of her coat and raced into the darkness, trip- ping and falling. Wortman dragged her again, handcuffing her and firing his gun on the ground next to her when she resisted. “Get up,” she recalled him saying. “I’m not gonna tell ya again.”

“Please don’t do this,” Banfield pleaded. Wortman shot the ground again and threw her in the back of the mock RCMP car parked inside the warehouse. Fearful he would kill her, Banfield kicked at the car door. She reached around the Plexiglas divider and it slid open, wide enough to jump through.

Banfield escaped the car and ran across the road through the woods, branches clawing at her face and arms as gun- shots exploded in the distance. She dropped to her knees and crawled, tucking herself under a fallen tree. In the distance, she saw a home burst into flames and heard two men yelling, “What the fuck is going on?” She stayed silent, fearful her voice would draw Wortman, Banfield testified. She stood and started walking toward the voices to try to warn them of Wortman when she heard shots again. Then, silence. Banfield told the inquiry she feared every shadow was a shotgun. She pulled her face into her shirt and listened for footsteps. Then she heard a strange whistling. Was he trying to taunt her?

At daybreak, Banfield ran from the woods and sought help at a nearby home, where the homeowner called 911. After her escape, she would later learn, her spouse killed 22 people (including a pregnant woman), injured three others and set fire to more than a dozen properties and vehicles.

Lisa Banfield wipes away tears as she testifies at the Mass Casulaty Commission in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in July 2022.

(Photo: The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)

But during interviews with the RCMP and lawyers for some victims’ families, that homeowner questioned whether Banfield spent the night in the woods, fuelling conspiracy theories surrounding the tragedy. “I don’t know where she was but from what I seen, she didn’t spend all night in the woods,” Leon Joudrey told a podcast host. Joudrey also told the RCMP, without any evidence, that he suspected Banfield was involved in the shooting, and police should investigate her. (In October 2022, Joudrey died suddenly. He struggled with mental health issues in the aftermath of the massacre, and police say his death is not being treated as suspicious.)

In fact, Banfield had a fractured spine and ribs, bruises and scratches, and spent five nights in hospital following the attack, according to her medical records. (Banfield’s lawyer James Lockyer said he sympathizes with the victims’ families, but only conspiracy theorists believe she is responsible.)

Some of the blame directed at Banfield is related to the RCMP decision to charge her for allegedly transferring ammunition for a .22 rifle to Wortman prior to the shooting. Her brother and brother-in-law were also charged with purchasing the ammunition for Wortman, who didn’t own a firearm licence and would have required one to purchase ammo. The RCMP has said neither Banfield nor her family members had any knowledge of what Wortman would do with his illegal guns and the ammunition; he often stockpiled items, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to collect the ammo. The charges against Banfield and her family members were later dismissed. In November 2022, Banfield sued both the provincial and federal governments over the charges, claiming damages to her quality of life and reputation due to the accusations of providing Wortman with ammunition.

Still, Erin Breen, a lawyer representing three sexual assault and justice groups—Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, Wellness Within and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund—has said her clients were outraged when they learned Banfield was charged for what was essentially “survival behaviour.” “The real concern is that it would have a chilling effect on other survivors from going to police,” Breen told Chatelaine. “If people are afraid to come forward with their stories because they’re afraid they’re going to get charged, it’s a reason why they continue to keep the violence private.”

***

Victim-blaming is described as scrutinizing and questioning a victim about what they could’ve done to prevent an incident or behaviour, or how they might have invited it, according to an expert report prepared for the inquiry by professors Jude McCulloch and JaneMaree Maher of Australia’s Monash University. Victims are often seen as responsible for provoking violence. Banfield has become the scapegoat for Wortman’s crimes, Kaitlin Geiger-Bardswich of Women’s Shelters Canada told the inquiry. “She’s not responsible for the actions of her abusive partner. She’s not an extension of him, but because she survived, she has been scapegoated by a lot of different people, for reasons that people don’t understand, asking, ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ ‘Why didn’t she call the police?’” said Geiger-Bardwich.

A small sample of this scapegoating is visible on the Facebook groups that discuss the mass shooting. “Any decent human being would have tried to stop Wortman, not ‘hide in the woods’ for eight hours . . . If she truly was a victim of domestic violence she would’ve died,” wrote one user. “She a victim? Not in my opinion,” wrote another user. “She’s as guilty as he was,” wrote another, who chastised Banfield for retaining a lawyer. One commenter even threatened to come after anyone who defended Banfield: “The next time I’m in Nova Scotia I’ll give you my location, come down and defend her in front of me. Let’s see what happens.”

At the inquiry, family members of victims and lawyers representing them walked out in protest of the commissioners’ decision to remove the ability to cross-examine Banfield. (When reached by Chatelaine, lawyers representing victims’ family members declined to comment for this story.)

Even the RCMP used harmful victim-blaming language after the mass shooting, describing the attack on Banfield as “a catalyst” for the massacre. This, an expert report noted, suggests that she caused or provoked the violence, which “implicitly mutualizes the violence by suggesting that there is a problem between the man and the woman.”

It’s not just in this case, either. “Studies on lone-actor terrorism consider the targeting of specific women in such attacks as ‘trigger events’ rather than as part of the events themselves, even when the circumstances often indicate that the ‘trigger’ and the mass casualty attack are continuous or proximate in time,” reads the report.

Much of the victim-blaming has centred on the fact that Banfield hid in the woods that night. But according to a psychological report submitted to the inquiry, Banfield blames herself for the violence and for staying in a relationship with Wortman. She has wondered if she should’ve allowed herself to be killed to spare the lives lost in the mass shooting.

At the inquiry, Banfield said she understands where the community anger stems from. But she says it’s misdirected. “Our family feels for all those people, and we’re not angry that they’re angry, because if it was my family, I would feel the same way,” she said. “But . . . he did this, and I didn’t. And I would never contribute to anything like that.”

When asked if she could think of any reason Wortman would target the victims in Portapique, Banfield told the inquiry that perhaps he went looking for her after she escaped. “If I didn’t get out of that car, I often think, ‘Would any of those people have died?’” Banfield testified, breaking down. “That’s something that haunts me all the time. I feel they weren’t targeted. He was looking for me in the beginning.”

“Oh, come on!” a man in attendance heckled. No one reacted. Commission counsel continued to speak in a soft voice. Neither the commissioner nor security appeared to lift an eyebrow.

***

In a psychological report presented as evidence at the inquiry, using an assessment tool from the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, Dr. Jaffe found Banfield was in a high-risk relationship for domestic homicide without a safety plan, and she has since been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Wortman’s abuse featured a pattern of coercive control that was designed to humiliate, dominate and frighten her into compliance. He isolated her and limited her ability to leave the home.

Banfield’s psychological report also details that she did not leave out of fear, dependency, control, love and hope that she could help Wortman overcome his abusive childhood. “Over time she lost contact with the reality of how destructive the relationship had become,” reads the report. She didn’t fight, flight or freeze in response to threats. Instead, she had a fawn response: people-pleasing to the extent that she disconnected. She seemed to believe that if she could get him to feel her support and love, he would stop abusing her.

At the inquiry, commission counsel asked Banfield if more community support could have made a difference in her ability to seek help or leave the relationship. “No,” said Banfield matter-of-factly. “He threatened my family.” She added that while she alone might have been able to hide or seek help, her family members couldn’t. “I couldn’t take the risk knowing that he could come after any of my family.”

Yet the feeling in the room remained one of disbelief, says Kristina Fifield, a sexual assault trauma therapist at Halifax’s Avalon Sexual Assault Centre. “That, to me, is the largest problem here,” she says. “Sitting in the room that day, people were questioning, blaming and saying she’s lying, and that has been seen through all of our systems and institutions. Change is necessary, and it needs immediate action.”

This disbelief, she adds, may even cause more harm, discouraging and silencing other victims and survivors. “When victim-blaming is happening, it’s further isolating other victims from coming forward, because they’re seeing this on a very public scale.”

While the overwhelming majority of men who commit gender-based violence never commit mass casualty attacks, the men who do commit mass casualty attacks very often commit gender-based violence, and women, particularly intimate partners, are frequently the first victims of those at- tacks, according to McCulloch and Maher’s report commissioned for the inquiry. “Familicide is the most common type of mass casualty attack, with perpetrators being mainly husbands and fathers and the victims being intimate partners, children and other relatives,” reads the report.

But it’s only recently that the connection between gender-based violence and mass shootings has been made. That’s because gender-based violence, particularly domestic and family violence, has long been considered a form of private violence, while mass casualty attacks are located squarely in the frame of public violence—a long-standing division grounded in patriarchal society, according to the report.

“Right up until recent times, it has been considered part of a relationship between a man and a woman that this is normalized, it happens behind closed doors,” lawyer Erin Breen tells Chatelaine. But the abuse of Banfield did not happen solely behind closed doors, she adds. “It happened on public roads. It happened at parties. It happened in front of grown men who failed to intervene out of fear.”

Maybe it’s also why police, after being notified of domes- tic violence complaints, weapons complaints and threats Wortman made to kill his parents, failed to investigate in any significant way. This was likely due to Wortman’s power and privilege, says Breen. He was a business owner, collected motorcycles and owned a palatial waterfront log home, which elevated him in the modest rural community. It was this power and privilege that allowed a continuum of violence to occur, Fifield told the inquiry.

Wortman also preyed on vulnerable, marginalized and racialized women, exchanging work for sex with African Nova Scotian women and sex workers for many years at his denturist clinics in Halifax and Dartmouth, acknowledges a report submitted to the inquiry by members of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre. Victims didn’t report it because of previous experiences in which marginalized people were not believed.

Banfield’s lawyer Jessica Zita was one of eight participants to share recommendations for commissioners. She advocated for more training for officers to recognize intimate partner violence. She also castigated the RCMP for the “careless and calculated” investigation into Banfield and their decision to charge her criminally.

The dynamics of gender-based violence, Zita says, lay at the core of the mass shooting. “To come face to face with such vulnerability and feign sensitivity to further an ulterior motive is manipulative,” said Zita. “And, dare I say, abusive.”

***

Wortman left an infinite trail of grief, a long list of victims and their families who are rightly angry. But Banfield’s treatment by some of the community and our institutions mirrors the violence she faced: People still blame her for Wortman’s violence. Her advocates say the RCMP revictimized her by charging her. And though Wortman is dead, Banfield still fears for her life.

Banfield’s psychological assessment states that she is unemployed and under psychiatric care. At age 53, she is living with her sisters and niece. At the inquiry, she admitted she is fearful walking down the street: “I feel like somebody could attack me or come at me and my family.”

Once her testimony wrapped up, Banfield lingered for not an extra second. She stepped down a set of short stairs, her sisters moving in tandem behind her like bodyguards, toward a private exit, out of the public eye.

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