Let’s start with this scenario.
A woman with a decades-long history of having been brutalized and controlled by her common-law partner — a history that was known or should have been known to the police — is coerced into helping her partner transport ammunition for his cache of largely illegally obtained weapons.
Does the RCMP charge the woman, who — need I remind you — is a victim of domestic violence?
Or do the Mounties charge her partner, the man who coerced her to get the ammo and owns the weapons?
Or do they attempt to prosecute the person who supplied those weapons to him for profit?
If Portapique hadn’t happened, my guess is that Lisa Banfield — the actual woman in this scenario — would never have been charged with a crime.
Given what we know now about what happened in the years and months leading up to the April 2020 tragedy, however, I also doubt GW — Banfield’s common-law partner — would have been charged either. He wasn’t. He should have been. That’s largely on the police.
And, given what we have learned since about GW’s weapons supplier — he is based in Maine and therefore beyond easy reach of Canadian justice — it is certain that the RCMP will never charge him, if only for the symbolic value of calling him to account and the message it would send.
But Portapique, of course, did happen. Over the course of 13 hours, GW murdered 22 Nova Scotians before being shot and killed in a final confrontation with police on the morning of April 19, 2020. Three years later, a Mass Casualty Commission is still sorting out what happened and why and who is to blame.
Even before its final report expected in March, however, most of us have already reached our own conclusions, chief among them that ongoing failures by the RCMP contributed significantly to the tragedy.
Instead of acknowledging its many systemic failures, the RCMP has done its best to deflect attention from them, in part by charging Banfield, her brother and brother-in-law, in December 2020 with transporting that ammunition for GW.
Those charges were laid, of course, soon after the federal and provincial governments caved to public pressure and appointed the mass casualty commission.
“There was corporate awareness at the highest level [of the RCMP] of our decision to continue the investigation and submit it to public prosecution,” Nova Scotia RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather testified at the mass casualty commission.
Top Mounties wanted charges to be laid.
The result was that Banfield, in the public mind, went from being the victim she was to the guilty enabler she wasn’t.
Nova Scotia’s public prosecution service kept the RCMP’s charges alive until July 2022 — after Banfield had gone through a restorative justice process — and shortly before she testified before the Mass Casualty Commission.
On October 21, 2022, Banfield sued the federal and provincial governments over the charges.
Banfield’s lawyer, Moncton-based Brian Murphy, called the RCMP’s investigation “baseless,” and the provincial Crown’s charges a “malicious prosecution.” Murphy further alleged the RCMP failed to properly notify Banfield she was a suspect. He claimed she wasn’t informed of her right to counsel during multiple interviews. Banfield only learned she was under investigation when the RCMP announced charges, Murphy alleged.
The federal government filed its statement of defence in the case on Feb. 1.
“Canada denies the Plaintiff’s claim that it only became apparent to her that she was the subject of the RCMP investigation upon the announcement that they were laying a criminal charge on December 4, 2020,” [federal Department of Justice lawyers Patricia MacPhee and Ami Assignon] wrote.
“The RCMP cautioned her on every occasion that she was questioned about any involvement she might have had in assisting the Perpetrator acquire ammunition. Further, she had legal counsel since at least April 20, 2020.”
The lawyers admit that Staff Sgt. Greg Vardy told Banfield’s lawyer on April 21, 2020, that “the RCMP had no reason to believe she had involvement in the mass casualty and wanted to speak to her as a witness to further its investigation.” That was Vardy’s only contact with the lawyer, MacPhee and Assignon wrote.
Let’s stop there. Two days after the murders, the RCMP informed Banfield’s lawyer that they only wanted to speak to her as a witness to help in their investigation.
At this point, if I recall, Banfield was still in the hospital recovering from the injuries she suffered during GW’s rampage.
When did the RCMP explicitly tell Banfield — and her lawyer — that she was actually a “suspect” in the case?
Not that namby-pamby lawyer-ese obfuscation in the statement of defence about how Banfield was “cautioned … on every occasion that she was questioned about any involvement she might have had in assisting the Perpetrator acquire ammunition.”
On what dates and at what times and in what circumstances did the RCMP tell Banfield and her lawyer they were considering charging her with a criminal offence that amounted to aiding and abetting a mass murderer?
And, oh, by the way, we’d still like you to lead us on a videotaped re-enactment of what happened between you and GW that night. Thanks. And, oh, yes, could you sit for still more interviews in April, July and October so we can gather additional evidence against you…?
In its statement of defence, Ottawa also …
… denies that the RCMP instigated a baseless investigation into the Plaintiff’s involvement in the mass casualty. It was lawful, reasonable and just for the RCMP to investigate how the Perpetrator acquired the firearms, associated equipment and/or ammunition to carry out the mass casualty… The RCMP made the decision to lay the criminal charge against the Plaintiff after determining that there were reasonable and probable grounds to believe she committed the offence and that laying the charge was in the public interest. The decision to proceed with the prosecution was within the discretion of the [Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service].
Nova Scotia has yet to file its defence in the case.
But let’s recap. Yes, it was “lawful, reasonable and just” for the RCMP to investigate how GW acquired his tools of mass murder. Perhaps there were even “reasonable and probable grounds to believe” Banfield had committed the offence. But no, no, no. Laying the charge was not in the public interest.
Every hour of every day, individual Mounties use their discretion, sometimes their compassion and often their common sense not to lay charges against someone who has technically committed an offence but shouldn’t be prosecuted for a host of other reasons.
This charge was not about the public interest. It was about the RCMP’s interest in deflecting attention from its own failures.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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