On anniversary of mass shooting, N.S. justice minister apologizes for saying domestic violence not epidemic

On anniversary of mass shooting, N.S. justice minister apologizes for saying domestic violence not epidemic

Premier Tim Houston said he wanted to "set the record straight" about his and his government's position on domestic violence, hours after Nova Scotia Justice Minister Brad Johns apologized for saying he doesn't think domestic violence is an epidemic.

"The minister has apologized for his comments and we'll chat with him, but I want Nova Scotians to know that we understand how serious the issue is and it's a priority of ours to address it," Houston told CBC News at an event in New Glasgow on Thursday night.

"So the minister has apologized for his comments, he was wrong in his comments and I'm trying to set the record straight on how I personally feel and how our government feels."

Provincial opposition leaders had called for Johns to resign. Houston did not directly answer a question at the Thursday evening event asking whether he stood by Johns and would keep him in cabinet as justice minister.

He did say survivors of intimate partner violence will be listened to and respected if they choose to come forward.

Comments made on anniversary of shooting rampage

Thursday marked the fourth anniversary of a deadly shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 22 Nova Scotians. Earlier in the day, Johns had said he agrees with some — but not all — of the recommendations made by the joint federal and provincial inquiry that examined the circumstances that led a gunman to target his neighbours, acquaintances and strangers, including a pregnant woman and an RCMP officer, in several rural communities on April 18 and 19, 2020.

The Mass Casualty Commission's final report, released in March of last year, called for sweeping changes to end gender-based violence, which it called an epidemic. The commission found the violence in Portapique, N.S., began with a brutal assault on the gunman's spouse and that he had a long history of violence.

"An [epidemic], you're seeing it everywhere all the time, I don't think that's the case," Johns told reporters following a cabinet meeting in downtown Halifax.

Minister says comments 'were wrong and have caused pain'

The minister said he can respect that service organizations would disagree with him, but added he thinks there are bigger issues than domestic violence

"We have issues around guns, we have issues around drugs. We have issues. There's a lot of issues. Violence in general," Johns said.

A few hours later, a Justice Department spokesperson released a statement attributed to Johns acknowledging the minister "made comments that were wrong and have caused pain."

Issue taken 'very seriously'

"The pervasiveness of domestic violence and the harm it causes in our communities is not something that should ever be minimized and I am truly sorry that my words did so. This government, my department and I agree that domestic violence is an epidemic," Johns said in a statement.

Following Johns's initial comments to reporters, Premier Tim Houston appeared via video conference and clarified his government's stance on domestic violence.


"As the Mass Casualty Commission included in their report, domestic violence is an epidemic in Nova Scotia and in Canada, and the commission was very clear it played a role in the tragedy that occurred 2020, and we will do everything we can to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again."

Houston also pointed to $7 million his government has committed to 16 community-based organizations that work to prevent gender-based violence.

"This is just the beginning. We will continue to work with our partners in the federal government to do more," Houston said.

'Statistics don't lie'

Houston said he planned to talk with Johns to see "what led to those comments."

In a post to its Instagram page on Thursday, Adsum for Women and Children said it was "shocked and angered" by the minister's initial comments.

The organization, which operates shelters in the Halifax area, said it sees cases of domestic abuse every day. In the first two weeks of April, there were 18 calls for its program that helps women experiencing domestic violence.

"We know that it might be easy for the minister to dismiss the experience of organizations like ours, but statistics don't lie," the group said, and then followed it up with data:

  • Nova Scotia rates of police-reported domestic violence remains higher than the national rate.

  • Thirty-five women were killed by their intimate partner in Nova Scotia between 2002 and 2021.

  • In 2021, 86 per cent (750) of domestic violence files designated as high risk for fatality involved female victims.

"That last stat is particularly alarming when you understand that statistics from the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women show that less than two per cent of intimate partner violence incidents in Nova Scotia are reported to police, or become domestic violence files.'"

WATCH | Antigonish Women's Resource Centre reacts to minister's comments 

Anita Stewart, executive director of the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association, said she found the justice minister's earlier comments came from a place of being 'ill-informed and misguided.'

Stewart said she would invite Johns to visit the centre in Antigonish to learn the statistics and become educated.

"I honestly can't believe that someone in his place and in his position as a justice minister would make those comments," Stewart said in an interview with CBC News.

Opposition leaders call for resignation

Flags were at half-mast around the province on Wednesday for the anniversary of the mass shooting.

Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said Johns should face repercussions for the domestic violence comment that he described as "pretty disgusting."

"An apology isn't enough. I think if we have a minister of justice that doesn't think that domestic violence and gender-based violence is a major concern in this province, he should resign or be removed from that post," Churchill said.

Nova Scotia NDP Leader Claudia Chender agreed that Johns should resign.

"For the minister of justice who is in charge, in many ways, of implementing [recommendations from the Mass Casualty Commission], to deny the notion that [the domestic violence] epidemic exists says that he is not fit to lead that department anymore," Chender said.

Chender said she was glad to see the premier validate the work of the commission, but that it doesn't minimize the minister's words.

The statement from Johns sought to reassure survivors of domestic violence they would be supported and "treated respectfully."

WATCH | What a public inquiry revealed about the Nova Scotia mass shooting