N.S. mass shooter preyed on vulnerable denture clients, traded services for sex

Warning: Details in this story are disturbing 

The man responsible for the April 2020 mass killings in Nova Scotia preyed on vulnerable and Black women through his work as a denturist and exchanged dental work for sex, according to a new report submitted to the Mass Casualty Commission on Thursday.

The commission is investigating the circumstances and systemic failures that contributed to the events of April 18 and 19, 2020, when the gunman, Gabriel Wortman, killed 22 neighbours and strangers — including a pregnant woman — and destroyed homes while driving a mock police cruiser.

The new report, written by staff at the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), includes the perspectives of women who either had direct experiences with Wortman, witnessed his behaviour, or knew others in the community who were impacted by him. The women shared their experiences in meetings with the organizations in August and September.

The denturist bragged about providing dental services at a reduced cost and, when patients couldn’t pay the full amount, he would try to exchange his services for sex, according to the report.

He used his Halifax clinic on Novalea Drive in the city’s north end to sexually exploit marginalized people, sex workers and African Nova Scotian women, the report says, and was known to make sexually suggestive comments to marginalized clients.

Wortman’s name was a “well-known household name” among many African Nova Scotian communities, according to the report.

Provincial subsidies helped build trust

Wortman received subsidies through the provincial Department of Community Services (DCS) to provide dental work to people who were receiving employment support, income assistance and disability support. Between 2015 and 2020, he received $434,406 from the province for these services.

The fact that he was supported by the department meant some patients “felt this would be a safe person with whom to engage,” the report says. “They assumed that thorough vetting and screening of the perpetrator would have been completed by DCS.”

Wortman used his DCS subsidies to engage with marginalized people and African Nova Scotians, and gained trust by “presenting an image of doing good for the community by reducing his rates to better meet their needs.”

He encouraged some marginalized people “to consider getting their teeth pulled so he could give them a ‘mouth full of beautiful teeth.'”

A Halifax Regional Police investigator is seen in a suite above the Atlantic Denture Clinic on April 20, 2020. (Tim Krochak/Getty Images)

He also offered cash to people on income assistance and African Nova Scotian women who would refer friends and family members to his clinic. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Community Services said in an emailed statement Thursday that while the department helps clients pay for some dental services, in most cases, clients select their own providers.

‘He openly took advantage of desperate people’

Some people did file complaints about Wortman’s conduct as a denturist.

The Mass Casualty Commission has previously heard that the Denturist Licensing Board of Nova Scotia received at least eight complaints about Wortman between 1998 and 2020, including three from women who described abusive behaviour and one who was subject to sexually explicit comments during her treatment.

In 2007, Wortman signed a settlement agreement with the board and was ordered to get counselling. He wrote to the board at least three times after that to defend himself against complaints, each time saying the patients either had mental health issues or were out to get him.

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O’Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

But many did not file complaints with oversight bodies or police.

The report explains that members of marginalized communities such as Black and Indigenous people often do not feel safe reporting violence because they may face victim-blaming, disbelief, racism or dismissive responses.

Some — especially sex workers — fear that reporting incidents to police or other institutions could result in their arrest, if it is assumed they were involved in criminal activity. They also may face risks of immigration detention, deportation or involvement with the child welfare system.

“It was both insightful and distressing to hear how one man had negatively impacted so many people,” reads a statement from Mukisa Kakembo, the co-ordinator of Creating Communities of Care, one of the groups that led discussion sessions.

“From the stories that were told, he openly took advantage of desperate people. When asked why people don’t come forward, the simple answer was, no one would believe them.”

Sheila Wildeman is an associate professor at the Schulich School of Law and is co-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society. (Rachael Kelly)

During testimony Thursday, Sheila Wildeman, the co-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, said she found it “profoundly shocking and disgusting” that Wortman used his position to cultivate relationships with poor and marginalized women to manipulate them for sex.

“The perpetrator understood that these were disposable and discreditable persons — that they were persons who would not have an easy time … reaching out to the state for support and for safety.”

She questioned why the Denturist Licensing Board and social assistance system may have seemed inaccessible to those who had been threatened or harmed by Wortman and might otherwise have made a complaint.

“What would have happened if there had been outreach, and if there had been a space for folks to register their concerns? If there had been trust with the institutions charged with public safety, I wonder what would have happened.”

Recommendations

The report from the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre and LEAF contains 21 recommendations made by marginalized survivors who attended the organizations’ meetings.

Some of those recommendations include that:

  • The province implement a third-party reporting program for victims of sexual assault.
  • Federal and provincial funders improve the screening of professionals and organizations providing service to marginalized people, including a review of disciplinary complaints.
  • Federal and provincial governments be aware of the “red flag” of professionals providing services at a reduced cost to marginalized groups.
  • Private practice professionals and service providers discuss their code of conduct and complaint processes with anyone who uses their service.
  • The province provide core funding to: services for sex workers and people who experience sexual violence; a 24/7 support line for victims of sexual assault; services for people who perpetrate violence; and African Nova Scotian and Indigenous gender-based violence navigators and legal advocates.
  • The province introduce mandatory education in schools on gender-based violence, bystander intervention, sexual exploitation and trafficking.

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