Nova Scotia

2 key RCMP officers won't testify live at public inquiry into N.S. mass shooting

The officers— through their police union and the federal government — had asked for alternative ways to testify before the public inquiry into the tragedy of April 18 and 19, 2020.

A third officer will testify via Zoom this week

Commissioners listen as Benjamin Sampson, a firearms expert with the Ontario government, appears via video at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on May 3. The commission has decided two RCMP officers can testify via pre-recorded video next week, while a third will testify this week via Zoom. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Three key RCMP officers involved in co-ordinating the response to Nova Scotia's mass shooting will not testify in person at the public inquiry into the tragedy.

The officers— through their union and the federal government — had asked for alternative ways to testify before the commission examining the mass killings on April 18 and 19, 2020.

The National Police Federation (NPF) and Canada's attorney general had requested that Sgt. Andy O'Brien and Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill provide their evidence by sworn affidavit, and that Staff Sgt. Al Carroll testify in person but only have commission counsel ask questions.

The Mass Casualty Commission leading the inquiry released its response to these requests on Tuesday, ruling that Rehill and O'Brien will testify via pre-recorded video interviews on May 30 and 31.

Only lawyers for the commission, or the commissioners themselves, will ask the officers direct questions. Lawyers for the victims' families can submit questions.

Carroll will testify live on Thursday via Zoom, and can be questioned by all lawyers.

The mass shooting was obviously traumatizing and difficult for anyone who was involved, Michael Scott, a lawyer with Patterson Law, told CBC's Mainstreet recently.

Scott's firm represents more than a dozen families of the shooting victims.

Scott said their clients' concern is that the inquiry's accommodation process isn't being used in good faith — rather to "obstruct" witness evidence and insulate the RCMP and other agencies from embarrassing information.

"That obviously in our view is entirely contrary to why we're here. We're here to get to the truth, whether it's comfortable or uncomfortable," Scott said.

The inquiry has already heard that Rehill, who was the risk manager on duty at the Operational Communications Centre (OCC) in Bible Hill the night of April 18, 2020, was in charge for the first few hours of the mass shooting until Staff Sgt. Jeff West took over as critical incident commander after 1 a.m. on April 19.

Rehill was in constant contact with 911 dispatchers, spoke directly with witnesses like Kate MacDonald who had been shot at by the gunman, and made the very first decisions on setting up containment and where the first responding officers should go.

O'Brien was the operations non-commissioned officer (Ops NCO) for Colchester County at the time, and helped co-ordinate the early response from home.

A collage of 22 people shows the faces of the people who died in four rows
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)

Carroll worked alongside fellow staff sergeants Addie MacCallum and Steve Halliday in the Bible Hill detachment late on April 18 before they moved to the makeshift command post in Great Village in the early hours of April 19. 

Video interviews strike an 'appropriate balance'

"We have settled on what we believe is the appropriate balance that allows the public to hear and understand this evidence in a meaningful way while minimizing potential harm to the witnesses," reads the decision from the Mass Casualty Commission.

Given the health information of the officers, which is private, the commission lawyers said allowing them to testify "in a way that reduces the stress and time pressure that arises from giving oral evidence in live proceedings" will facilitate their answers and provide "better evidence."

Scott said that the mechanism for requesting accommodations isn't unusual: in court cases, witnesses might have the option of testifying behind a screen or with a support person.

But, he said the requests made by the attorney general and NPF on behalf of these officers are really restrictions.

A white man with brown hair and beard wears a suit with black jacket and white shirt, while standing at a podium with a microphone.
Michael Scott is a lawyer with Patterson Law, a firm representing more than a dozen families of Portapique victims. (CBC)

While Scott said participant counsel like he and his Patterson colleagues "technically" have a say in the accommodations process and can submit their comments about certain requests, they have no idea why each one was requested so it's hard to say whether or not they're reasonable.

Scott said the setup approved for Rehill and O'Brien, where the officers are only questioned by commission lawyers with submissions from family participants, is not acceptable.

"If that's the way we're going to handle those witnesses there's really no point in calling them at all," Scott said.

"The evidence isn't tested … it's largely a not very fruitful process."

He added that this approach, when compared with the hours spent on technical witnesses and evidence of other people who didn't hold command positions, undercuts the inquiry's credibility.

Scott said while he knew going into the inquiry that the material would be difficult, he would "not have ever expected" that the greatest challenges would be trying to carry out the job he was asked to do, such as fighting to hear from witnesses.

When asked about the officers' accommodation decision, a spokesperson for the NPF said Tuesday that the union "won't be making any public comment about legal matters."

The inquiry resumes Wednesday in Truro.

With files from CBC's Mainstreet