Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Confusion over cruiser, safety vest led RCMP to shoot at person who wasn't N.S. gunman

Confusion over a parked police cruiser and someone wearing a safety vest led two RCMP officers to start shooting at a person at a central Nova Scotia firehall during the manhunt for the gunman in last month's mass shooting, sources confirmed to CBC.

2 RCMP officers opened fire at local firehall during hunt for man who killed 22 people

Two RCMP officers opened fire at the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade hall in central Nova Scotia during the manhunt for the gunman responsible for the province's mass shooting. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Confusion over a parked police cruiser and someone wearing a safety vest led two RCMP officers to start shooting at a person at a central Nova Scotia firehall during the manhunt for the gunman in last month's mass shooting, sources confirmed to CBC.

Officers missed and no one was injured in the April 19 incident at the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade hall, which was left peppered with bullet holes. The gunman at the centre of the manhunt was not in the area at the time.

The hall was being used as an emergency refuge centre for residents from Portapique, N.S., the village where the shooting rampage that ultimately took 22 lives had started 12 hours before.

An RCMP cruiser and an officer were stationed at the hall. At the time, police forces across the province were on the lookout for the gunman, who was impersonating an officer and driving a replica RCMP cruiser, and was continuing to kill as he moved from community to community.

Sources confirmed the account of a witness who previously told CBC that two RCMP officers pulled up to the firehall, located about 25 kilometres east of Portapique, and opened fire at around 10:30 a.m. local time. The incident was over in a few seconds and the officers took off.

The Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team is investigating what happened. It remains unclear precisely whom the officers opened fire on.

'The most traumatic thing they ever endured'

Less than 10 minutes before the incident, RCMP had tweeted that the shooting suspect was in the Debert and Central Onslow area.

However, surveillance footage that was later retrieved showed the gunman had already moved beyond the community. Video taken at 10:25 a.m. in Millbrook, about 13 kilometres down the road, shows him wearing a fluorescent safety vest.

One of the bullet holes left in the side of the firehall. Some of the bullets even damaged one the fire brigade's trucks. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Two of the people at the firehall were the fire chief and deputy chief, who declined interviews this week. Clair Peers, a volunteer firefighter who speaks for the brigade, said the firefighters were not wearing safety vests and were in a meeting room with a displaced resident who was trying to register for emergency support when the shots started.

"It was probably the most traumatic thing that they ever endured," said Peers. "These guys were inside on the floor with the tables tipped up … this was a situation that they're never going to forget."

The gunfire damaged one of the fire trucks. It left bullet holes in a stone monument to fallen members and in the walls of the white building.

It's unclear who was wearing a safety vest. Peers said that in addition to the RCMP officer stationed outside the hall, there was a Colchester County official there overseeing the evacuation centre.

Joy McCabe, who lives next to the Onslow hall, previously told CBC she saw two men who appeared to be RCMP officers pull up and start firing at the hall. She said she saw a third man crouching down between two vehicles.

WATCH | What we know about how the mass shooting unfolded:

Based on RCMP reports, audio recordings and interviews, this is what we know about what happened during a gunman's rampage that left 22 victims dead. 7:21

Pat Curran, acting director of SIRT, said he didn't have any additional details to share this week. But the chaotic scene that unfolded at the hall reflects just how frantic the search for the gunman was that morning.

By the time the two officers arrived at the firehall, the shooter was already about 20 kilometres further south, where he passed a gas station in the Brookfield area, according to surveillance photos the Mounties released last week.

Tight-knit brigade shaken by incident

Peers wasn't at the firehall that morning and said it's still not clear to the firefighters what exactly prompted the RCMP officers to start firing. But he said he can appreciate they were in the midst of an unpredictable situation.

"It obviously definitely had something to do with the shooter, you know. But how that unfolded? I had no idea. And it was a pretty tense time," Peers said. "We're not probing or anything like that."

Like any family unit, the Onslow Belmont firefighters look out for one another, said Peers. They regularly get together for breakfast on Sundays to swap stories about their week.

After the deadly rampage and the shots fired at their base, the brigade held a gathering to talk about what happened.

The group is used to responding to deadly highway crashes and the occasional standoff. But half the time they're helping with medical emergencies. Their first call of 2020 was to rescue a 22-year-old horse that broke through the ice of its owner's pond.

Clair Peers is a volunteer firefighter who speaks for the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade. (CBC)

The horror that played out throughout the surrounding communities last month was unlike anything they imagined.

"We have the highest respect for the RCMP and they have to do their job, and they have to do what they do the way they want to do it. And I think that we know that at some point in time information will be released," Peers said.

The brigade's members are just relieved no one was hurt by the shots at the hall, said Peers, but he's still keeping an eye on his fellow volunteers for signs of strain. The brigade's deputy chief and chief are now seeking counselling to help process the experience.

The shots fired at their hall have shaken the close-knit group, many of whom are also connected in some way to the families who are grieving and the people who were killed.

For now, they have resumed delivering groceries to people amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, things are returning to normal and Peers said the volunteers are as committed as ever to serving the community.

"We will always respond, and it doesn't matter whether the tree blew down on your house or the cat climbed up the tree. Whatever it is, we will respond. They can be rest assured," said Peers.

The fire truck hit by bullets is already back in service. Peers said he's not worried about the damage to the building.

"Those things can all be fixed. Yeah, other things that take time to heal," he said. "My concern was the people. That's what we have to do, back up our comrades."

If you are seeking mental health support during this time, here are resources available to Nova Scotians.

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past 10 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

With files from Angela MacIvor and Craig Paisley