Nova Scotia

First 3 officers on scene of N.S. mass shooting set to testify at inquiry

The public inquiry examining Nova Scotia's April 2020 mass shooting will hear for the first time Monday live testimony from police officers who were on the ground in Portapique, N.S., where the killings began.

The three RCMP constables were only ones on the ground in Portapique, N.S., for more than an hour

RCMP vehicles are shown blocking the crime scene in Portapique, N.S., on April 26, 2020. (Olivier Lefebvre/CBC)

The public inquiry examining Nova Scotia's April 2020 mass shooting will hear for the first time Monday live testimony from police officers who were on the ground in Portapique, N.S., where the killings began.

Some officers have criticized command decisions in interviews with the commission heading the inquiry, with one saying there seemed to be "too many cooks in the kitchen" the night of April 18, 2020.

The only officers to enter the Portapique subdivision for the first 90 minutes of the RCMP response, during which time they heard gunshots and discovered burning buildings, were constables Stuart Beselt, Aaron Patton and Adam Merchant.

All three will testify together under oath in a witness panel, and have said during separate interviews with the Mass Casualty Commission that they were prepared to do so.

"If I can prevent other people from having to go through this process and that, I would be more than happy," Beselt said in an interview with the commission in July 2021.

The mandate of the joint federal-provincial inquiry includes looking at the response of police during the 13-hour rampage on April 18-19, 2020, where a gunman disguised as a Mountie killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman, in several rural Nova Scotia communities.

Officers had range of experience

The commission decided on the witness panel model after days of arguments in early March by lawyers for the victims' families, the RCMP and the union that represents front-line members about which officers should be called to testify. 

Beselt was the acting corporal who "assumed decision-making responsibilities for the first responders at the early stages of the call," according to his commission interview.

In April 2020, Beselt had been with the RCMP for 24 years, Merchant for 13, and Patton had been an officer for three years.

All three were using Google Maps on their personal phones to find their way around in the dark, since they didn't know the Portapique area. Patton said from those maps, it appeared there was only "one way in, one way out," and Beselt felt like they were in the best position to focus on the shooter while the "next wave" of officers dealt with containment.

When asked by the commission what could have helped his team that night, Beselt said he's played the scenario out in his mind often — but "I don't know if anybody could have gone in there and done anything differently."

The two children of Lisa McCully and the two children of Jamie and Greg Blair hid in the basement of McCully’s house for more than two hours, waiting for the RCMP to rescue them. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Merchant told the commission he felt like "they should have sent someone in earlier" to get the children of shooting victims Jamie and Greg Blair and Lisa McCully. The children were left to wait in a home for two hours while the three first officers were pulled away to respond to more fires and what they thought were gunshots.

He also said there "was definitely too much chatter on the radio" from senior officers, and "in the future, like there shouldn't be three guys … running command." Merchant said he was aware of staff sergeants Brian Rehill, Andy O'Brien and Al Carroll being involved in the early response and it seemed like "too many cooks in the kitchen."

Merchant also suggested there could have been more boots on the ground in that first hour, such as a second team that could help the first team cover roads in the community.

Rob Pineo, the lawyer for families of 14 of the 22 victims, said he would like to ask Merchant more about RCMP staffing shortfalls.

Merchant told the commission last August that the expected staff complement of six on his shift was often not available, leaving the "minimum" of four members on duty to cover a large section of the province. On the night of the shootings, the fourth constable on duty stayed at the entrance to Portapique to contain the area.

"The families feel that had more personnel been on the ground that night, the results would have been different," Pineo said.

The inquiry has also heard how Beselt asked senior officers about making an "emergency broadcast" at 11:16 p.m. AT, to tell people to go into their basements and not go outside.

A tweet about police responding to a "firearms complaint" in the Portapique area and warning people to stay inside was posted at 11:32 p.m., and was the only public communication Nova Scotia RCMP issued about the mass shooting on April 18, 2020.

Mounties too late with response details: Beselt

Rehill, who was risk manager that night, told Beselt they were using a 911 map to call as many people as possible, but Beselt told the commission he was skeptical the strategy would capture everyone with cellphones. Beselt said while he'd never used an emergency alert, like an Amber Alert, he knew it was an option.

"You know, if there was a situation, this was it," he said.

Beselt was also unhappy it took the RCMP about six weeks to acknowledge they did have an immediate response, and that his team went in rather than sitting on the sidelines, as some were suggesting.

He did not say who was suggesting this, but those questions were "thrown out there," and by the time RCMP did acknowledge their immediate response, weeks had gone by and "nobody cared anymore."

"All they had to do at the beginning is like, 'Yeah, members did an IR [immediate] response and were in, you know … searching for the suspect,'" Beselt said.

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)

The National Police Federation, the union that represents active RCMP members under the rank of inspector, laid out in a news release last week what is involved in immediate action rapid deployment (IARD), which is the approach the three officers followed in Portapique.

The tactic requires officers to proceed "directly and rapidly" toward a threat, taking proactive measures to attract the perpetrator's focus to the advancing officers rather than the public, according to the RCMP. It is used in various situations, including when things are "rapidly evolving," a suspect is actively hurting people, or the passing of time threatens loss of life. 

The strategy was developed in response to the Columbine shooting in 1999 and then improved through recommendations following the killing of three RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B., in 2014, according to the union.

Cadets receive IARD training as part of their education at the RCMP academy in Regina and "all existing members" are trained as well, the release said. Additional IARD training is included as part of members' ongoing and regular training.

Lawyers for the victims' families have pushed for officer testimony, arguing there were gaps in evidence that needed to be addressed. The RCMP and the union argued earlier this month through lawyers that officers could be retraumatized by testifying, and there were other less-invasive ways of getting information.

Commissioner Michael MacDonald said first-hand accounts do have value, and his takeaway from arguments made by lawyers for the families was "what they are really asking for is an understanding of why the first responders did what they did."

After MacDonald's decision, Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Const. Guillaume Tremblay said in an email that calling witnesses to testify when they've already provided all of their information to the commission is "not consistent" with the inquiry's policies that the "reliving of trauma experienced by witnesses can be mitigated as much as possible." 

The National Police Federation said in an email that if public testimony is necessary it will work with the commission to design appropriate accommodations. These will address the needs of each member "to ensure that the best evidence is collected while causing the least harm," said president Brian Sauvé.

The inquiry has already heard details of the chaotic scene that the three Mounties encountered soon after the beginning of the rampage by gunman Gabriel Wortman.

Officers told of mock police cruiser

Radio transmissions reflect out-of-breath officers frantically trying to communicate they were hearing gunfire or explosions, impaired by the darkness that was only broken by flames from multiple fires.

When Beselt and Patton first arrived in Portapique, they encountered Andrew MacDonald bleeding from a head wound who said he had been shot by his neighbour "Gabe," who was driving what looked like a police car. At that moment, police did not know the shooter was less than 200 metres away.

Both officers told the commission they weren't sure what exactly the car description meant — such as whether there were decals, or the car was a decommissioned old model.

"At no point did I ever envision that it was an exact replica of … of the cars we drive," Patton said.

"Like we didn't know, right? Like we just didn't know at that time," Beselt said.

Based on their active-shooter training, Beselt decided to have the trio walk in as that was the safest choice in dark woods, and a police car would be a "billboard" advertising their position to the gunman.

Joshua Bryson is a lawyer for the family of Joy and Peter Bond, who were killed at their home in Portapique on April 18, 2020. (CBC)

This is a point Joshua Bryson, a lawyer for the family of victims Joy and Peter Bond, said he'd like to hear more about — because Beselt would have just been told by MacDonald that the shooter was in a car.

"The fact that the team would, despite knowing that the perpetrator was mobile, would remain on foot … it's difficult for the families to understand what led to that decision," Bryson said.

Some lawyers also raised the question of why the officers did not go directly to the Blair residence, where the original 911 call was made. Beselt has told the commission he was focused on finding and stopping the threat, which led him south on Portapique Beach Road where the gunman had been last seen.

Beselt noted that after checking out the gunman's warehouse fully engulfed in flames, he decided to knock on the door of the red house across the street — not knowing that's where the Blair and McCully children were huddled together already on the phone with 911.

Community member also testifying

Portapique resident Debra Thibeault will also testify before the inquiry on Wednesday, according to the commission's schedule.

Thibeault and her husband lived on Cobequid Court next to the southern entrance to the private blueberry field road, which the commission has suggested is likely the route the gunman took out of the community.

The couple looked after the barrier across the entrance, which consisted of two posts and a rope, according to commission documents.

When Thibeault returned home after the mass shooting, she noticed that the rope was no longer across the entrance and the post was broken in two with the rope still attached. She said that it looked as though someone had driven through it.

Lawyers were asked to submit their questions for specific witnesses by March 16, so that counsel for the commission could lead the questioning of the officers based on a list created collaboratively in advance.

It is unclear what this line of questioning from the commission lawyers will cover.

The inquiry still plans to introduce more than two dozen foundational documents, including in May a 200-page summary of the decisions RCMP commanders made. MacDonald has said that five senior officers, including Rehill and O'Brien, will be called to testify at that point.

The plan is also to look at the emergency response team's actions.

With files from the Canadian Press