RCMP head says claims of political interference after N.S. mass shooting 'not based on fact'
Commissioner Brenda Lucki testified Tuesday in Halifax
The head of the RCMP has repeated her stance that she didn't deal with political pressure to make firearms details about the Nova Scotia mass shooting public, saying government officials were simply "asking" and not directing — which is a "big distinction."
Commissioner Brenda Lucki faced questions from the Mass Casualty Commission leading the public inquiry into the April 2020 mass shooting on Tuesday in Halifax, as well as from a lawyer for most of the victims' families.
Michael Scott of Patterson Law asked Lucki about various topics, including concerns from Nova Scotia RCMP members that the Liberal prime minister and minister of public safety wanted details of the perpetrator's firearms released ahead of their gun control legislation.
On Tuesday, Lucki again said that then-public safety minister Bill Blair never directed or ordered her to disclose the makes and models of the guns during the April 28, 2020, press conference — Blair's office was simply checking on whether it would be included.
"When somebody says 'can you do that?' that's to me direction, and it wasn't that at all. It was just an if — is that information going to be part of that media event?" Lucki said.
"That's a big distinction."
She added that the firearms were just one point in a long list of issues the minister and federal government were interested in around the mass shooting, including the emergency alert system and the gunman's mock RCMP car.
When Scott suggested that an ask from people in power can carry more impact and seem like a direction, Lucki said she "didn't ask the question" but in fact the ask went through staff from the national RCMP headquarters.
That communications person, Sharon Tessier, said last month she was one who told Lucki the gun information would be released through the April 28 press conference and Lucki passed that information to Blair and the prime minister. When the gun details weren't released, Lucki told the House of Commons committee she was upset because, "I felt I had misinformed the minister and, by extension, the prime minister."
On Tuesday, Lucki repeated her position that the miscommunication is what led to her frustrated tone in a call with the Nova Scotia RCMP team after the press conference, since it was the "straw that broke the camel's back" after days of little to no public information from Nova Scotia.
Scott asked why Lucki didn't apologize to the Nova Scotia team in the April 28 call right away, and simply explain that she was upset because she'd passed the wrong information along.
"I could have and I didn't, you're absolutely right," Lucki said.
She also expressed exhaustion about being asked similar questions over and over again, having spoken to the House of Commons committee looking into political interference in July and the commission interviewing her about the issue in August.
"I'm trying to explain myself seven different ways from Sunday here, I'm just — I find myself a little bit frustrated because I … know the conversations I had with the minister," Lucki said.
"There was never any direction."
The political controversy began when Chief Supt. Darren Campbell's notes from a call on April 28, 2020 with Lucki and members of the Nova Scotia RCMP were released as part of the inquiry in June.
Campbell wrote the commissioner was "sad and disappointed" and "had promised the minister of Public Safety and the Prime Minister's Office that the RCMP, [we] would release this information."
He repeated this assertion earlier this month before a House of Commons committee, saying that Lucki seemed to dismiss his argument that releasing specifics of the makes and models of the firearms could impact the ongoing investigation.
Other senior Nova Scotia officers and civilian members who were on the April 28 phone call have backed up Campbell's recollection of attempted interference, while some of the Ottawa RCMP team have told a House of Commons committee they don't remember Lucki using certain phrases.
On Tuesday, Lucki said no one from Nova Scotia was in her meetings with the minister or people from his office, and they have no "direct knowledge" of what could have taken place.
"I'm really the only person that can tell you if I was getting direction, or if I was getting interference from the minister's office," Lucki said.
"For them to connect the dots in the way that they connected them — obviously that's their opinion but it's not based on fact."
Blair has denied ever asking Lucki to pressure the RCMP to make the information about the guns public. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the government did not put any "undue" pressure on the RCMP.
Lucki also told the public inquiry how the mass shooting in Nova Scotia became a "turning point" where residents lost faith in the Mounties, following criticism from the public and media which spiralled into low morale across the forces' ranks and a spike in retirements or transfers.
When asked about the high turnover in Nova Scotia senior ranks following the mass shooting, Lucki said although there's often a jump in people leaving their jobs after a traumatic event she believes it was also due to the negative narrative and Canadians "losing trust in their local RCMP."
Up until the mass shooting across April 18 and 19, 2020, Lucki said the Nova Scotia RCMP had a good relationship with its citizens.
"But then things happen, and you don't want that to be a defining moment — you don't want that to be a turning point, and that's sort of what happened," Lucki said.
"I think it was a hard pill to swallow for the managers because they take it in internally and I honestly wouldn't expect anything differently."
The commission has heard that three of the top officers in the province have since retired or moved to roles in other provinces as of this month, which Lucki said was a "very unusual" amount of turnover at the senior level.
Lucki noted that soon after the mass shooting, there was not only criticism about how that Nova Scotia response was handled but more conversations came up around systemic racism in policing in general following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
"It affects our recruiting when people don't want to join your organization, and before this we had thousands of people wanting to join," Lucki said.
"That's got to take a toll on you. I know it does because it takes a toll on me every single day, and I think, 'How can we do better?'"
Communications 'needed to be better'
Although Lucki said there was a lot of frustration from herself and the national RCMP communications team with how little information the Nova Scotia RCMP was sharing publicly, she said Tuesday that also was not their fault.
The smaller Nova Scotia communications team was overwhelmed by the amount of media attention and information from the crime scenes, Lucki said, and usually in major events the national headquarters in Ottawa would send a team to help strategize and better share details with the media.
She confirmed the national communications team only got involved eight or nine days after the mass shooting, by which point Lucki said the Nova Scotia team had been working around the clock for more than a week.
"If I could do that over again, that ... comms team that we would have put together should have been there like that first or second day," Lucki said.
She said that communications is "as important" as police operations, because it's vital that the public understands what is being done.
When a commission lawyer noted that the N.S. team spent seven days preparing for the April 28 press conference, which lasted two hours and included a large amount of information, Lucki said it might have been a better idea to have been releasing information "all the way along" to avoid such a time-consuming media event.
"The victims' families deserve no less, the people in Nova Scotia deserve no less. Canadians want to know what was happening," Lucki said. "We needed to be better."
Lucki said Tuesday that making the RCMP more transparent is a priority of hers, and in the past year senior officers from divisions across Canada have been given training to make them more confident and comfortable dealing with the media and public committees.
Scott brought up various examples of misinformation or lack of response from the Nova Scotia RCMP following the mass shooting, including how at an early press conference the Mounties said there were "in excess of 10" casualties when they knew there were many more, along with details of the Onslow fire hall shooting.
Lucki said she also "scratched" her head at the excess of 10 quote. But she said that situation, and in Onslow where two Mounties shot at a civilian thinking he was the gunman, are prime examples of why extra context and details are needed from the RCMP so people have a full picture.
"It's about providing as much information as you can and letting Canadians come to their own opinion," Lucki said.
But Scott questioned Lucki about how she could square her push for transparency when her team at RCMP headquarters quashed an interview Campbell agreed to do with the CBC's Fifth Estate in the fall of 2020 for its episode "13 Deadly Hours".
Lucki said she'd been advised there were many reasons the interview should be cancelled, including that the public inquiry was soon being struck which would bring out a lot of answers, and emotions in Nova Scotia were still very high.
"It's a tough one to reconcile, I'm not going to deny that," Lucki said.
She added that by running out in front of the media at the time when a commission was being announced also seemed "self-serving," and there likely would have been more criticism if Campbell had done an interview as the inquiry was announced.
Scott asked Lucki whether that meant that it's not always a good idea for the RCMP to be honest and transparent when there are "timing" or "strategic considerations."
Lucki said it's not about being honest or dishonest, but there are many factors to look at which change "from one decision to another." She added that she relies on her strategic communications to offer advice, and in that case she took it.
Some Ottawa RCMP brass knew guns wouldn't be released
According to new emails released by the commission Tuesday, by the time Campbell's press conference started around 4 p.m. on April 28 Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Brennan did know the firearms wouldn't be brought up.
Just before 2 p.m., Brennan emailed Lia Scanlan, the head of strategic communications for the Nova Scotia RCMP at the time of the shooting, checking that Campbell was "not comfortable" releasing the make and models publicly during the press conference.
A few minutes later, Scanlan responded "correct, investigative team including Campbell."
In his recent interview with the commission, Brennan said he would have told Lucki about this piece of information because they worked down the hall from one another. But on Tuesday, Lucki said she doesn't recall that happening and it's likely she was working from home on April 28 due to COVID-19.
She added that if Brennan had told her about the gun details not being shared, she would have quickly briefed the minister and prime minister's offices and avoided the issue completely, so "that's why I don't believe I was told."
Lucki also said that for her, it didn't matter that the miscommunication happened to be about the firearms — it was the fact she got "erroneous information" out of Nova Scotia on multiple occasions.
The details of the firearms only became public through a briefing note given to the prime minister by Lucki, which surfaced through an access to information request.
Despite a request from the Nova Scotia Mounties that the firearm information be shared only internally to the RCMP, emails show Lucki sent those details to the offices of the public safety minister and the national security adviser to the prime minister. Lucki said Tuesday she didn't see that detail from the email, but had assumed she was fine to send along the firearms information to certain political offices because she'd already referenced how the public safety minister was "anxious" to have those details.
Earlier Tuesday, the commissioner finished questioning retired assistant commissioner Lee Bergerman, who was commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP at the time of the mass shooting.
The inquiry also learned Tuesday that the federal Department of Justice had not yet disclosed a year of Bergerman's notes to the commission, following a pattern of late disclosure and holding back pages of documents to check for privilege.
Lori Ward, a lawyer for the department, said that while they had collected and shared Bergerman's notes up until October 2020, it took some time to gather the remaining notebooks between that point and her retirement in October 2021.
"I regret the situation," Ward said.
The commission had set aside Tuesday and Wednesday to hear from Lucki.