Lawyers lay out 'failings' in RCMP response to Nova Scotia mass shooting
Victim's husband says he holds out 'hope' final report will be valuable
Lawyers for most families of the 22 people killed in the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting laid out blunt assessments Tuesday of RCMP "failings" before, during and after the horrific massacre.
The Mass Casualty Commission leading the inquiry into the tragic events of April 18 and 19, 2020, heard final submissions from family members of many victims during hearings in Truro, N.S., either through lawyers or speaking on their own behalf.
Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law, which represents most of the victims' families, outlined "a great number of failings" including lack of proper training and equipment for RCMP to deal with a mobile, active shooter at night in a wooded area, and a range of communication problems between officers and the public.
The families have also complained about how the RCMP treated them after the massacre, and procedural issues with the commission itself.
"Now is not the time to shy away from assigning accountability, for the fear that it might have the appearance of blame," McCulloch told the commission.
"Our clients deserve a frank and honest assessment of what went wrong, prior to, during, and after the mass casualty."
Many victims' family members attended the hearing Tuesday, including Nick Beaton, whose pregnant wife Kristen Beaton was killed the morning of April 19 in the small community of Debert.
Speaking alongside McCulloch outside the inquiry, Beaton told reporters it was important to come in person "because this is our life."
Beaton and other victims' families have been vocal about their disappointment in not being able to directly question major witnesses including the gunman's partner Lisa Banfield or RCMP officers in key positions during the shooting.
He said the inquiry's trauma-informed mandate left him feeling that it protected all other witnesses, while the families of shooting victims have been left "battling through" the process themselves.
On Tuesday, Beaton said there was "a lot more" that could have been done by the commission, but he's waiting until their final report to decide whether anything valuable came from the inquiry families pushed so hard to get.
"There's hope. That's all we've had is hope. I mean, we fought hard to get it, we voiced our concerns along the way. Me and the other family members I know, that's all we have left is hope, because we tried every other avenue," Beaton said.
Another family member who lost a loved one let the commissioners know exactly how she felt about the process.
Tara Long's brother Aaron Tuck was killed in Portapique the night of April 18, alongside his wife Jolene Oliver and their teenage daughter Emily Tuck. Long, who represented herself in her final submission to the commission Tuesday, said she's still struggling with what happened that day and afterwards.
She questioned why more Portapique homes weren't evacuated overnight if the RCMP believed the gunman was likely dead by self-inflicted wounds, and how the body of her brother was not found lying in his doorway by an RCMP officer who stopped nearby the morning of April 19. Long also noted the liaison officer for most victims' families texted Tuck on April 19 to see if he was alright, rather than go to his home.
"We have all patiently waited and listened to see when and how this process was going to provide us with answers and we are still waiting. Time has run out," Long said.
Lawyer McCulloch raised what she called "critical facts" that applied to various victims.
For instance, the first 911 call from victim Jamie Blair about her husband Greg being shot in the rural community of Portapique just after 10 p.m. on April 18 informed police that gunman Gabriel Wortman was driving a mock RCMP cruiser.
But, the inquiry has heard, RCMP quickly speculated the car was an older decommissioned model with no vinyl decals or lights.
There was an "inordinate amount of ball dropping" on gathering and handling intelligence, McCulloch said there seemed to be no structure in place to make sure vital pieces of information didn't fall through the cracks.
She said it's "incomprehensible" that critical incident commander Staff Sgt. Jeff West did not know there were two key witnesses, shooting survivors Andrew and Kate MacDonald, until the next morning.
Many investigative threads weren't followed, McCulloch said, including not following up with the children left hiding and watching the gunman move around the community, or asking other residents in the small community what they could share about the situation.
"Ironically, I'm talking about community members whom the RCMP could have simultaneously warned and potentially brought to safety," McCulloch said. "There was an opportunity of an exchange of valuable information that should have happened and didn't — to everyone's detriment."
She said the RCMP's lack of training is apparent through the decision to only allow one team of three officers into Portapique for hours on April 18, without night vision gear. That was rooted in a fear of being ambushed by the gunman or hit by crossfire with other police.
This, and the lack of tools like GPS to show where members were, has left clients wondering if the children of victims left to hide for hours could have been rescued earlier, or if others' deaths could have been prevented, she said.
Various communication issues included "disorganized" command structure with many RCMP responding members unsure who was in charge, McCulloch said. Others, like Sgt. Andy O'Brien, who had been drinking that evening, called in instructions from his own home. Another officer in Portapique did not properly share local knowledge of a back road out of the community.
It was an "egregious" failure to not send timely and accurate information to the public about what was happening, McCulloch said, and in fact misrepresenting the situation by only calling it a firearms complaint in one tweet that stayed up overnight into April 19.
McCulloch also raised concerns over how often RCMP air support was not available, how responding officers reverted to paper maps when they couldn't access detailed computerized ones of Portapique, not informing Truro police about the situation right away, and failing to use the emergency alert system.
Many of the RCMP's mistakes throughout their response came due to "tunnel vision," McCulloch said, where police chose a "most likely" scenario based on what witnesses were telling them, or how officers believed explosions around them meant the gunman was still in Portapique long after he'd left.
McCulloch urged the commission not to view these gaps through the lens of RCMP members who have suggested they were the result of lack of funding and resources during an "unprecedented" event. Instead, they were "basic mistakes that contributed to the unprecedented nature" of the tragedy.
There were also "numerous missed opportunities" for RCMP to build their knowledge of the gunman before the shootings, McCulloch said, since Wortman was no stranger to police given his assault of a teenager years beforehand, and two reports of uttering threats and having illegal guns in 2010 and 2011.
McCulloch also said there was also the report from Portapique neighbour Brenda Forbes in 2013 who said she told the Mounties about the gunman's violence against Banfield. That was refuted by "questionable" evidence from the officer who took her complaint, she said.
Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) had also flagged the gunman for suspected smuggling in the past.
All this prior information taken together and properly investigated could have revealed the gunman to be a person of concern, McCulloch said. The RCMP did have the gunman on their radar, she said, but through a lack of access to various databases, the radar was "turned off again and again."
"Whether this is because he was a wealthy white man who cleverly presented as pro-police and who enjoyed the special attention of an RCMP constable, or whether the RCMP or other policing enforcement agencies just didn't take the time to note and actually investigate these red flags, the result is the same," McCulloch said.
"The perpetrator was subject to no real scrutiny at all, and was left free to devastate our communities as he saw fit."
McCulloch also said victims' families did not begrudge Const. Heidi Stevenson's family their two family liaison officers provided by the RCMP. But they were in "pain" to see the wide gap between how Stevenson's loved ones were supported because they were connected to a fallen RCMP officer, yet only one "overwhelmed" officer dealt with the remaining families for 21 victims.
Over the last seven months, the commission has heard from more than 230 witnesses including 60 who testified at the public hearing. That's on top of the more than 3,300 documents that have also been released.
Everyone who presented Tuesday made it clear that the sheer volume of documents and lack of relevant testimony was a concern.
Lawyer Tara Miller, who represents a relative of Kristen Beaton, said the commission should have heard more evidence about the shootings. She said there was a list of people lawyers wanted to testify during the inquiry, but they only appeared in pre-recorded commission interviews, if at all.
"To allow for more ... firsthand evidence from witnesses just serves to make sure the evidentiary record for the commissioners is as robust and complete as possible," Miller told reporters outside the inquiry.
During her submission Tuesday, Miller said a commission recommendation should be that a provincial-federal committee be struck to ensure the findings of the inquiry are not lost to time or changes in governments and RCMP leadership. She said the committee should include victims' families, and a website where people can see what's been done.
Miller said the commissions' final recommendations will be the legacy of the mass shooting, and of those whose lives were lost.
"If there is no confidence or faith the recommendations will be … implemented, then the work done by all, and the deep losses suffered by the families, will all be for naught. That cannot be the legacy left," Miller told the commission.
Other lawyers made suggestions Tuesday about updating the "immediate action rapid deployment" (IARD) training to deal with night scenarios in wooded areas like Portapique. They said officers should also be better trained in how to secure crime scenes since some victims were not found for hours.
The commission will continue to hear final submissions from participants for the rest of the week.
With files from Angela MacIvor