Most families of people killed in N.S. mass shooting boycott public hearings
Lawyers representing most families say they should be able to question top Mounties directly
Commissioners leading the inquiry into Nova Scotia's mass shooting faced a far emptier room than usual Wednesday, as most of the lawyers for victims' families boycotted public proceedings over the inability to directly question two key Mounties.
Nick Beaton, whose pregnant wife, Kristen Beaton, was killed in the April 2020 massacre, is one of more than a dozen family members represented by Patterson Law during the inquiry.
He and the other family members instructed their lawyers to not show up for the public hearings Wednesday and Thursday in Truro, N.S., as well as two days of testimony scheduled for next week.
"We kind of banded together. Silence sometimes is the loudest, and that's the approach we took today," Beaton told reporters in Truro alongside Patterson lawyers Rob Pineo and Sandra McCulloch.
The boycott is related to the Mass Casualty Commission's recent decision to allow RCMP Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, Sgt. Andy O'Brien, and Staff Sgt. Al Carroll accommodations while testifying.
Rehill and O'Brien will only be questioned by commission counsel in pre-taped video interviews, with the chance for other lawyers to submit questions. Carroll will testify Thursday via Zoom, and can be questioned by all lawyers.
"They're sitting us in the corner, we're sitting on our hands and we're on mute. We have no voice," Beaton said. "You're not going to gag us. You're not going to shut me up. I'm not stopping."
After fighting for a public inquiry to be held instead of a review, Beaton said he feels like that's exactly what the proceedings have turned into.
Although the commission has the power to subpoena people to testify, Beaton said they're not using it enough — and when they do so, the evidence is often given behind closed doors or with other conditions attached.
Pineo said when the inquiry began, families were told their questions would be asked and answered, "and that is simply not happening."
"We really feel that this process has been set up to thwart any effort to get their own questions answered by their own lawyers," Pineo said.
In a release, Pineo said the boycott sends a "clear message that they will not be associated with this restricted fact-finding process for such critical evidence."
Tara Miller, who represents a family member of Kristen Beaton, told CBC News her clients are "deeply disappointed" and she will also be boycotting the proceedings.
Families "have been waiting for a very long time to hear questions in their own words, or their counsel's words, answered by these key decision makers," said Miller.
A few family members did appear in person to watch the hearings Wednesday, including Scott McLeod, whose brother, Sean McLeod, was killed in the mass shooting.
Scott McLeod said he supports the other families who are participating in the boycott and agrees with their position, but wanted to be in the crowd for the commissioners to see him.
"I'm one of the family members that wants information," he said. "But this show of nobody showing up is good because now they're seeing that people are getting frustrated with something."
McLeod said that at this point, he's hoping for an investigation or some accountability based on what the commission has discovered already, including that RCMP officers fired at a civilian outside the Onslow fire hall.
2 Mounties co-ordinated early response
Rehill was the risk manager working out of the RCMP's Operational Communications Centre when the first 911 calls came in from Portapique, N.S. In addition to monitoring those calls and overseeing the dispatchers, he 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 for Colchester County at the time, meaning he was in charge of the daily operations of the Bible Hill RCMP detachment. On April 18, he helped co-ordinate the early response from home and communicated with officers on the ground.
The National Police Federation (NPF) and Canada's attorney general had requested that O'Brien and Rehill provide their evidence by sworn affidavit, and that Carroll testify in person but only have commission counsel ask questions.
Carroll, who was the district commander in April 2020, was part of the team of commanding officers and worked out of the Great Village fire hall overnight.
Commission granted accommodations
The Mass Casualty Commission leading the inquiry released its response to the accomodation 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 in advance.
"That's not a suitable replacement for meaningful participation," said Joshua Bryson, who represents the families of Joy and Peter Bond.
He said while the inquiry is not a trial, he thinks the commission should have considered that criminal proceedings have long supported witnesses who've experienced trauma, such as letting them give evidence evidence behind screens, that don't prevent cross-examination.
Bryson said he'd like to ask Rehill many questions, including about the consideration given to information radioed from a Mountie at the scene about a back exit in Portapique and what, if any, efforts were made prior to 5 a.m. to block off the road it connected to.
But while he attended proceedings Wednesday, he also plans to boycott the pre-recorded testimony.
"We feel that if we're going to be marginalized to this extent, there's really not much point in us being here to participate," Bryson told reporters in Truro.
McCulloch of Patterson Law said Wednesday it's important to find out what exactly Rehill and O'Brien did with the information they learned during the initial Portapique response, who they shared it with, and what decisions were made by anybody as a result.
"We don't have the ability to dig into those issues for our clients. We come with a unique perspective and being kept out of the room ... is not a full examination of the evidence," McCulloch said.
Miller said she doesn't oppose all accommodations, but said it is inappropriate for the commission's lawyers to ask both the initial questions and then followups, which would normally be asked by other lawyers through cross-examination.
The commissioners, lawyers for the commission and for participants, as well as members of the media, can attend the testimony. The sessions will be recorded and later shared with the public.
Lawyers representing the families of Lillian Campbell, Gina Goulet, Jolene Oliver, Emily and Aaron Tuck said they will attend. Const. Heidi Stevenson's family is not participating in the inquiry.
Mounties' health factored into decision
The commission's decision said it took into account the officers' health information, which is private, and "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."
It said the NPF and the Department of Justice provided the commission with some of the witnesses' health information, which was then shared confidentially with lawyers for families participating in the inquiry. But since it's considered sensitive personal information, the commission did not release the details.
Commissioners decide on accommodations
Chief commissioner Michael MacDonald called the decision not to participate "unfortunate" and said the commission "would have valued their input as we have on every other day of proceedings."
He said the purpose of accommodations is to allow the commission to hear from people with "wellness concerns or privacy issues."
He said the pre-recorded testimony will allow the inquiry "to get the best evidence while giving us the flexibility to provide ample breaks and the availability of supports."
The inquiry's rules state that anyone who is subpoenaed as a witness may submit a request for things such as additional breaks, having a support person with them or submitting an affidavit instead of live testimony.
MacDonald said it's up to the commissioners to decide whether to grant a request and to what extent.
"Accommodations are designed to help the commission in the public interest gather and hear critical information. Accommodations are not designed to get in the way of that," he said, adding that lawyers for participants will still be able to ask witnesses questions, unless there is "a compelling reason to take a different approach."
Emily Hill, counsel for the commission, said in an interview with CBC News on Wednesday that they have not received any other accommodation requests. She said any witness can ask for one and they will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Hearings in Truro for first time
Three other witnesses also requested accommodations. The commissioners denied one of the requests and decided to allow two witnesses to testify on a panel. The decision did not disclose the names of these witnesses.
Another Mountie, Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers, who was risk manager at RCMP dispatch centre morning of April 19, testified in person in Truro, the first day hearings are being held in Colchester County.
Miller said many families had planned to attend the proceedings in Truro in person, not only because of the location but because of the roles Rehill and O'Brien played in the early hours of the police response.
Although Pineo said the timing of the boycott is unfortunate because many of their clients also planned to attend the Truro hearings, the witness testimony will now be a "sanitized version" of their evidence.
"Our clients don't want to be used as pawns," Pineo said. "Their counsel sitting there and lending legitimacy to the process as if we're in agreement with how this commission is being run ... our clients aren't in agreement with that and neither are we."
Minister meets with families
Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino sat down Wednesday with family members of victims. He told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax that families hadn't met with a federal government representative since the beginning of the inquiry in late February.
"I felt a personal obligation to interact face to face in person with some of the families," said Mendicino.
"It was very clear to me that there's still a lot of pain, indescribable pain that is being felt, that there's indescribable agony and that they still very much feel the trauma of these awful events that occurred."
When asked about the accommodations made for RCMP officers, Mendicino said he understands the "anxieties and concerns" of families. However, he stressed independence of the commission is crucial to preventing such a tragedy from happening again.
"This is why it's important that we have empowered through the law, the commissioners, to get to the bottom of it. And those powers are broad in scope, and they do provide the tools that are necessary to search out the truth," he said.
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With files from Angela MacIvor and Mainstreet Halifax