Nova Scotia

Inquiry records shed light on why RCMP didn't inform the public about N.S. mass shooting

Families of people murdered on the second day of violence have been adamant that had they known more about the danger — and that the gunman was driving what looked like an RCMP cruiser — their loved ones would have been at home and out of harm's way. 

Retired staff sergeant testified they didn't want to share information about car until it was verified

The RCMP's tactical armoured vehicle is seen travelling on Sunday, April 19, 2020, through the community of Great Village, N.S., about 10 minutes away from Portapique. Around 9:40 a.m., police raced to try to locate an active shooter after receiving 911 calls about a woman killed in Wentworth, N.S. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Public inquiry documents are shedding light on the internal discussions RCMP officers had about what information they should share with the public about the unfolding active shooter situation in Nova Scotia in 2020. 

They also show that on April 19, amid the realization the gunman was at large and on the move, an RCMP communications officer became concerned for her own safety and that of a CBC crew set up near the makeshift command post in Great Village, N.S. 

Families of people murdered on the second day of violence have been adamant that had they known more about the danger — and that the gunman was driving what looked like an RCMP cruiser — their loved ones would have been at home and out of harm's way. 

Over the course of a 13-hour rampage that ended with 22 people dead, others injured and several homes destroyed, the Nova Scotia RCMP issued 11 tweets about the incident and shared similar information on its Facebook page. 

The Mass Casualty Commission has yet to release its summary of the RCMP's public communications but the records released to date show there was deliberation behind the scenes about which details were accurate enough to share with the public and a communications team was tasked with posting messaging to social media. 

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)

Records released by the commission show that from the first hour of response, several police officers asked about the steps being taken to inform the public. 

Const. Stuart Beselt, the first officer on scene in Portapique, N.S., radioed his colleagues asking about the possibility of an emergency broadcast at 11:16 p.m. 

Staff at the Operational Communications Centre started calling residents to warn them to stay inside. To do so, they had to look up addresses and maps to try to locate phone numbers in their internal records systems. 

Cpl. Lisa Croteau told commission investigators that Sgt. Andy O'Brien called her around 11:30 p.m. — about 90 minutes after the first 911 call — and asked her to tweet out information about an ongoing situation in Portapique, N.S. After discussing what needed to be communicated, Croteau said she reviewed pre-translated wording. 

She posted that the RCMP were responding to a firearms complaint at 11:32 p.m. and advised people to avoid three streets in the community and stay at home with the doors locked. It did not mention that people had been killed or injured. 

Cpl. Lisa Croteau sent this tweet on April 18, 2020. The RCMP's first public mention of a situation in Portapique, N.S. (Twitter)

The first tweet came up at the public inquiry Wednesday during testimony from Jeff West and Kevin Surette, who have since retired as staff sergeants and critical incident commanders.

Joshua Bryson, who represents the families of Joy and Peter Bond, asked if the tweet "was a fair depiction of what was occurring" in Portapique and "if it reasonably informed Nova Scotians of the severity of the situation."

West, who wasn't in command at the time, said he wasn't part of discussions about the tweet. He also said he "wasn't a social media person" and noted that "hindsight is 20/20."

Patricia MacPhee, a lawyer for the RCMP, objected to Bryson's question. In response, chief commissioner Michael MacDonald told Bryson he had made his point. 

"We know what was happening at the time and we know what was in that tweet," said MacDonald. "The challenge I guess is: is there anything inaccurate in that tweet? I don't think your question is, 'Is the tweet misleading by what it contains?' 

"Is the tweet misleading by what it doesn't contain?" 

Police, fire, and paramedics were staging at a fire hall in Great Village, about 10 minutes from Portapique, N.S., where they had responded to an active shooter situation the previous night. The RCMP was using the hall as a mobile command post. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

The firearms tweet was the last time the Nova Scotia RCMP tweeted until 8:02 the following morning, at which point they wrote that officers remained in Portapique responding to an active shooter situation. 

Information about Gabriel Wortman's marked cruiser was shared with other police agencies around that time, but it wasn't made public for another two hours. 

Media looking for information 

That Sunday morning, news organizations were sharing information that the RCMP had posted on Twitter and Facebook. 

CBC producer Angela MacIvor emailed the two media liaison officers for information at 2:57 a.m. after seeing posts on social media and the firearms tweet before midnight. Shortly afterward she called Croteau, who told the inquiry she was still home and dozed off after speaking with O'Brien.

Croteau told her she didn't have any information about fires or how many officers were on scene but said residents should go to their basements and lock their doors or leave the area.

Croteau told the inquiry she made plans around 5 a.m. to head to Colchester County at the request of Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday, who asked her to be there to handle media requests at the scene. 

Before long she was receiving a steady stream of calls from news organizations, including some outside of Canada. 

'Didn't want to know too much'

After she arrived at the makeshift command post at the fire hall in Great Village, Croteau talked to West, the incident commander, to get the information she was able to share with the media. 

She told the inquiry she knew they had a suspect but didn't press for extra details in the event she let something slip that she wasn't authorized to share. 

"I looked at it as I didn't want to know too much because I wanted to be able to help the media," Croteau said in her interview with the commission.

Meanwhile, a CBC reporter and videographer had arrived and Croteau helped them set up in a spot where they had a good view of the command post. All three were there when police vehicles raced off, responding to the 911 call that Lillian Campbell had been killed on the road in Wentworth. 

A photo of the gunman's decommissioned 2017 Ford Taurus that he made into a replica cruiser and used during the mass shootings on April 18-19, 2020. (Mass Casualty Commission)

'I didn't feel safe'

After learning about the Wentworth call and that the suspect was in a police car, Croteau said she became worried and called a colleague who told her she was a "sitting duck."

"I didn't feel safe for myself or the CBC reporters where we were situated because if he came around the corner and we were there," she told the commission. 

"It was hard because until we had all the information validated that this was what was going on, I couldn't tip off CBC because I didn't want to say something that unless we had it confirmed this is what was going on."

After the RCMP posted the tweet about the replica cruiser, she told the CBC crew to go somewhere safer. Croteau decided to return to headquarters to help there, in part, because she worried her own cruiser made her a target for officers looking for the gunman.

Steve Halliday, a retired staff sergeant, speaks before the Mass Casualty Commission leading the public inquiry on May 17, 2022. Halliday was part of the command team who responded in the early hours of the mass shooting that began in Portapique. (CBC)

"I was worried that they'd think I was the bad guy. So, I just… I had to get out of there," she said, describing a fearful drive back toward Halifax around the same time the gunman was believed to be heading along the same route. 

CBC asked the RCMP this week to comment on why it didn't provide more information to the crew that morning, such as that multiple people have been killed, to convey the severity of the situation. In an emailed statement, the Mounties said it would be inappropriate to comment on inquiry documents while the proceedings are underway. 

Behind the scenes on Sunday morning, there was discussion about what information should be made public. Croteau's colleagues on the communications team were liaising with the commanding officers.

Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum was in touch with Lia Scanlan, the RCMP's civilian director of communications, who was overseeing the social media posts. They first spoke around 7:45 a.m., after which she sent a tweet saying the shooter was still active, according to the inquiry. 

Const. Heidi Stevenson also contacted the Operational Communications Centre at 8:44 a.m., asking if consideration had been given to a media release.

RCMP first publicly identified Wortman at 8:54 a.m., posting a description and photo to Twitter. 

Halliday approved a tweet mentioning the cruiser at 9:49 a.m., the inquiry found. The message wasn't posted for nearly half an hour, though the commission's report on the commanders' decisions didn't explain why. 

Wanted to rule out car had been burned

Halliday, who has since retired, told the inquiry that he asked MacCallum before 8 a.m. to work with Scanlan to send out the replica cruiser information. 

Halliday testified Tuesday that before that point and until officers ruled out the possibility that the replica cruiser had been burned in Portapique, it didn't make sense to share the details. 

"Putting it out any sooner than that may have created an even more difficult situation for our members to be dealing with at that time… I don't think I would have seen that going out before it was literally confirmed that it wasn't one of those vehicles that was burned out at the scene," he said. 

Just last week, an expert hired by the commission warned against that very approach. 

Michael Hallowes testified he finds "the paralysis of accuracy" very concerning. 

"Whereby you wait and wait for the perfect situation awareness and you miss telling the public what they need to know right now. And I'm sorry if I get it wrong, I'll tell you I got it wrong and I'll correct it. But waiting for this perfection of the information, it doesn't happen," he said. 

Things changed quickly in final hour 

Croteau remained the media's point of contact through the final hour of the rampage and her information was listed in the only media release — sent to about 300 journalists — that advised the situation was "active and evolving" and people should stay inside with doors locked. 

It said the RCMP was working "to provide the most updated information while addressing public and officer safety." 

During the final hour, the gunman drove three different vehicles, shot and injured Const. Chad Morrison and killed Const. Heidi Stevenson, Joey Webber and Gina Goulet. 

Halliday's notes said that Staff Sgt. Dan MacGillivray — by then the critical incident commander — was "updating comms in real time so they have updates of what is happening in order to advise the public." 

The commanding officers were sorting through information coming in through tips and from the many officers in pursuit. 

In retrospect, several of the tweets were out of date by the time they were issued. For instance, a tweet about the suspect being spotted in Milford in a grey SUV was sent minutes before two RCMP officers spotted the gunman in another vehicle at a gas station in Enfield, N.S. 

After they shot him, the RCMP tweeted their suspect was in custody and later in the day, the force confirmed he was dead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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