Nova Scotia

N.S. premier, federal minister criticize mass shooting inquiry on first day

As public hearings for the mass shooting inquiry get underway in Nova Scotia, provincial and federal politicians are blasting the commission for not being transparent with the families of victims who died.

Premier Tim Houston says families feel 'left in the dark,' questions if public can have confidence in process

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says victims' family members have expressed their "frustration and concern about the structure of the inquiry" and it caused him to question the process. (Robert Short/CBC)

As public hearings for the long-awaited mass shooting inquiry gets underway in Nova Scotia, provincial and federal politicians are blasting the commission for not being transparent with the families of victims who died.

In a news release issued before hearings began on Tuesday morning, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said he has heard from family members who have expressed "frustration and concern about the structure of the inquiry."

"They feel left in the dark. This is not only disrespectful, it should cause us all to pause and ask, if the families don't have confidence in the process, how can the public?" Houston said.

The premier's remarks echo the concerns of a number of people whose loved ones were killed on April 18-19, 2020, including Darcy Dobson, who lost her mother, Heather O'Brien, and Charlene Bagley, who lost her father, Tom Bagley. 

The Mass Casualty Commission is a joint federal-provincial inquiry examining the deaths of 22 people, including a pregnant woman, who were killed by a gunman over a 13-hour period in the rural Nova Scotia communities of Portapique, Wentworth, Debert and Shubenacadie.

Both levels of government initially announced a review of the mass shooting, but quickly backtracked in July 2020 after families lobbied for an independent, public inquiry.

"The reason Nova Scotians pulled together and pushed for an inquiry as opposed to a review was to ensure that it was honest, comprehensive, detailed and most importantly, designed to answer questions," Houston said.

"Yet, it is still not even known if key witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify, if there will be an opportunity to cross-examine them or if it will be a comprehensive list of witnesses."

He said the uncertainty is causing further, unnecessary trauma. Houston is urging the Mass Casualty Commission to meet with families and their counsel to listen to their concerns and provide a "plan that gives them confidence in the process."

Houston told reporters he raised concerns directly with the commission two weeks ago, but became more "anxious" this week when he didn't see changes.

Federal cabinet minister and Central Nova MP Sean Fraser is also weighing in on how the inquiry is treating those most affected. 

"After speaking to certain victims' family members directly to discuss their concerns, I called a meeting with the premier of Nova Scotia and the federal minister of public safety. We are united in our view that the families' confidence in this process remains a paramount consideration," Fraser wrote in a social media post on Tuesday morning.

Fraser said he will work to ensure that federal and provincial leaders are aware of "each and every concern" going forward.

Thirteen Deadly Hours: The Nova Scotia Shooting

2 years ago
Duration 45:10
The Fifth Estate presents a comprehensive inquiry into this year's mass shooting in Nova Scotia, chronicling 13 hours of mayhem that constitute one of Canada's deadliest events. [Correction: In the video, we incorrectly said officers jumped out of a cruiser outside the Onslow fire hall and began firing. In fact, the person who was interviewed said it was not a cruiser and she believed it was a Hyundai. Nova Scotia's Serious Incident Response Team has since found that it was an unmarked police vehicle.]

At the end of the first day, Barbara McLean, the inquiry's investigations director, said the commission was aware of Houston's comments.

"Frankly, we are surprised and disappointed. The Mass Casualty Commission is an independent inquiry and must remain free from interference, or external direction," McLean said, adding she hopes Houston will keep an open mind when it comes to any recommendations in the final report for how the province can improve public safety.

McLean said the commission needs to "remain free" of the two levels of governments that established it as well as institutions and people, including the 61 participants in the inquiry "who have divergent views on [its] work."

In his opening remarks, chief commissioner Michael MacDonald also addressed concerns about the perceived lack of transparency.

"Some people are concerned about the commission's independence, believing we may be susceptible to covering up for either the RCMP or government. Let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth," MacDonald said.

He added that "independence is the backbone, the be-all-and-end-all, of inquiries."

Inquiry 'can't drag on'

MacDonald said the process the commission has developed to organize the roughly 40,000 pages of records, as well as information from more than 150 interviews, into documents will save time and money. 

The alternative, he said, would be to spend years working through testimony and cross-examination of hundreds of witnesses. 

"This approach will provide the public with as much information as we can at the earliest opportunity," he said. "We developed a process that is just as, if not more, effective than calling witness after witness — [it's] a process that will not drag on and on.

"That will result in a lot less trauma." 

Michael MacDonald, the chief commissioner of the Mass Casualty Commission, speaks on Tuesday at the opening day of public hearings in Halifax. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

But he said the approach will still be thorough and that commission will "be robust in its response if witnesses try to be misleading." He also said lawyers for participants will be able to cross-examine witnesses, something counsel for some of the families had asked for in the lead up to hearings. 

The former Nova Scotia chief justice said the commissioners have a responsibility to get to the truth without causing more pain. 

"Too often, I have seen the emotional toll of processes that can go on and on, lives waiting in the balance," he said. "This process cannot drag on for five years."

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