Firefighters say RCMP gunfire at N.S. fire hall caused lasting trauma
Greg Muise and Darrell Currie were inside Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade when 2 RCMP officers fired at it
Volunteer firefighters Greg Muise and Darrell Currie have spent decades rushing into burning homes and never expected their most frightening experience would happen within the walls of their own fire hall at the hands of the RCMP.
On April 19, 2020, amid the manhunt for a shooter disguised as a Mountie who ended up killing 22 people in rural Nova Scotia, two RCMP officers pulled over at the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade hall and started firing.
They had mistaken a municipal official in a safety vest standing beside an actual RCMP cruiser for their suspect, causing nearly $40,000 worth of damage to the rural station.
But the impact went far beyond a shattered sign and punctured siding.
Muise and Currie, the chief and deputy chief, assumed the actual gunman was outside and spent an hour with two other men huddled behind tables, fearing for their lives.
It wasn't until later that they learned the shooter had driven by their hall not long before the Mounties stopped there and that he was long gone when the gunfire erupted. The officers left without talking to the firefighters.
In the nearly two years since, they have struggled with the lasting trauma.
"It took part of my life.... I lost part of my life," Muise said Tuesday during public hearings for the mass shooting inquiry.
"The fire hall was like a second home to me.... I'm nervous every time I go there, not sure, not knowing what's going to happen next. It's a challenge."
Muise and Currie attended the first day of the public proceedings for the commission in their uniforms. They were not swayed by the commissioners' assurances during opening remarks that the inquiry would be transparent and thorough.
"Those are words, and we've heard words for 15 months," Currie said in an interview.
"They post updates on the website, but nothing substantial has come out of that. So without seeing any actions, which we haven't seen at this point, I don't believe that anything is going to change."
6/6 important to voice my frustration with the Commission prior to the public portion of the Inquiry so I sent them a letter earlier this week. I‘ve attached a copy of my letter if anyone wishes to read it. I‘ve attached a copy of my letter if you want to read it. <a href="https://twitter.com/NSMassCasualty?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@nsmasscasualty</a> <a href="https://t.co/SzN0o3nl3H">pic.twitter.com/SzN0o3nl3H</a>—@darrellbcurrie
Though they once hoped a public inquiry would shed light on their experience and how it could be prevented, the firefighters' confidence waned as more than a year passed without hearing from the Mass Casualty Commission.
They said they finally spoke to inquiry investigators earlier this month after their lawyers pushed the commission to reach out and after inquiry staff had already prepared a summary document detailing what happened at the fire hall.
But they said the interview didn't dig into what actually happened to them that spring morning — when the RCMP asked them to open the hall as a comfort centre for people displaced by the violence in Portapique, N.S., — and focused only on how it impacted them.
Without that, "the context of the supports required and long term effects will not hold as much relevance and be difficult to understand," Currie said in a letter to the commission he sent last week.
The Mass Casualty Commission's mandate includes looking at the events of April 18-19, 2020, including the police response, as well as how the people most affected were treated afterward.
Muise and Currie are participants in the inquiry and represented by Patterson Law. The firm also represents 23 others, including people closely affected and more than half of the families who lost loved ones.
Like some family members who say they have lost faith in the process, the pair say they're not holding their breath that the joint federal-provincial inquiry will lead to lasting change.
"I've been disappointed all along in the way the commission has handled the proceedings so far. So I'm coming into this with low expectations," said Currie.
Barbara McLean, the commission's investigations director, previously told CBC News the start of the hearings does not mark the end of her team's investigation and that it will continue until the final report in November.
On Tuesday, the commissioners said they intend to call witnesses when needed during public hearings to clarify any controversial information and have incorporated interviews with about 150 people into documents that will be introduced.
One document will focus on the Onslow fire hall incident.
But Muise said he doesn't understand why they were contacted so late in the inquiry process and he doesn't think there will be enough time to call or subpoena all the relevant people to testify.
"I think they should have been looking at witnesses [when the inquiry's work started]. I think they waited too long to do that and now they're trying to rush it to get it done," he said.
Currie wants people to remember that the impacts of the mass shooting go beyond the losses for families of people killed and extend to those injured and deeply affected as a result of the gunman's rampage.
"Our story is largely forgotten when the big story is told," said Currie. "We don't have a grieving process to go through, we have our own trauma to deal with.... There's pretty much an entire community that's been traumatized."
Though he and Muise both still go to fire calls, Currie has been on leave from his day job after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He's attended workshops and dozens of psychologist and psychiatrist appointments trying to process the experience.
"I'm taking medication I never took before. I had trouble sleeping, concentrating, focus, depression, anxiety — all that sort of textbook PTSD-type symptoms," he said.
"As a first responder, we go to help. We know basically what we're responding to. But this is something that just happened to us. We experienced it and it's been tough."
A changed view of RCMP
After the fire hall was hit with gunfire, the province's Serious Incident Response Team investigated and last winter, it cleared the two officers who fired the shots of any criminal wrongdoing, finding they had reasonable grounds to believe a man outside the hall was the killer.
The firefighters had never heard an explanation directly from the force, let alone an apology, and never heard directly from the people who shot the hall, Muise said, adding he knows who they are and has since been on a call with one of them.
Muise said over four decades, he attended emergency calls alongside Mounties, but his trust eroded when police fired in his direction and neither of the officers came inside to check on them.
"I always felt comfortable around them. We did our job and they did their job and you know, what happened that day just kind of took that away. Not sure who we can trust out there anymore," he said.
"Leaving us there in the hall for an hour. It's like a hostage situation to me."