Nova Scotia

Police union says inquiry should not call on front-line RCMP officers involved in Portapique

A lawyer for the National Police Federation says RCMP officers who responded to Portapique, N.S., in April 2020 should not be called on to testify at the public inquiry.

Union lawyer says expert report will show Mounties could be re-traumatized when testifying

Two RCMP officers observe a moment of silence to honour slain Const. Heidi Stevenson and the other 21 victims of the mass killings at a checkpoint on Portapique Road in Portapique, N.S. on Friday, April 24, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The union representing front-line RCMP officers who responded to Portapique, N.S., in April 2020 says it doesn't want those members to testify at the public inquiry into what happened during the shootings and the search for the gunman.

Nasha Nijhawan, a lawyer with the National Police Federation, told the Mass Casualty Commission there's a real risk the 18 officers being asked to testify by lawyers for the victims' families could be re-traumatized by testifying.

"Of course it would be best if everybody could explain in their own first-person voice what they experienced, but at what cost?" Nijhawan said Wednesday.

A lawyer for the commission said last week that senior RCMP officers will be called as witnesses, but Emily Hill did not confirm specific names. The inquiry has not released a witness list for the weeks ahead.

Lee Bergerman, who was the commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP in April 2020, has since retired and the commission previously said that would not impact her ability to testify

Debate over expert's qualifications

The federation represents regular and reservist RCMP members below the rank of inspector. 

Nijhawan said the union planned to enter two pieces of evidence to support its argument.

On Thursday morning the commission heard about the qualifications of Nick Carlton, a professor at the University of Regina and a registered doctoral clinical psychologist in Saskatchewan. He is also the scientific director of the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment. 

The union hoped to introduce one of his reports as evidence. Lawyers for the families would have the opportunity to ask him questions about his work and research.

Nasha Nijhawan is a lawyer representing the National Police Federation. (CBC)

Nijhawan said Carlton's report provides necessary information about the potential impact of the original events on the RCMP officers, how they may be dealing with the fallout of that trauma, and what requiring live testimony might mean for them.

But after hearing the submissions, Chief Commission Michael MacDonald said Carlton's research was not needed to determine whether individual officers should be called. 

The Mass Casualty Commission presented documents this week summarizing what it believes happened in Portapique. They state Gabriel Wortman attacked his longtime partner and proceeded to kill 13 neighbours after she escaped and hid in the woods. 

The gunman killed nine more people while disguised as a Mountie the following morning and drove nearly 200 kilometres through rural Nova Scotia, most of it in a decommissioned police cruiser he'd adapted to look like a real one. 

Officers interviewed by RCMP, commission

The inquiry already has access to a great deal of evidence from the officers who responded, Nijhawan said, including 911 calls, radio logs, and interviews with police and commission investigators.

The union is very aware its members want to serve the inquiry as much as they can, Nijhawan said.

"In fact, they wish so much to be helpful that they may be willing to extend themselves beyond what is appropriate for their own wellness," she said.

"It would be our submission that you should not ask them to do too much."

The union is also looking to table results from an internal union survey of the members who have been engaged in the commission interview process over the past several months. 

Nijhawan said this report will show the "actual impact" of Portapique on the RCMP members who responded, and make clear the "potential re-traumatization" of officers by going through the inquiry's process.

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19. 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)

On Thursday, lawyers representing families began giving submissions on why individual officers should be called, specifically Const. Stuart Beselt and Const. Vicki Colford.

Beselt was the first officer on scene and spoke to a gunshot victim shortly after he pulled into Portapique. Colford spoke to the man's wife about a back exit from the community. 

The commission said they had no plans to call Beselt and Colford as witnesses to clarify any gaps in evidence in the portion of the inquiry devoted to determining what happened, but had planned to include them later in a witness circle about policing. 

Tara Miller, who represents relatives of victims Aaron Tuck and Kristen Beaton, said sworn evidence and being able to test it is the "core foundation of our legal system," and that includes hearing from first responders under oath.

"How does one have an inquiry with a mandate to inquire into what happened and make findings of fact on the responses of the RCMP officers, without hearing from a single officer?" she said. 

Joshua Bryson, counsel for the family of victims Joy and Peter Bond, had a similar take on Wednesday. He said police have a very difficult job, but part of that job requires testifying about violent crimes in court. 

"In our view, it acts as a bar for this commission to fulfil its mandate, which is to understand what happened," Bryson said.

Banning officers would see public lose faith: lawyer

Rob Pineo of Patterson Law, whose firm represents most of the other families, said the ability to call RCMP officers should be taken on an individual basis. 

The commission can consider their medical records and evidence before deciding on the best way to support them in testifying, Pineo said, arguing that an overall ban is not in the public interest.

"I'm not sure that there would be a lot of faith in the ultimate findings and recommendations of this commission if a blanket expert report was used to block critical evidence," Pineo said.

On Wednesday, lawyers representing the victims' families also argued that Lisa Banfield, the gunman's spouse, must be a witness in the inquiry. The commission has based its preliminary findings on lengthy interviews Banfield gave to the RCMP.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Haley Ryan

Reporter

Haley Ryan is a reporter based in Halifax. Got a story idea? Send an email to haley.ryan@cbc.ca, or reach out on Twitter @hkryan17.

With files from Elizabeth McMillan

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