Nova Scotia

Portapique inquiry decides certain RCMP officers, gunman's spouse can be called to testify

The Mass Casualty Commission has ruled on the issue of whether senior and front-line RCMP officers as well as the gunman's partner can be called to testify in public.

The commission made its decision Wednesday following days of arguments on both sides of the issue

Chief Commissioner J. Michael MacDonald speaks at the opening of the public hearings on Feb. 22, 2022. He served as Chief Justice of Nova Scotia until his retirement in 2019. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

The commission leading the public inquiry into the mass shooting that began in Portapique, N.S., has decided that both front-line and senior RCMP officers, and the gunman's spouse, can be called to testify publicly.

The Mass Casualty Commission delivered its decision Wednesday during the inquiry. This comes after days of arguments from lawyers for the victims' families on the need to call 18 front-line and senior RCMP officers, and the gunman's partner, to address evidence gaps in the record of events on April 18 and 19, 2020.

Family lawyers have said testifying about violent crimes is part of an officer's job, and it's critical that the police involved testify in person to be transparent and maintain public confidence in the inquiry.

But lawyers for the union representing RCMP officers, and the RCMP itself, have said there's a real risk the officers could be re-traumatized by testifying. They said many of the gaps raised by family lawyers were already covered in the documents and interviews conducted by the commission.

"Being trauma-informed does not mean not hearing from a person. It does mean thinking carefully about how we hear from a person," Commissioner Michael MacDonald said Wednesday.

When the inquiry resumes March 28, MacDonald said it will hear sworn testimony in a "witness panel" from the three front-line RCMP officers who first entered Portapique on April 18, 2020: constables Stuart Beselt, Aaron Patton, and Adam Merchant.

The commission will also subpoena Const. Vicki Colford and civilian witness Deborah Thibault.

Five senior officers will also be called in May when more information about command decisions is entered: staff sergeants Brian Rehill, Steve Halliday, Addie MacCallum, and Andy O'Brien. Incident commander Staff Sgt. Jeff West will be called as well.

"Creating space for hearing from people who were present who have now had the opportunity to reflect on their experience can provide important information on lessons we may all learn," MacDonald said.

He said ways to gather testimony while being trauma-informed includes giving witnesses clear direction about what's being asked, taking breaks, or accommodations like giving evidence through written questions or via video.

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)

The commission also said it expects to hear testimony from Lisa Banfield, the gunman's spouse, "at a later date," as well as three other RCMP officers.

On Wednesday morning Banfield's criminal charge of supplying ammunition to the gunman was resolved in court, clearing the way for her to be able to testify about what she knows.

One of her lawyers has said Banfield "will cooperate fully with this inquiry" once the criminal charges are resolved.

MacDonald said it has never been a question of "if" the inquiry wants to hear from Banfield, but "rather how and when we could best do so."

Given the change in her legal situation, MacDonald said Banfield would meet with the commission Wednesday for "the first of several interviews" and she is expected to also testify publicly.

Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law told the inquiry last week "it's plain and obvious that there is no witness more critical" than Banfield, given that she was with the gunman in the days and hours leading up to the killings.

Given where Banfield told police she hid, McCulloch said the location was also "critically located to potentially enable [Banfield] to observe a great deal of the activity that took place in Portapique overnight," including the movements of community members and RCMP officers.

Inquiry looks to speak with others

MacDonald said two civilian witnesses, Peter Griffon and Bjorn Merzbach, have scheduled interviews with the commission, and the written record of those will be shared with participants. Any requests for the men to testify in public will be decided after that, MacDonald said.

He said the commission is also asking to hear more information from Const. Chris Grund and Donnalee Williston, a 911 dispatcher.

Applications have also made to subpoena two American witnesses who knew the gunman, but have not been successful so far, MacDonald said.

The commissioners have decided at this time that they do not need to hear from Const. Dave Lilly and Portapique resident David Faulkner.

MacDonald said there are also some people who they do want to hear from, but will revisit the need for their evidence later, including three other RCMP officers.

The inquiry also expects to eventually hear testimony from the top RCMP brass who were in charge at the time: Chief Supt. Chris Leather, Supt. Darren Campbell, Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman and Commissioner Brenda Lucki.


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