Nova Scotia

RCMP appealed for backfill after 70 officers took sick leave following N.S. mass killings

Seventy Mounties took sick leave in the wake of April’s mass killings and Nova Scotia’s justice minister agreed to pay for out-of-province officers to backfill, but only until the end of August, newly released documents show.

Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey approved requests for extra officers until end of August

Nova Scotia RCMP Commanding Officer and Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman reads an statement at the start of a news conference on April 22, 2020. (Tim Krochak/The Canadian Press)

Seventy Mounties took sick leave in the wake of April's mass killings in Nova Scotia and the province's justice minister agreed to pay for out-of-province officers to backfill, but only until the end of August, newly released documents show.

Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman, commanding officer for Nova Scotia RCMP, first requested approval for the extra help on April 27, eight days after a gunman disguised as an RCMP officer killed 22 people, leaving 16 crime scenes in several rural communities.

Initially, two groups of 30 officers — the first from Quebec on April 27 and the second from Ontario on May 1 — travelled to Nova Scotia for two weeks.

"These resources are to supplement general duty frontline members from the effected detachments," Bergerman wrote to Justice Minister Mark Furey in her initial request.

The correspondence about this and subsequent requests is included in documents released under Nova Scotia's freedom-of-information legislation and posted on a provincial website.

Under the Provincial Policing Service Agreement, Furey had to approve the temporary redeployments as the province is responsible for picking up the bill.

It's unclear what the final tab was. However, the forecasted cost of the extra policing resources was $3.7 million, said Heather Fairbairn, a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Justice Department. In a statement, Fairbairn said that amount wasn't just backfill, but all the costs associated with the RCMP's requests for additional resources related to the mass shooting.

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)

In letters on May 8, May 29 and June 24, Bergerman wrote that six detachments had been "involved in this incident and a number of frontline members are dealing with the aftermath of this traumatic event."

Furey approved the requests for extensions, which brought new cohorts of officers to Nova Scotia for two-to-four-week deployments through May, June and July. In June, for instance, 18 officers from Ontario worked in the province and the RCMP reassigned 11 Nova Scotia officers to help. 

A woman comforts her daughter after they placed flowers at an impromptu memorial in front of the RCMP detachment April 20, 2020, in Enfield, N.S. It was the home detachment of slain RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson. (Tim Krochak/Getty Images)

By the summer, Furey warned that he would not be approving the unusual request indefinitely and the documents show back and forth about the need for the extra officers.

He said the article that allows the RCMP to request extra resources under its service agreement is "rarely invoked" and "it is unlikely to be extended again without a very strong case proving its necessity."

In a June 30 letter, he asked for additional information: how long the investigation into the mass shootings would take, clarity on the number of people involved in it and a strategy for redeploying resources within the province. 

Bergerman responded on July 17, saying more support was needed to "maintain effective core policing services and ensure public safety."

Justice Minister Mark Furey requested further details from the RCMP before approving out-of-province officers in the summer and said it wouldn't continue into the fall. (CBC)

She said three months after the shootings, which began in Portapique, N.S., 50 officers had returned to work but 12 remained on sick leave and eight others were part of a return-to-work program.

She said RCMP health services officials anticipated it would be several more months before some people recovered enough to resume to their regular duties, but she didn't anticipate needing backfill into September. 

Bergerman also wrote that the "profound impact of this incident" caused some officers to retire; the exact number was redacted in the released documents.

In that July letter, she said the investigation into the mass shootings would be continuing for several more months, in part due to COVID-19 related delays getting results from crime labs and production orders from financial institutions. 

She said 438 RCMP employees were helping with the homicide investigations in some capacity. That included members of the major crime unit, the legal applications support team, the digital forensic section, an interview assistance team and the collision analyst reconstruction section. 

"This unprecedented massacre, unique in Canadian history, has required an exceptional response in order to support investigative and recovery efforts," Bergerman wrote. 

RCMP investigators search for evidence at the location where Const. Heidi Stevenson was killed along the highway in Shubenacadie, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Furey, a former RCMP officer who retired in 2012 after 32 years in the force, wrote back asking for more details again, saying: "I would anticipate that some of those resources that were temporarily deployed to this investigation have returned to their work primary site."

Eventually, the minister approved paying for 15 out-of-province members until the end of August, but he said that effective Aug. 29, Nova Scotia RCMP would go back to the same resourcing levels that it had before the April attacks. 

Those officers were to backfill positions at RCMP detachments in Enfield, Millbrook, Sipekne'katik and Pictou. The number of people assigned to each one remained redacted.

This week, a spokesperson for the RCMP declined to answer any questions related to whether it needed extra support after August or the current status of its investigation, stating the force would not be commenting due to the public inquiry that's been announced.

In her statement, Fairbairn said Furey approved another RCMP request in the fall for additional resources "to support policing and public safety" during the fisheries dispute

Union 'very concerned' about lack of backfill

The union that represents RCMP officers said it was "very concerned" by Furey's decision to stop paying for the out-of-province backfill related to the shootings. 

"In our view, that's unhelpful and risks public safety by not providing enough resources for our members to deliver on their basic policing mandate," Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, said in a statement. 

He said cutbacks and wage freezes "have eroded staffing levels, recruitment, training and other resources, and — most importantly — the morale and well-being of RCMP members." 

In December, the RCMP confirmed that some employees remained on leave but would not specify how many, saying it was private health information. The force employs about 1,450 people in the province. 

The RCMP investigation is ongoing, though the force has repeatedly declined to comment on it, citing the public inquiry that is getting underway. It has not held a press conference on its investigation since early June. 

So far, three people are facing charges in relation to the attacks

The gunman's common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield, 52, her brother James Blair Banfield, 54, and her brother-in-law Brian Brewster, 60, are accused of unlawfully providing the shooter with ammunition. The RCMP has said the trio was not aware of the gunman's plans.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Over the past 11 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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