Nova Scotia

Why lawyers want senior RCMP officers to testify at Portapique inquiry

The public inquiry examining what happened April 18 and 19, 2020, when 22 people were killed by a gunman, heard arguments Monday around why senior officers should or should not be called to testify now.

Documents reveal how decisions were made in the first crucial hours of the shooting rampage

An RCMP car is seen near a memorial display in Portapique following the mass shooting in April 2020.
An RCMP car is seen near a memorial display in Portapique following the mass shooting in April 2020. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Maps that were pulled off walls, delays in witness information about exit routes and the gunman's fake police car are just some of the issues that lawyers for relatives of the Portapique victims want raised with senior RCMP officers.

The public inquiry in Nova Scotia examining what happened April 18 and 19, 2020, when 22 people were killed by a gunman, heard arguments Monday about why senior officers should or should not be called to testify now.

Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law, whose firm represents many of the victims' families, told the Mass Casualty Commission they want to hear more from six senior officers about why certain steps were taken, or where information went in the critical first few hours.

The commissioners have said they will call those officers later in the inquiry, when more documents are tabled on RCMP command decisions, Emergency Response Team (ERT) actions, and confirmation of the mock cruiser.

Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law represents 23 participants in the inquiry, including more than half of the families of people killed on April 18 and 19, 2020. (CBC)

But McCulloch said the victims' families don't want to lose the chance to focus on missing pieces of information related to the documents already on the record about the early hours in Portapique.

"We don't want to lose that opportunity and, you know, somehow feel stifled at a later date," McCulloch said.

"The importance of creating a fulsome factual record absolutely has to be front and foremost to your commissioners' minds."

McCulloch said they want to call RCMP staff sergeants Brian Rehill, Steve Halliday, Addie MacCallum, Sgt. Andy O'Brien; incident commander Staff Sgt. Jeff West; and Cpl. Tim Mills, who oversaw the emergency response team.

MacCallum knew the gunman's name early on, as his wife was one of the 911 dispatchers fielding calls on April 18, 2020. 

He and Staff Sgt. Al Carroll worked in the Bible Hill detachment on mapping and containment planning in the first hour after the shootings began. MacCallum said he wasn't confident about his results on Google Earth, as he knew the area and it was "making roads where there's no roads."

But when MacCallum tried to bring up the force's Pictometry program, based on satellite imaging, he couldn't find a computer with the internal software and gave up after about 25 minutes. He is based in Pictou and was not familiar with the Bible Hill detachment.

Since no one else knew where to find the satellite program, MacCallum ended up "pulling a map off the wall," which he and Carroll started drawing on by hand. MacCallum also brought up a road atlas, and used multiple maps to get a sense of the land.

Based on the maps, MacCallum believed the only way a car could get out of the community would be along Portapique Beach Road to the highway. The subdivision was surrounded by a river on one side, water to the south, and woods and fields to the east.

The six containment points around Portapique that were set up by RCMP the night of April 18 and in the early morning hours of April 19, 2020. (Mass Casualty Commission )

"Looking at the maps that I had, it didn't look like anybody could traverse a vehicle through there," MacCallum said in his interview with commissioners. 

In her submissions on Monday, McCulloch said the struggle with the Pictometry program is "crucial" to understand the ensuing impact on RCMP operations.

"There's a lot here that needs to be unpacked," she said. 

She also said Halliday needs to give more details about his role, including how he worked alongside MacCallum and Carroll and tasked them to figure out the details of containment. Halliday told commissioners in an interview that he thought this wouldn't be a challenge because he could "block highways."

McCulloch said this comment needs to be explored because Highway 2 to the east of Portapique was not actually contained until after midnight — an hour and a half after the commission believes the gunman fled the area.

Three senior officers unaware of eyewitness 

Documents that include interviews with the inquiry show that Halliday, MacCallum, and Carroll kept in touch about their progress on containment, finding resources, or gathering information about the gunman's cars — but they were also missing important details.

The trio moved to the Great Village Fire Hall command post around 2 a.m. where the ERT team also set up with West in command over the entire "hot zone" in Portapique. Carroll noted by then "there weren't a lot of decisions" to be made, as they would pass along new information to West.

They'd heard snippets of conversations on the police radio from the first officers on the ground walking into Portapique, but had no idea until hours later that those officers had met resident Andrew MacDonald, who'd been shot by the gunman just after 10 p.m.

It wasn't until the first responding team was debriefed around 3:30 a.m. on the 19th that they realized there was a witness with details about the gunman's marked police car.

A collage of 22 people shows the faces of the people who died in four rows
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)

They handed that information to the major crimes unit, assuming it would follow up with MacDonald, all three said. MacDonald was eventually interviewed around 5 a.m. after leaving the hospital.

MacCallum was the one to reach out to Halifax Regional Police and alert them about the gunman's property in Dartmouth, which they kept an eye on. HRP gave MacCallum information from the gunman's spouse's sister around 5 a.m., as well as a photo of the couple from the night before which was shared widely among police.

When the gunman's spouse, Lisa Banfield, emerged from the woods and was interviewed around 6:30 a.m., MacCallum said that's when they first learned of a fourth, new Ford Taurus fully decked out with police lights and decals.

He quickly called HRP to let them know about this fourth Taurus, and said "there's a strong possibility he's out."  Until then, MacCallum said they thought all Ford Taurus' were accounted for: two burned in Portapique and one in Dartmouth. 

The burned out remains of Gabriel Wortman's home on Portapique Beach Road, N.S., taken May 13, 2020. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

HRP soon shared a photo with MacCallum they'd obtained from Banfield's sister of the fake cruiser, which he distributed internally. 

MacCallum said the consensus around 7 a.m. was that the gunman could be gone, "but there's still a good chance he's in there" because the ERT team had reported gunfire around 3 a.m. and the initial front-line officers thought he'd been spotted running in the woods.

McCulloch said another key person her clients want to hear from is Rehill, who was the risk commander working out of the Operational Communications Centre (OCC) in Bible Hill. He was not only the person in constant contact with 911 dispatchers but made the very first decisions on moving members around, McCulloch said.

She said Rehill's commission interview, which is not yet entered as evidence, has a statement that he didn't have knowledge of the fully-marked replica cruiser until the morning of April 19. 

That warrants more questions, McCulloch said, as does his understanding of MacDonald's evidence that the gunman's car was "decommissioned and stripped."

He "doesn't clearly explain that in full detail, and why it is that he came to that conclusion … much less delve into the implications of that interpretation," McCulloch said.

She also said it was Rehill who originally directed a roadblock to be set up to the east of Portapique on Highway 2, but then diverted that responding officer to the west of the community in the Five Houses area, "and does not return to his directions in relation to setting up containment in the east."

McCulloch said while they have important questions for West and Mills, they can likely wait until later in the process when the inquiry hears more about the ERT response.

Testimony premature: RCMP lawyer

Lawyers representing the RCMP, and their union, argued Monday that some of the issues raised by McCulloch have been explained already and said it would be premature to call the senior officers before more documents are released.

Lori Ward, counsel for the federal government and RCMP, said the officers could also be retraumatized by taking the stand and it should not be assumed that only the people on the ground in body armour were deeply affected,

"Some of these guys and these women with 20 and 25 and 30 years of service who saw 22 people killed that day, including one of their own, experienced trauma. Just as any other Nova Scotian — probably more so," Ward said Monday.

Chief Commissioner Michael MacDonald said on Monday morning their team will consider all submissions and respond "as quickly as possible," though he didn't commit to a time for a decision.

Last week the inquiry heard arguments on why multiple front-line officers should, or should not, take the stand.

Some legal experts have said the commission's trauma-informed approach should be balanced with the public's right to information.

The inquiry will not sit Tuesday, but come back Wednesday when the next major document will be entered on the gunman's overnight stay in Debert.

With files from Elizabeth McMillan

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