Politics

Blair says he never interfered in N.S. shooting investigation, as more allegations emerge

Bill Blair said that while serving as public safety minister it was his job to gather information about how the RCMP was responding to the worst mass shooting in Canadian history, but he did not interfere politically in the investigation.

Senior RCMP employee called out Lucki's ‘appalling’ behaviour after N.S. shooting

President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair speaks with reporters as he arrives for a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Bill Blair said that while serving as public safety minister it was his job to gather information about how the RCMP was responding to the worst mass shooting in Canadian history, but says he did not interfere politically in the investigation.

Blair, who is now serving as emergency preparedness minister, was dogged by questions from reporters Wednesday about a letter Lia Scanlan, the former communications director for the Nova Scotia RCMP, sent to Commissioner Brenda Lucki.

Sent around the one-year anniversary of the shootings, and released publicly on Tuesday, the letter alleges Lucki told staff in Nova Scotia that she was under pressure to go public with the types of weapons used by the gunman in the rampage that killed 22 people. 

The letter references a meeting between Lucki and Nova Scotia RCMP staff on April 28, 2020 where Scanlan says Lucki informed the group of "the pressures and conversation with [then public safety] minister Blair."

"I remember a feeling of disgust as I realized this was the catalyst for the conversation," Scanlan said in her letter dated April 14, 2021.

"I could not believe what you, the leader of our organization, was saying and I was embarrassed to be privy to what was unfolding. It was appalling, unprofessional and extremely belittling."

Blair repeatedly said there was no interference and "no pressure brought to bear with respect to the investigation."

"My job as then minister of public safety was to ensure that information on behalf of the government of Canada was gathered with respect to the police response," he said.

"I know very clearly that the line between government responsibility for governance and oversight of the RCMP and giving direction in any way, and at no time did I cross that line or any member of my government cross that line, in giving direction to the commissioner of the RCMP."

Lia Scanlan, former communications director for the Nova Scotia RCMP, sent a letter to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki last year calling her behavior "appalling, unprofessional and extremely belittling." (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Scanlan's letter echoes notes released last week by Supt. Darren Campbell on the same topic.

Campbell alleged that Lucki said she had promised Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and Blair the RCMP would release information on the types of weapons used by the shooter.

He also noted that Lucki expressed "this was tied to pending gun control legislation that would make officers and the public safer." 

Campbell's notes also said he felt releasing information about the types of weapons could risk jeopardizing the investigation into how the shooter obtained his weapons.

On May 1, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a ban on some 1,500 makes and models, including the two of the guns used in the Nova Scotia mass shooting. At that time, police had not released the specific makes and models used in the attacks.

    WATCH: Liberals remain adamant there was no interference in RCMP investigation into Nova Scotia shooting:

    Scanlan wrote that within the Nova Scotia division, the RCMP committed to sharing any new information with the victims' families before the media to prevent them from being re-victimized, and the gun details had not yet been shared with them.

    'It was all political pressure:' Scanlan

    It's not the only time Scanlan has made allegations of political pressure.

    In an interview with commission investigators earlier this year, she said Blair and the prime minister "were weighing in on what we could and couldn't say."

    She said Lucki was advised not to do media interviews but did anyway, and in so doing, gave inaccurate information

    Lucki initially shared that 17 people died, information RCMP had confirmed internally, when the local commanders only said "in excess of 10" people lost lives in a press briefing the evening of April 19.

    "She went out and did that and knew damn well – and it was all political pressure," said Scanlan. 

    "That is 100 per cent Minister Blair and the prime minister and we have a commissioner that does not push back."

    Besides Scanlan's letter, the commission also released handwritten notes from former assistant commissioner Lee Bergerman who has since retired from the role she held as the commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP, and Chief Supt. Chris Leather, who was the second-in-command in April 2020, on Tuesday. 

    Bergerman's notes listed who attended the meeting on April 28, 2020  and included the phrase, "angry about lack of detail about guns," but not who made the comment.

    Leather's notes said the meeting with Lucki was about "firearms used," and noted "adjustment to include firearms information into speaking notes."

    He also noted a topic that came up was concern about "information flow."

    Lucki regrets the 'effects of my words'

    In a statement issued Tuesday night, Lucki said she was frustrated by the flow of information after the shooting but maintains there was no political interference.

    "It was an extremely difficult time and I did express frustration with the flow of information. I regret the effects my words had on those involved in that meeting," she wrote.

    "I know there are questions about political interference. There was certainly a need for an exchange of timely and accurate information with the government of Canada and I endeavoured to do that.  However, I want to re-emphasize that I did in no way seek to interfere in the ongoing investigation, nor did I feel any political pressure to do so."

    A woman in an RCMP uniform stands in front of a Canadian flag.
    RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said she was frustrated by the flow of information after the shooting but maintains there was no political interference. (Chris Wattie/The Canadian Press)

    Blair said he was not privy to the conversations Lucki had with her staff,

    "The commissioner of the RCMP has also acknowledged that she had a difficult conversation with her own people," he said.

    "But I can tell you with absolute certainty, I and my government did not give any operational direction or interfere in any way with the investigation or the police response."

    The claims have conjured a political storm in Ottawa and resulted in an upcoming parliamentary hearing to address allegations of potential political interference.

    At a separate news conference Tuesday the current minister of public safety, Marco Mendicino, was asked if this latest scandal has damaged trust in the top Mountie. 

    "Well, on the easiest of days being the commissioner of RCMP is tough. It's a big job," he said.

    "I know that the commissioner works every day to work with her leadership team as well as rank-and-file RCMP members." 

    Raquel Dancho, the Conservative public safety critic, said in an interview that she takes issue with Trudeau's assertion that his government didn't put "undue" influence or pressure on Lucki.

    "Well, there shouldn't have been any pressure. There should be no political interference in a criminal investigation for political gain," Dancho said.

    Conservative MP Raquel Dancho rises in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on June 17, 2020. Dancho, the Conservative public safety critic, said any government official who's found to have pressured Lucki or attempted to interfere with the RCMP investigation should resign. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

    Dancho said her party will continue to push for answers when Lucki, Blair and other witnesses appear before the House of Commons public safety and national security committee next month.

    She said there should be accountability, including resignations among government officials if wrongdoing is uncovered.

    "I think those responsible for the political interference, for that inappropriate pressure, should be the ones to lose their jobs," Dancho said.

    "So if it's found that the former minister of public safety has done this, or the prime minister, or anyone in the Prime Minister's Office, certainly those individuals would need to resign."

    Families' lawyer concerned 

    Lucki is expected to appear before the Mass Casualty Commission this summer where she will testify under oath.

    Michael Scott of Patterson Law, the firm representing the families of most shooting victims, said he was concerned about possible political interference. He said it would be helpful for those in the April 28 meeting to confirm "exactly what was said" to remove any debate on that point.

    "Then we're going to have some real questions about what involvement the RCMP from headquarters in Ottawa had into this investigation, because we would be extremely concerned about using the mass casualty event as some sort of political opportunity," Scott told reporters at the inquiry Tuesday.

    Also concerned is Bruce Pitt-Payne, an investigative consultant and trainer who spent 26 years with the RCMP, much of that time as an investigator. He said the scandal may damage the public's confidence in the Mounties.

    "Trust is the most important thing a police officer or a police organization can have — the trust of the public," he said in an interview.

    But it's not just the public's trust that is under threat, Pitt-Payne said, adding that he has heard of dissatisfaction about Lucki's actions from former RCMP colleagues.

    "When you have the commissioner of the RCMP right now infighting, and what appears to be, as we would say in the RCMP, throwing their knowledgeable, experienced, ethical, trustworthy members 'under the horse,' it does not do anything for that trust," he said.

    Kent Roach, a law professor at the University of Toronto, said it's not yet obvious, based on the publicly available details, that there was unacceptable political interference, because the government is responsible for giving the police a certain level of oversight and direction.

    "I don't think the minister would have been out of bounds, and this is a hypothetical, if the minister had said, 'Well, we don't want to release the precise details, but can we say that they were this type of weapon or that type of weapon?'" Roach said.

    Roach said the controversy is a product of legally unclear boundaries in the relationship between government and police.

    "Because it's so murky, unfortunately, it spawns scandals and it spawns political controversies," he said.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

    With files from Haley Ryan and Richard Raycraft.

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