Trudeau says Ottawa 'had a lot of questions' after N.S. mass shooting but didn't interfere in investigation
'What we're seeing is this tragedy being used to further a political agenda,' says families' lawyer
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government had questions about the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia but remained adamant his government did not interfere in the investigation.
His comments come as the law firm representing the families of more than a dozen of the victims pushes to have a member of Trudeau's cabinet testify following allegations there was political pressure about what to say in the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history.
Members of Parliament on the House of Commons Public Safety and National Security Committee voted Thursday to call key players — including RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, Nova Scotia RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell, former RCMP communications director Lia Scanlan, and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair — to testify at committee next month into allegations of political interference.
An exact date for the meeting has not been set.
"We did not put any undue influence or pressure. It is extremely important to highlight that it is only the RCMP, it is only police that determine what and when to release information," said Trudeau, during a Thursday scrum with reporters in Kigali, Rwanda where he's attending a Commonwealth summit.
"I will highlight, however, that when the worst mass shooting in Canada's history happened, we had a lot of questions. Canadians had a lot of questions."
Rob Pineo, a partner at Patterson Law, said they will be asking that Blair, who was the minister of public safety at the time of the shooting spree, and former Nova Scotia justice minister Mark Furey appear before the Mass Casualty Commission about any potential interference.
WATCH | Trudeau addresses claims of government interference in Nova Scotia mass shooting probe
The inquiry is investigating the April 18-19, 2020, rampage that claimed the lives of 22 people — including a pregnant woman — and left several people injured and several homes destroyed.
"Certainly we want to get to the bottom of it and we think that this inquiry is the perfect forum in which to do that," Pineo said from Truro, N.S.
"It's very disturbing if in fact it turns out to be factual. Really, from our client's point of view, what we're seeing is this tragedy being used to further a political agenda and political careers and quite frankly, that's very upsetting to our clients."
Trudeau said he still "very much" has confidence in Lucki, who he appointed in 2018, as she battles a new scandal after handwritten notes from Nova Scotia RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell were released earlier this week as part of the inquiry.
In Campbell's notes, which were written after an April 28, 2020 conference call between headquarters and the division, he alleges that Lucki was upset that the RCMP in Nova Scotia were not revealing more information about the weapons used because she had promised the federal government — which was considering gun control legislation at the time — that they would raise it.
- Mountie who wrote that RCMP head interfered in N.S. investigation 'came to his own conclusions,' says Blair
"The Commissioner said she had promised the minister of public safety and the Prime Minister's Office that the RCMP would release this information," he wrote.
Campbell said he believed releasing information about the firearms might hurt the investigation.
"I tried to explain there was no intent to disrespect anyone, however we could not release this information at this time. The commissioner then said that we didn't understand, that this was tied to pending gun control legislation that would make officers and the public safer," he wrote.
Gun ban announced days later
Just days after that April 28 meeting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a ban on some 1,500 firearm makes and models, including two of the guns used in the Nova Scotia mass shooting — a Colt Law Enforcement Carbine, a semi-automatic weapon, and a Ruger Mini-14.
At that time, police had still not released the specific makes and models used in the attacks. That information didn't become public until the fall of 2020, when the National Post reported details of the weapons after obtaining a briefing note prepared for the prime minister after the shooting.
Investigators have said they believe the shooter, Gabriel Wortman, who didn't have a firearms licence, obtained three of the guns used during the massacre in Maine and smuggled them into Canada.
Lucki issued a statement Tuesday evening where she wrote that briefings with the public safety minister are necessary, particularly during a mass shooting, but said there was no interference.
"I would never take actions or decisions that could jeopardize an investigation," she wrote. "I take the principle of police independence extremely seriously, and it has been and will continue to be fully respected in all interactions."
Trudeau said he received regular briefings on what police knew and didn't know abut the shooter and the case.
"Those answers continue to come out," he said. "We will continue to take responsible action."
On Wednesday Blair swatted down Campbell's written account of the call.
"The superintendent obviously came to his own conclusions and his notes reflect that," he said.
WATCH | Government denies interfering in N.S. mass shooting investigation:
"But I'm telling you, and I would tell the superintendent if I spoke to him, I made no effort to pressure the RCMP to interfere in any way with their investigation. I gave no direction as to what information they should communicate."
In a statement to CBC News Thursday, Campbell declined to respond saying he's waiting to be interviewed by the Mass Casualty Commission.
"I also expect to be called to the MCC as a witness sometime near the end of July and I look forward to both opportunities," he wrote.
"As such, it would be inappropriate for me to make any public comments prior to giving evidence under oath. I hope that you understand."
Ex-communications head says there was 'political pressure'
Campbell is not the only one to have flagged influence coming from Ottawa during the rampage's aftermath.
In an interview with commission investigators earlier this year, Lia Scanlan, the RCMP's former civilian director of the strategic communications unit in the province, 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."
'Not necessarily illegal,' says criminology prof
Michael Kempa, an associate professor of criminology, said a minister or a mayor asking for information is not illegal, but it's not necessarily appropriate.
"I was not surprised, but I was dismayed in the sense that this type of political interference in RCMP operations has been all too common. It's not necessarily illegal, but where it's not done properly — in writing, in public so that citizens can decide whether or not it's reasonable — It brings the RCMP into disrepute," he said.
"It's a shame for the RCMP that this type of thing continues to happen."
While the RCMP commissioner is accountable to the minister, they are meant to operate independently.
The Supreme Court of Canada has made clear that the "commissioner is not to be considered a servant or agent of the government while engaged in a criminal investigation."
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said "there was an exchange of information" after the shooting but maintained there was no interference.
"I think it is incredibly important that Canadians have trust in their institutions, including the RCMP and all law enforcement," said Mendicino, who has been tasked with reforming the RCMP.
"What is important for Canadians is that there is a line of respect that was demonstrated around the principle of operational independence."
Kempa said with a cloud of doubt hovering over the country's national police force, Blair should testify under oath.
"Unfortunately, given that we've got to where we are it should be the case that Minister Blair gives testimony under oath, if for no other reason to reassure Canadians who are watching, that there was nothing untoward," he said.
Calls for House committee investigation
On Wednesday evening, Mendicino said he hadn't spoken to Lucki.
The minister said he will let the commission review the facts.
WATCH | Conservatives continue to press Liberal over claims of interference in NS shooting investigation
"We look forward to ultimately seeing the report and to working closely with the commissioners on any recommendations which they might provide," he said.
Lucki is expected to be called as a witness at the inquiry next month.
The claims have set off a frenzy on Parliament Hill, including calls for an emergency debate and a House of Commons committee investigation to get to the bottom of the allegations.
"This is disgusting to know that the prime minister and his office would use the death of Canadians for his own political gain," said Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen Wednesday
On Thursday NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the allegations of federal interference "deeply troubling."
With files from Blair Rhodes, Elizabeth McMillan and Haley Ryan