'We went into this blind': N.S. shooting victim's friend says RCMP should have used alert system
Debi Atkinson says she wouldn’t have known about the shooter if not for a tip from a friend
Debi Atkinson doesn't use Twitter, and neither do any of her friends.
The Wentworth Valley, N.S., woman and her neighbours had to rely on word of mouth to learn about the gunman on a killing spree in her community on Sunday.
RCMP used Twitter to provide updates to the public about the 12-hour mass shooting that spanned several rural Nova Scotia communities.
The gunman killed at least 22 people, including Atkinson's neighbour Lillian Campbell Hyslop, before he was killed in a standoff with police.
Atkinson believes some of those deaths could have been prevented if the police had used Canada's emergency alert system to warn people in the province to stay inside, instead of relying on social media.
That system, which sends messages to people's cellphones, is usually deployed to send Amber Alerts about missing children, and more recently to inform people about COVID-19 restrictions.
Here is part of Atkinson's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.
How did you come to know that there was possibly an active shooter in your neighbourhood?
Another ski cottage person called me up around 10 o'clock in the morning and said, "Debi, this isn't a joke."
She said, "Get the word out to everybody that you can to stay at home. Don't be out walking. Lock your doors. There's somebody driving around in a lookalike police car."
So I hung up right away and just started calling people.
You're the sort of person who actually has a lot of people's phone numbers and you can call?
Yes, I am. And I'm good friends with a lot of the people that walk on a regular basis. So I just started calling them.
And one person that I had called had gotten the same message almost at the same time. So he was calling people, and I was calling people.
So I guess that's how our alert system was working out.
Did you think that Lillian Hyslop might be out there walking?
I knew that she walked every day, yes. So I called up her mother-in-law.
She said, "Oh, I'll let her know. Thank you." So then I called the next person.
How did you react when you learned that Lillian had been shot?
Everybody's feelings about the whole thing was, why wasn't there an Amber Alert?
By the time we actually found out that there was a possibility of this man being in our neighbourhood, he had already passed through our neighbourhood.
Everybody that we've spoken with feels the same way — that we went into this blind.
The police say they were putting out tweets, they were working on Twitter, trying to reach people that way. Would that have helped you or anybody get the word by following Twitter?
Out of all our friends, I don't know anybody that follows Twitter, that has a Twitter account.
This time of year … now that the ski hill's closed for the season, it's more of a retirement village. And so it's an older community and I don't know of anybody that has a Twitter account.
So, no, I would have definitely not followed anything on Twitter.
And you say you got information from a friend who was tipped off by, I understand, a retired RCMP officer. If you hadn't received that information … you and the others who got on this network of calling people, you wouldn't have known if you hadn't got that tip?
No and actually, we were actually already walking outside of our door when I got the text.
If you could speak to the RCMP, what would you want to ask them? What questions would you have for them or the government at this point?
Basically, why Nova Scotians were not given an Amber Alert. I think that, you know, when the COVID lockdown for the Easter weekend [was in place], I know that when all of a sudden I heard my cellphone make that funny noise, we ran to check what the problem was. And I think that most Nova Scotians would have done the same thing.
And for the people that don't have the cellphones or didn't get the alert, everybody would have contacted their friends and neighbours and they would have warned them and people would have been locked down in their homes.
A question about Lillian. What was she like?
Lillian and [her husband] Mike were like us [in] that they wanted to retire in this beautiful Wentworth Valley. They were part of the little heritage schoolhouse here in the Valley that actually Mike's parents had started.
She walked every day, and so she was in great shape. And then she would go home, and she always had a workout after that also.
She always had a smile. Every time she'd met us, she was happy and cheerful and friendly … and we could walk all the way down the road and chit-chat.
She was a wonderful person.
This is tremendous grief among those communities that lost people. And how much more awful is this when you believe that this might have been preventable?
I think that the RCMP could have probably prevented a lot of this from happening by alerting people, and everybody … I've spoken with seems a little bit angry that we weren't told.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.