The Current

As Portapique grapples with trauma of N.S. mass killings, community members call for better supports

The Mass Casualty Commission published its final report Thursday, after an inquiry into the 2020 mass shooting that left 22 people dead in Nova Scotia.

'What one incident ... tried to take away from us was something that we had to fight to get back': resident

Several people are seen crying and wiping away tears while seated.
Friends, family and supporters of the victims of the mass killings in rural Nova Scotia react at the beginning of the final report of the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

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For Portapique, N.S., resident Erin MacKinnon, building a new community hall isn't just about helping residents recover from the trauma of the 2020 Nova Scotia attacks.

"I was explaining to the contractor that came … every time you drive a nail into a board down there is a slap on [Gabriel] Wortman's face," she told The Current.

"And I'm not afraid to say Wortman because I don't think he has power."

On April 18 and 19, 2020, Wortman, dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a replica police cruiser, murdered 22 people across Nova Scotia before he was shot and killed by police in the community of Enfield.

"We as a community felt a great loss," MacKinnon said. "What one incident and one person tried to take away from us was something that we had to fight to get back."

WATCH | She's lived in Portapique for 23 years. Here's her powerful message of strength:

She's lived in Portapique for 23 years. Here's her powerful message of strength

2 months ago
Duration 1:53
Residents of Portapique, N.S., are finding healing and hope through the construction of a new community hall that's bringing people together, and honouring those killed during the April 2020 tragedy.

The mass shooting led to the start of a public inquiry, which spent months listening to witness testimony and reviewing thousands of pages of documents.

The resulting Mass Casualty Commission released its final report Thursday with 130 recommendations across more than 3,000 pages.

It denounced the RCMP in part for failing to warn community members of the danger they were in. It also called out their lack of preparation, lack of communication and lack of leadership.

A woman in a jacket points at a new community hall being constructed.
Erin MacKinnon, a resident of Portapique, N.S., shows off the new community hall that's being constructed. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

"More than two years after the event, RCMP leadership had done very little to systematically evaluate its critical incident response to the deadliest mass shooting in Canada's history," the commissioners said in the report.

Violence is growing. Violence is disturbing our schools, our homes, our workplaces. It's changing how safe we feel.-Serena Lewis, grief counsellor

Serena Lewis, a grief counsellor based in one of the towns neighbouring Portapique and a consultant for the commission, said it shouldn't take a report to tell people what should've been done in the first place.

"We need to stop looking at this in isolated events," she told The Current's Matt Galloway, noting more broadly an increase in violent incidents in Canada and the U.S. "Violence is growing. Violence is disturbing our schools, our homes, our workplaces. It's changing how safe we feel."

"Do we want to look back and think we could have circumvented something right now with what we know about trauma? I think this is a really big paradigm shift that we need to be thinking about in Canada."

Responsive, not reactive

Lewis says Nova Scotians have suffered a "triple whammy" in recent years — the mass shooting, the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Fiona — and it's all weighing down on communities in different ways.

She compared these events to experiencing an earthquake, where outsiders "think about an event, but we don't think about the aftershocks — and really, that's what you live with."

"I think we're reactive. I think there's a lot of condolences. There's a lot of attention," she said. "But as media pulls away, as other tragedies unfold, our attention goes all over the place."

A woman in glasses and a yellow jacket stands outside, looking at the camera.
Serena Lewis, a grief counsellor, was one of those consulted by the Mass Casualty Commission. She said now is the time for demonstrated leadership from those in power. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

Other testimonials from victims' families echoed this sentiment, some of whom said the services offered by the Nova Scotia Victim Services and the RCMP were inadequate.

In one case, an officer assigned to handle the loved ones of 21 victims felt overwhelmed and was unable to properly help or share information equally, according to some of the families.

While the recovering communities are "deeply appreciative of all of the support" they received, Lewis said, "there's a difference between being reactive and being responsive," and she's concerned that there hasn't been enough of the latter.

"I look at the people who have been trying to shoulder the pain of this … and the thing I hear over and over again is how are we supposed to deal with Canada's largest mass casualty event on the side of our desk with no additional consistent resources?"

A woman holds a sign saying in part "Welcome to Grief Village. We need long-term support."
Serena Lewis in 2021, marking the one-year anniversary of the mass killing by calling for long-term support services. (Submitted by Serena Lewis)

Time for 'demonstrated leadership'

Lewis and she and other activists are calling for more supports from all levels of government. But she says that so far, they've been met with "very demeaning" silence.

"If we had been mobilizing and doing the work, it would have felt different three years later," she said.

The Mass Casualty Commission's report includes recommendations and actions that can be taken by the federal government, such as starting a resource hub that be a "centre of expertise" for victims and their families.

Other recommendations include a dedicated telephone line for individuals seeking information about loved ones, and a change to the Criminal Code that prohibits all semi-automatic handguns, semi-automatic rifles, and certain shotguns.

WATCH: Trudeau reacts to Mass Casualty Commission Report

'There need to be changes': Trudeau reacts to Mass Casualty Commission Report in Nova Scotia

2 months ago
Duration 0:58
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Truro, N.S. for the presentation of the report on the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia. He says he will take time to absorb the details of the report and implement its recommendations.

Lewis said each level of government has a role to play in coming out of the tragedy, from the municipal government mobilizing to support those in grief, to the provincial government investing in education and health.

Now is the time to see "demonstrated leadership," she said.

"How do we know if we have done enough? In my opinion, absolutely not, because we have not co-ordinated, and that's a big piece of this," she said.

In the meantime, MacKinnon and the rest of the Portapique community are uniting — and healing — around the new community hall's construction.

"We're going to have a day there just to celebrate," she said. "We can actually help stand it up together. Like, we can lift the glass rafter up as a community and stand it. So it's going to be exciting."

With files from Catharine Tunney, Haley Ryan and CBC News. Produced by Amanda Grant and Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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