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On the first anniversary of last April's mass shooting throughout Colchester County, N.S., family and friends of the victims embrace before marching to the RCMP detachment in Bible Hill, N.S. on April 18, 2021 to lay flowers in honour of the victims.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Tara Long locks her doors now.

There is not a lot of crime in New Germany, N.S., a quiet, rural hamlet tucked into the pine trees of Lunenburg County, but that does little to ease her mind. In the past year, she’s installed a security fence around her house, surrounded herself with two large dogs and started arming herself.

Her anxiety does not allow her to relax. When she was surprised in her own home recently when her daughter came up behind her, she broke down and started crying.

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“If I hear any noises around the house at night, I’m freaking out. I’m walking around with a baseball bat,” said Ms. Long, a plain-speaking Maritimer who often tucks her long brown hair under a ball cap. “I’m so anxious, I can hardly breathe.”

Families of Nova Scotia massacre victims left with vivid memories and searing grief

Ms. Long is living with a debilitating trauma that crept into her life a year ago. Her brother, Aaron Tuck, was one of 22 people (including a pregnant mother) killed in a shooting rampage on April 18 and 19, 2020, across rural Nova Scotia by a man dressed as an RCMP officer.

The man who murdered Mr. Tuck, his teenaged daughter, Emily Tuck, and his partner, Jolene Oliver, was their neighbour, Gabriel Wortman, a 51-year-old denturist. In all, he killed 13 people who lived near his cottage in Portapique, setting fires to homes in a rage that woke the community from its sleep. As police closed in, he escaped in a look-alike RCMP cruiser and continued to kill people in their homes and cars in a 13-hour attack that didn’t end until he was shot dead by two officers at a gas station north of Halifax.

A year later, there is still no good explanation for why the gunman did what he did – or why it took police so long to stop him.

A lone bagpiper played slow airs outside a church Sunday as relatives of 22 people slain during a killer's rampage in rural Nova Scotia gathered for an emotional ceremony to honour the victims one year later. The sombre event at First United Church in Truro, N.S., which was livestreamed in lieu of being open to the public, began with a provincewide moment of silence. The Canadian Press

As Nova Scotians mark the grim anniversary of Canada’s worst mass shooting, many are troubled by the lack of answers. Some evidence has trickled out in a slow drip of police warrant documents released through a media-led court effort. But the RCMP’s case against the gunman, and a public inquiry into the police response, are still a long way from revealing key details at the heart of the case.

The public inquiry isn’t mandated to report its findings or make recommendations to prevent similar tragedies until November, 2022. Among the details that process is expected to examine is why officials failed to use the province’s emergency alert system at any point during the attack.

“A year later, we’re left with more questions,” Ms. Long said.

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Nova Scotians paused Sunday in a moment of silence, as memorial signs, banners and messages of remembrance appeared around the province. Ms. Long is among those who organized a march from a grocery-store parking lot in Truro to a nearby RCMP detachment, where they laid roses in honour of the victims.

Charlene Bagley, left, and Tara Long, right, are overcome with emotion in front of the RCMP detachment. Bagley's father, Tom, and Long's brother, Aaron Tuck, were two of the victims killed in last year's rampage through rural Nova Scotia.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Efforts to get answers have taken multiple forms. Many family members of victims have joined two proposed class-action lawsuits – one against the gunman’s estate and another against the provincial government and the RCMP. Their lawyers are still waiting to learn if their claim against the police and the province for failing to protect the safety and security of the public will be granted class-action status. Ms. Long is not part of these lawsuits.

The lawsuits have put the families at odds with the killer’s long-time girlfriend, Lisa Banfield, who is also being sued after she was charged in December with supplying ammunition used in the massacre. Two other people – Ms. Banfield’s brother, James Banfield, and brother-in-law Brian Brewster – have also been charged with the same crime. Mr. Banfield has pleaded not guilty, while Ms. Banfield and Mr. Brewster have yet to enter a plea.

Since she was charged, Ms. Banfield, who is also suing the gunman’s estate, has become a divisive figure among those affected by the shooting. She’s been caught up in a complicated knot of conspiracy theories spread by amateur web sleuths who are convinced police aren’t telling the whole story about her involvement. Much of their speculation focuses on the RCMP and the government, but many are also public in their suspicions of Ms. Banfield.

“We don’t see her as a victim,” Ms. Long said. “I don’t understand why the police are protecting her.”

Others see things differently, pointing to the gunman’s history of domestic abuse, and troubling descriptions of his violence in Ms. Banfield’s own statements to police. They see the charges against her as victim-blaming, and a deflection of the killer’s horrific crimes.

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Family and friends of the victims march to the RCMP detachment.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

A history of violence

In her statement of claim against the estate, filed with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, Ms. Banfield says she was the victim of assault and battery, and suffered physical, emotional and psychological injuries and trauma.

In a series of interviews with police, partly released through a legal challenge by The Globe and Mail and other media outlets, Ms. Banfield explained why she had been afraid of her partner of 19 years. He was controlling and prone to violent outbursts, choking her on multiple occasions, she said. Mr. Wortman, who also seemed obsessed with guns and spoke about killing police, would humiliate her in front of people at the Dartmouth denturist office where they worked. She told investigators she kept her nieces away from him.

“[He] always said things about hurting her family so she was afraid to leave [him],” reads one passage. “It was the little things that would set him off, not the big things.”

The night he began his rampage, the couple were celebrating their anniversary at their home in Portapique. On a FaceTime call with friends, they said they were planning a commitment ceremony for their 20th anniversary. One friend joked, “Don’t do it,” and that set Mr. Wortman off. Ms. Banfield told police he dragged her by the hair across the floor, kicking her and tying her hands together with a belt from a bathrobe.

Roses with the names of the victims of the mass shooting are prepared to be handed out to family and friends.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

As he began pouring gasoline around their cottage, he grabbed his Glock handgun with a laser sight, Ms. Banfield told police. He shot near her head twice, and Ms. Banfield told investigators she believed she was going to die. Instead, he put handcuffs on her and put her in the backseat of a fake police car. She told police she escaped and ran into the woods, eventually hiding in the trunk of a tree, and didn’t come out until morning.

For some, the assault that precipitated the deadly rampage is further proof of the link between domestic violence and mass shootings. But the RCMP’s decision to charge Ms. Banfield inflamed the debate around whether she was a victim or an accomplice – or both.

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“We need to stop blaming the victim, and I think that’s what happened with Lisa. Charging her has only put fuel into the fire of blaming women, and blaming Lisa for her partner’s atrocity,” said Jeanne Sarson, a co-founder of advocacy group NS Feminists Fighting Femicide.

“Because she’s a woman, I think it makes it easier to blame her. … This mass shooting must sink into our heads the idea that relational violence is really a societal issue.”

Others see Ms. Banfield in a more negative light – as someone who did not do enough to alert police to her common-law partner’s bizarre, paranoid behaviour; his many threats and assaults against her; and his growing collection of guns and ammunition. She has yet to enter a plea to the charges of unlawfully transferring .223-calibre Remington cartridges and .40-calibre Smith & Wesson cartridges to the gunman in the month before his attack.

The RCMP have said repeatedly she had no prior knowledge of his plans. Mr. Wortman was well-known to be manipulative, and was almost obsessively deceptive in using others to help him gather the materials he used for his attack. Add in the element of domestic violence and it’s not hard to understand how coercion can play a role in cases like this, Ms. Sarson said.

Ms. Banfield’s silence, however, has only fuelled the questions.

“We don’t know the story. So in the absence of information, we’re dealing with an extraordinary amount of speculation,” said Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer with Patterson Law in Halifax, who is leading the lawsuit by the victims’ families against the killer’s estate, worth an estimated $2.1-million.

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“The public is coming to its own conclusions, and the only thing that’s going to fix that is finding out what really happened. Until that time, we can’t help but speculate and have concerns about the information that’s coming out.”

thirteen hours of terror in nova scotia

Over a 13-hour span on April 18-19, 2020, Gabriel

Wortman terrorized Nova Scotia in what would

become Canada’s worst mass shooting. He killed 22

people (including a pregnant woman) in his rampage,

and injured three others. Here’s how it happened.

QUE.

NFLD.

0

10

N.B.

N.S.

KM

U.S.

Detail

Atlantic Ocean

Wentworth

4

104

Debert

Glenholme

104

Portapique

2

4

Truro

Cobequid Bay

102

NOVA SCOTIA

Shubenacadie

14

224

Milford

Irving Big Stop

101

Enfield

2

102

107

Dartmouth

Halifax

Cluster One – Portapique: On April 18, while celebrating

their anniversary, the gunman assaults his common-law

wife, who escapes. At 10:26 p.m., officers are called to

help a man who was shot driving into Portapique. RCMP

arrive to find homes on fire and bodies at more than

seven locations. Police learn that the gunman is carry-

ing multiple firearms, wearing a replica RCMP uniform

and driving a look-alike police vehicle.

Cluster 2 – Wentworth, Glenholme, Debert: The next

morning, the gunman travels more than 60 kilometres

and kills three more people and burns their home. He

kills a woman out walking, then bangs on the door of

another couple’s home. He drives to Debert, where he

pulls over two women and kills them.

Cluster 3 – Shubenacadie, Milford, Enfield: RCMP Con-

stable Chad Morrison is wounded in a firefight with the

gunman, who then collides with Constable Heidi Steven-

son and fatally shoots her. The gunman then kills

a passerby who stops to help, sets two cars on fire and

proceeds to the nearby house of a woman he knows.

He kills her, removes the replica uniform and takes her

Mazda 3. The gunman continues south, toward Halifax,

and stops at the Irving Big Stop near Enfield. He’s

recognized and shot dead by an RCMP officer who had

also stopped for gas.

greg mercer and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; rcmp

thirteen hours of terror in nova scotia

Over a 13-hour span on April 18-19, 2020, Gabriel Wortman

terrorized Nova Scotia in what would become Canada’s

worst mass shooting. He killed 22 people (including a

pregnant woman) in his rampage, and injured three others.

Here’s how it happened.

NFLD.

QUE.

0

10

N.B.

N.S.

KM

U.S.

Detail

Atlantic Ocean

Wentworth

4

104

104

Debert

Glenholme

Portapique

2

4

Truro

Cobequid Bay

102

NOVA SCOTIA

Shubenacadie

14

224

Milford

Irving Big Stop

101

Enfield

2

102

107

Dartmouth

Halifax

Cluster One – Portapique: On April 18, while celebrating

their anniversary, the gunman assaults his common-law

wife, who escapes. At 10:26 p.m., officers are called to

help a man who was shot driving into Portapique. RCMP

arrive to find homes on fire and bodies at more than

seven locations. Police learn that the gunman is carry-

ing multiple firearms, wearing a replica RCMP uniform

and driving a look-alike police vehicle.

Cluster 2 – Wentworth, Glenholme, Debert: The next

morning, the gunman travels more than 60 kilometres

and kills three more people and burns their home. He

kills a woman out walking, then bangs on the door of

another couple’s home. He drives to Debert, where he

pulls over two women and kills them.

Cluster 3 – Shubenacadie, Milford, Enfield: RCMP Con-

stable Chad Morrison is wounded in a firefight with the

gunman, who then collides with Constable Heidi Stevenson

and fatally shoots her. The gunman then kills a passerby

who stops to help, sets two cars on fire and proceeds to

the nearby house of a woman he knows. He kills her,

removes the replica uniform and takes her Mazda 3. The

gunman continues south, toward Halifax, and stops at the

Irving Big Stop near Enfield. He’s recognized and shot dead

by an RCMP officer who had also stopped for gas.

greg mercer and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; rcmp

thirteen hours of terror in nova scotia

Over a 13-hour span on April 18-19, 2020, Gabriel Wortman terrorized Nova Scotia in what

would become Canada’s worst mass shooting. He killed 22 people (including a pregnant

woman) in his rampage, and injured three others. Here’s how it happened.

Cluster One – Portapique:

On April 18, while celebrating their

anniversary, the gunman assaults

his common-law wife, who

escapes. At 10:26 p.m., officers

are called to help a man who was

shot driving into Portapique.

RCMP arrive to find homes on fire

and bodies at more than seven

locations. Police learn that the

gunman is carrying multiple fire-

arms, wearing a replica RCMP

uniform and driving a look-alike

police vehicle.

QUE.

NFLD.

0

10

N.B.

N.S.

KM

U.S.

Detail

Atlantic Ocean

Wentworth

4

104

Cluster 2 – Wentworth, Glen-

holme, Debert: The next morn-

ing, the gunman travels more

than 60 kilometres and kills

three more people and burns

their home. He kills a woman

out walking, then bangs on the

door of another couple’s home.

He drives to Debert, where he

pulls over two women and kills

them.

Debert

Glenholme

104

Portapique

2

4

Truro

Cobequid Bay

102

NOVA SCOTIA

Cluster 3 – Shubenacadie, Mil-

ford, Enfield: RCMP Constable

Chad Morrison is wounded in a

firefight with the gunman, who

then collides with Constable Heidi

Stevenson and fatally shoots her.

The gunman then kills a passerby

who stops to help, sets two cars

on fire and proceeds to the

nearby house of a woman he

knows. He kills her, removes the

replica uniform and takes her

Mazda 3. The gunman continues

south, toward Halifax, and stops

at the Irving Big Stop near

Enfield. He’s recognized and shot

dead by an RCMP officer who had

also stopped for gas.

Shubenacadie

14

224

Milford

Irving Big Stop

101

Enfield

2

102

107

Dartmouth

Halifax

greg mercer and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; rcmp

Looking for answers

In the absence of answers, some people are trying to find their own. A loosely knit group of web sleuths, Facebook users and YouTube personalities have spurred sometimes-wild speculation about the case, the RCMP investigation and the government’s response to the killings. They’re digging into Ms. Banfield’s past, trying to find red flags that they say others don’t want to see.

Corporal Troy Gill holds roses with the names of the victims after family members handed over the flowers at the RCMP detachment.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

“We’re doing the job of the police,” said Ms. Long, who has appeared as a guest on a YouTube channel hosted by an Alberta man who has produced dozens of videos discussing the case. “The families are working together to piece together what happened, and [the RCMP] are doing a really good job making sure we’re having trouble finding things. They’re working hard to cover it up.”

They reject what Ms. Long calls the “mainstream narrative” about the mass shootings. She, and others, believe the gunman didn’t act alone, and suggest the RCMP knew about the attacks ahead of time, or at the very least allowed him to continue. She’s skeptical of Ms. Banfield’s accounts of domestic violence.

These skeptics have constructed their own alternate reality for the killings, pushing theories that the gunman, or perhaps his girlfriend, were informants for the police, or even the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – theories based in part on Mr. Wortman’s large withdrawals of cash in the weeks leading up to the attack. Others believe gun-control activists and feminist groups are at play behind the scenes, trying to manipulate the facts to advance their agendas.

The Nova Scotia RCMP’s spokesperson says there’s no evidence to support these conspiracy theories. Corporal Chris Marshall stresses that investigators are analyzing and trying to corroborate every tip they get in relation to the shootings, to assess the weight, validity and value of that information. Sifting through the many threads of the case is a slow, painstaking process that “ensures accountability, clear goals, planning and decision-making throughout the investigation.”

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Any information being withheld from the public is simply to keep from compromising the investigation before it reaches court, he said.

“The goal is always the truth of what has occurred – there is no room for speculation in these investigations,” Cpl. Marshall said.

“The RCMP have been committed to keeping victims’ families, as well as the public, informed with the truth of what has occurred,” he said. “In doing so, the RCMP have been required to balance the need to maintain the integrity of the ongoing investigation, while at the same time providing information – and, as much as possible, correcting misinformation – for the families, the public and the media.”

The wide range of theories about the shootings serves to further blur the reality around what happened in Portapique a year ago. And some worry the longer it takes to get to the truth, the worse it will get.

“The sooner we can get the inquiry going, the better, to try to break this cycle of conspiracy that’s going on out there and finally get some truth,” said Linda MacDonald, a co-founder of NS Feminists Fighting Femicide.

“We’d have been better off to have the truth out there from the very beginning. I think the more we wait … the more distortions there are, and the harder it’s going to be to get people to believe the truth when it comes. And I blame the RCMP for that.”

Ms. MacDonald says she’s also been targeted by those drawing connections where there aren’t any. Someone called her home recently and accused her of being on the RCMP payroll – despite her group’s public criticism of how the RCMP mishandled previous complaints about domestic violence by the gunman.

“This conspiracy stuff, it’s like a mould – it grows. It’s so tragic that this stuff takes over,” she said.

Ms. Sarson, the group’s other co-founder, says those who are skeptical of Ms. Banfield’s statements about past violence at the hands of her partner should really be asking questions about why the RCMP didn’t do more to intervene when police reports were filed in the years leading up to the attack. She believes those promoting conspiracy theories about the killings are in the minority, but they flock together online to create an echo chamber.

“They just feed off each other,” she said. “It satisfies their own worldview that they want to believe is correct.”

The provincial and federal governments only fanned the flames of conspiracy when they initially to chose to hold a closed-door independent review of the case instead of a more open public inquiry, she added. That further convinced some people there was an effort to cover up some facts about the shootings, she said.

To defend herself, Ms. Banfield hired James Lockyer, a high-profile Toronto lawyer most associated with wrongful conviction cases, including that of Guy Paul Morin, who was falsely accused of killing his nine-year-old neighbour Christine Jessop in 1984. Mr. Lockyer said he couldn’t discuss Ms. Banfield’s case until her charges are dealt with. He said Ms. Banfield’s silence has been forced on her by the criminal charges she’s facing.

“That’s not really her fault – they went and charged her,” he said.

Ms. McCulloch, the Halifax lawyer, acknowledged there’s much that remains unknown about Ms. Banfield. She said she’s sensitive to stories about the gunman’s past violence toward his common-law wife, but that doesn’t mean Ms. Banfield shouldn’t need to answer for allegedly supplying him with ammunition used in the attack.

“That history doesn’t necessarily absolve anyone of their actions,” she said. “But we don’t know what we don’t know. While we need to be open to the reality she may have been living in, we also need to be mindful that we don’t know the full story.”

Ms. Banfield has fought to keep certain key statements to police hidden from public view, as part of Mr. Lockyer’s arguments for about protecting her right to a fair trial. While some point out that’s a normal course of action for anyone facing criminal charges, others see it as proof she has something to hide. Ms. McCulloch says it’s hard to understand the need for secrecy when Ms. Banfield is facing a trial by judge, and not a jury.

“I raise an eyebrow over some of the arguments for her wishing to have that stuff withheld,” she said. “I try not to buy into the argument that it must mean she has something to hide, but in the absence of greater clarity, it’s hard not to have that suspicion.”

Ms. Long, meanwhile, is still struggling to make sense of killings that appear senseless.

The only tension she knows of between her brother and his neighbour involved a dispute over a proposed real estate deal. Mr. Tuck wanted to sell his dilapidated home by the sea, inherited from his adopted father, and move his family back to Cape Breton. Mr. Wortman offered him $18,000 for the property, and the stay-at-home dad was offended by the lowball offer.

“Aaron said, ‘If you want to fight me over it, I’ll fight you. But you have to hit me first – and then I’m going to kick your ass.’ So Gabriel just sat down,” she said. “Aaron was so proud of that. Everything he did was to try to be a good example for his kid.”

Her brother could be blunt, and didn’t back down from a fight, Ms. Long said. But he was also a devoted, loving father; the kind of person who would feed chipmunks by hand and rush to the aid of a bird stuck in his wood stove, she recalled. He taught his daughter how to fix engines, refurbish fiddles and shoot a bow and arrow.

On the morning of Sunday, April 19, 2020, Ms. Long was concerned about news reports coming out of Portapique and called the RCMP to do a wellness check on her brother and his family. It was the next day before it was confirmed they were among the victims. A year later, locked inside her home and jumping at noises in the night, she still hasn’t recovered from the shock.

“I wasn’t there, and it’s ruined my life,” she said. “My family is gone.”

Ms. Long said she’s found support from others in the area who also lost someone in the shootings. They’ve been brought together by tragedy, sharing their grief, anger and hope for more transparency. On Sunday, she planned to stand with many of them during the memorial march in Truro.

“We want answers – and we’re not going away until we get them.”

Among trees and flowing streams in Victoria Park in Truro, N.S. is a memorial walk to remember the 22 people killed in the April, 2020 mass shooting. The group behind the walk say it’s a peaceful way to honour each individual that is also safe for COVID-19. The Globe and Mail

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