RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told an inquiry into the deadliest gun rampage in Canadian history that concerns over political interference in the police investigation have been overblown, and said she is growing frustrated with questions on the subject.
The country’s top Mountie was grilled during hours-long testimony in Halifax on Tuesday at the Mass Casualty Commission, a public inquiry into the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting, during which a gunman tore through rural parts of the province for 13 hours, killing 22 people. The RCMP have been under intense scrutiny for their stumbling response, including their failure to properly notify the public of the danger.
Commissioner Lucki was previously questioned by a parliamentary committee in Ottawa investigating allegations that she had tried to use the tragedy to boost support for the Liberals’ gun-control agenda. Senior Mounties have said she pressed them to prematurely release details on what guns the killer used, weeks before the Prime Minister announced a ban on certain types of firearms.
The suggestion that Commissioner Lucki had attempted to influence a police investigation to aid the government has embroiled her in a political storm that reaches all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. And it has made her one of the inquiry’s most anticipated witnesses.
She played down the allegation on Tuesday. “It’s becoming very politicized as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “It wasn’t as big as you’re making it out to be. I’m trying to explain myself seven different ways to Sunday, and it’s very frustrating.”
She also largely deflected any blame for the fallout from the killings, while accusing the media of adopting a “negative narrative” around the shooting spree. Her cross-examination continues Wednesday.
“Anything that can be done as an organization that can help us be trusted by Canadians, we’ll do,” she said. “You have my commitment we’re going to be doing everything we can to be a better RCMP from these recommendations.”
During her testimony, the commissioner said whatever the inquiry’s findings are – whether they include calls for improved training, more resources or new equipment to better handle mass shootings – the RCMP will take them seriously.
She said concerns that she had pushed the Nova Scotia RCMP to prematurely release details about the guns used in the attack are misplaced. But she didn’t dispute that she had told investigators working on the mass shooting that the information was tied to pending federal gun control legislation.
She told the inquiry she was disappointed with how the RCMP were communicating with the public in the aftermath of the shooting, and said releasing the information would have been in the interest of transparency. She also said she was not trying to pressure her subordinates in a series of calls and e-mails on the subject in the days after the attack. And in any case, she said, she wasn’t contacting them because of orders from her political bosses in the federal government.
The commissioner also testified that there was no need for secrecy around the guns, because the killer, Gabriel Wortman, was already dead and there would be no criminal trial. But senior Nova Scotia RCMP commanders had previously testified that releasing the gun information would have compromised their investigation at that stage, particularly as they questioned people who helped the gunman obtain his weapons.
During tense cross-examination at the public inquiry, a lawyer for families of the mass shooting’s victims accused Commissioner Lucki of trying to exploit his clients’ pain to help the Liberals’ political agenda.
Michael Scott, whose law firm represents most of those who lost family members to the gunman, challenged the commissioner directly, pressing her repeatedly on the gun issue.
Nothing in the government’s gun control legislation would have helped close loopholes that allowed the killer to smuggle his guns into Canada from Maine, Mr. Scott said. The commissioner’s interest in releasing the gun details seemed to be purely for political reasons, to boost public support for the upcoming legislation, he added.
“The optics of that would be that the collective pain and grief of my clients and others was being exploited for crass political objectives,” he said. “You could see why that would be a very serious issue.”
The commissioner disputed the accounts of multiple Nova Scotia RCMP officials, including former communications director Lia Scanlan, who described being berated in an April 28, 2020, conference call by the Mountie boss after the gun details weren’t released.
“I don’t know where she would get that view,” Commissioner Lucki said. “That’s just not how it happened.”
In a previous interview with inquiry staff, on Aug. 4, the commissioner acknowledged that she had gone too far in criticizing her exhausted subordinates during the conference call. “When I think about it before I go to bed, I honestly can’t sleep,” she said.
“We’ve always felt that because things are under investigation, that we can’t release things,” she said in the interview. “That’s not the case any more. There are things that can be released even within an investigation. We just have to make sure what is being released does not compromise [the investigation].”
Commissioner Lucki told the inquiry on Tuesday that the national police force intends to learn from the April, 2020, tragedy, and acknowledged that the incident has hurt Canadians’ trust in the Mounties. But she stopped short of offering any specific changes that will come from those lessons, apart from “anything that makes Canadians safer.”
The commissioner also said she wants the RCMP to be more open and transparent with Canadians. But she spent much of her testimony complaining that the force doesn’t receive enough positive media coverage.
Mr. Scott seized on that complaint, arguing that a series of mistakes by the RCMP during the mass shooting – including when two Mounties mistakenly shot up a Nova Scotia fire hall during their hunt for the killer – made it difficult to put a positive spin on the police response to the killings.
Commissioner Lucki said those stories hurt RCMP morale. Earlier in the day, however, she had testified that she had only recently seen a “wellness report” that had been prepared for the RCMP about its Nova Scotia division, in which staff members said that there was dysfunction in the force long before the mass shootings, and that they felt abandoned by their superiors in the aftermath of the murders.
Rachel Young, counsel for the inquiry, asked Commissioner Lucki why the report on low morale hadn’t been shared with commanding officers in Nova Scotia, and why the RCMP’s national headquarters in Ottawa hadn’t acted on it.
“I just think someone dropped the ball or it fell through the cracks, among 100 other things,” she said. “How are you going to fix something if you don’t follow through? That needed to be done better.”
The commissioner said in her Aug. 4 interview with inquiry staff that she has regarded modernizing the RCMP as central to her mandate since she was appointed in 2018. She cited initiatives such as introducing courses on systemic racism and allowing rank-and-file members to send her criticism in e-mails as being part of a process of change.
During the interview, inquiry lawyers questioned her about why some recommendations from earlier public studies of the force still hadn’t been implemented, including a 2021 recommendation by retired Supreme Court justice Michel Bastarache that officers have at least two years of post-secondary training.
She said the force was “looking at” that recommendation, adding that police didn’t want to exclude recruits coming from trades backgrounds and from diverse populations, who might not have had opportunities to attend university.
She said purchasing new equipment, such as body-worn cameras, has proven to be a slower process than expected. “The body-worn cameras, we haven’t deployed them yet. There’s so many steps,” she told the inquiry in her interview.
With a report from the Canadian Press
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.