Darcy Dobson did not inherit the natural green thumb once possessed by her mother, Heather O’Brien. But she still digs in flower boxes when she wants to feel close to her.
Nearly two years after Ms. O’Brien was killed by a gunman who rampaged across rural Nova Scotia dressed as a Mountie, her daughter is still waiting for someone to explain the tragic failures that led to her death. Ms. O’Brien was one of 22 people, including a pregnant woman, killed in a 13-hour period on April 18 and 19, 2020 during the worst mass shooting in Canadian history.
With long-awaited public hearings on the tragedy set to begin in Halifax on Feb. 22, led by an independent inquiry known as the Mass Casualty Commission, Ms. Dobson hopes she may finally understand the mistakes that played a role in the mass killing.
The biggest question she wants answered is: Why did the Nova Scotia RCMP wait hours before telling the public that a gunman was on the loose in the province, driving a replica police vehicle? After Gabriel Wortman murdered Ms. O’Brien at the side of a road, the RCMP finally issued a warning on Twitter – but not on the province’s emergency alert system.
“We just want an explanation,” said Ms. Dobson, who lives in Colchester County, N.S., and was among those pushing for a public inquiry in the months after the shootings, after the province initially proposed a more narrow independent review.
“How can you send people alerts on Easter weekend to stay home because of COVID, but eight days later my mother was shot and killed by a madman, and you couldn’t tell the public about that? If she had known, she would have never left the house.”
Ms. Dobson and other family members of victims say they have been frustrated by the inquiry process so far. With just days to go before the hearings were set to begin, some said they still hadn’t received lists of witnesses who would be called to testify before the commissioners, and didn’t know if they would be given opportunities to have their voices heard.
“Many of our clients have continued to be traumatized by this process,” said Robert Pineo, a Halifax lawyer whose law firm is representing victims’ families in a class-action lawsuit against the RCMP and the federal and provincial governments, and in a separate lawsuit against the gunman’s estate.
“It looks like families and first-degree victims will have very little opportunity to ask questions at the inquiry, or even give their own evidence. We’re not at all pleased with the process to date.”
The commission announced late on Friday that the hearings will not be open to in-person attendance by members of the public. Instead, people can register to go to a viewing site in Truro, closer to where the shootings began, to watch a livestream of the proceedings, the commission said.
Emily Hill, senior counsel for the commission, said inquiry staff have been working closely with families affected by the shootings. The families have provided “valuable input” to the inquiry, and helped shape the facts around the case, she said.
Since last fall, victims’ families have been getting weekly updates through their lawyers, she said, and been given tens of thousands of pages of information, including witness interviews, security camera footage, investigative files, information about the police response and transcripts of 911 calls. Ms. Hill suggested people may be expecting something from the inquiry that it’s not able to give.
“A public inquiry is not a trial, nor is it about assigning blame. Public inquiries are about change,” Ms. Hill said. “The commission’s work is to determine what happened, and why and how it happened, in order to make recommendations that will help make sure it does not happen again.”
Families of victims are welcome to make suggestions during the public hearings if they “see gaps in the factual record and witnesses they suggest should be heard by the commission,” Ms. Hill added.
The commission, which has been gathering evidence for several months, will submit a final report in November on its findings and recommendations. Its broad mandate includes examining the gunman’s access to firearms and prior interactions with the police, the role of gender-based violence in the shootings and the RCMP’s training.
The commission will also examine police errors over the course of the attack, including those that allowed the gunman to slip past the RCMP in Portapique, N.S., kill 13 of his neighbours, kill other people, steal cars and burn homes in four other rural communities before police shot him dead at a gas station outside of Halifax.
Ms. Dobson said she had hoped the inquiry would allow families’ lawyers to call witnesses and question them in public hearings. She said she plans to be at the Halifax Convention Centre, where the hearings are being held, even though she will not be allowed inside for the proceedings.
“It’s all I have. I’ll stand outside if I have to,” she said. “The whole thing is such a mess, and they’re almost unapologetic about it.”
Ms. O’Brien was a spiritual, mothering person, and Ms. Dobson believes she would have wanted her daughter to push to improve transparency in the public inquiry. She acknowledged that there have been regular updates from the commission, but said answers to some of the families’ questions have not been forthcoming.
“My mother was out to save the world. She was kind as a kitten, but when she believed in something she was relentless,” Ms. Dobson said.
Ms. Dobson added that she is hoping the hearings will help her and others begin processing their grief, which has so often been consumed by anger.
“You open your eyes, and it’s there. It feels like a hundred years ago and all at once,” she said. “We can’t start the grieving process until we understand the why. We may never get that, but there are parts of this story that demand justice.”
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