Skip to main content

A woman pays her respects to victims of a mass shooting at a roadblock in Portapique, N.S., in April, 2020. Almost two years after a gunman disguised as a Mountie went on a shooting rampage that claimed 22 lives in rural Nova Scotia, an independent public inquiry is set to begin Tuesday in Halifax.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston slammed the long-awaited public inquiry into the April, 2020, mass shooting on the first day of hearings, accusing the commission of “disrespectful” treatment of victims’ families and a lack of transparency.

Nova Scotians have waited nearly two years for the inquiry, which will examine the rampage across the province’s rural heartland that left 22 people, including an expectant mother, dead. The Premier’s comments, made a little more than an hour before the proceedings began, raised cries of political interference and put commissioners on the defensive as they made their opening remarks inside a ballroom at the Halifax Convention Centre.

Mr. Houston said it’s unacceptable that the people most affected by the tragedy were heading into the hearings with many unanswered questions, including which witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify. He called on the commission to meet with the victims’ families and their lawyers to provide them with a plan that will give them confidence in the process.

The uncertainty around the inquiry was causing “further, unnecessary trauma,” the Premier said. His criticism was echoed by federal Immigration Minister and Nova Scotia MP Sean Fraser, who said he’s also heard from victims’ families who don’t have faith in the inquiry.

“We need to get this right ... there’s no room for error here,” said Mr. Houston, who added he raised the issue with the commission two weeks ago and hadn’t seen much improvement.

“I have heard family members express frustration and concern about the structure of the inquiry. They feel left in the dark. This is not only disrespectful, it should cause us all to pause and ask: If the families don’t have confidence in the process, how can the public?”

Barbara McLean, the commission’s investigations director, said the Premier crossed the line by criticizing the joint federal-provincial inquiry, which is supposed to be beyond the reach of political influence.

“We were surprised and disappointed,” said Ms. McLean, a Nova Scotian who is also deputy chief of the Toronto Police Service. “The mass casualty commission is an independent inquiry and must remain free from interference or external direction. We trust that the Premier will keep an open mind when recommendations that require provincial implementation to improve safety and well-being in our communities [are made].”

Commission chair Michael MacDonald, former chief justice of Nova Scotia, also pushed back against criticism that the inquiry has not been transparent enough. He said families of victims have been involved in the process since the beginning, and that they will have the opportunity to influence the course of the inquiry and ensure memories of those killed are included.

The inquiry must take an unconventional approach because of the sheer size of the attack, spread over 17 crime scenes, and the large number of people who have evidence to share, he said. The commissioners developed a more flexible model, he added, that they feel will be more efficient and less retraumatizing to people – and allow them to produce a final report by November.

The commission has interviewed nearly 150 witnesses, he said, and if every one of them were to testify and be cross-examined, the process could take years. Instead, much of the inquiry will be built around “foundational documents” that have not yet been shared publicly but will summarize the investigative work already done by the commission.

“This process cannot drag on for five years. We have a responsibility as commissioners, and it’s in everyone’s interest to manage this,” he said. “I’ve seen the emotional toll of processes that go on and on, lives waiting in the balance.”

There are many questions the inquiry hopes to answer. The gunman, a 51-year-old denturist from Dartmouth, managed to elude police for 13 hours while dressed as a Mountie and driving a look-alike RCMP cruiser. He’d been previously reported multiple times for domestic violence, threats and a growing stash of illegal weapons, but those warnings failed to prompt police intervention.

When Gabriel Wortman began his attack on April 19, 2020, the Nova Scotia RCMP didn’t tell the public he was driving a fake police cruiser for about 10 hours. When they finally did, they used Twitter, not the province’s emergency alert system. He continued to kill another nine victims after he escaped an RCMP perimeter around the torched remains of his cottage in Portapique, N.S.

Despite these missteps, the inquiry will not function as a trial designed to assign blame or award damages, Mr. MacDonald said. Instead, its mandate is much broader and will ask larger questions that may lead to recommendations for systemic changes needed within institutions such as the RCMP, as well as potential legislative responses to prevent similar events.

Mr. MacDonald asked the public to trust the inquiry process and assured Nova Scotians the independent commission will not let the police or government influence its work or findings. He strongly rejected the claims of some members of the public who say the inquiry is a sham that intends to cover up mistakes by the RCMP or other agencies.

“We know confidence in our institutions has been shaken,” he said. “I will not tolerate an attempt by any institution to tamper with our independence. Independence is the backbone, the be-all and end-all, of inquiries.”

The commission will allow families and other participants – including police organizations and groups focused on gun control and gender-based violence – to suggest witnesses who should be called to testify, which the commission will consider, explained commissioner Leanne Fitch, a retired police chief from Fredericton.

Kim Stanton, the inquiry’s third commissioner, said the inquiry will “follow the evidence where it leads us.” The Toronto lawyer has been criticized for publishing a book about public inquiries released on the eve of these hearings. Ms. Stanton, who told the crowd she wrote her book before the inquiry began, asked the public to keep an open mind as the process begins.

“The commission is required to act in the public interest, and the public interest doesn’t necessarily mean doing what’s popular,” she said.

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.