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Family and friends of the victims protest outside the hotel where the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia in April 2020 is being held in Truro, N.S., on May 26.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Families of victims killed in the Nova Scotia mass shooting of April 2020 are boycotting the public inquiry probing the tragedy, angry that senior RCMP officers are being shielded from cross-examination.

On Thursday, the group protested outside the Truro, N.S., hotel where public hearings are being held, and instructed their lawyers not to participate in the proceedings. The families, many of whom fought two years ago to convince the provincial and federal governments to hold the inquiry, say their hope for police accountability in the attack that killed 22 people is fading quickly.

“Silence sometimes is the loudest, and that’s the approach we took today,” Nick Beaton, whose pregnant wife, Kristen Beaton, was killed during the mass shootings, told reporters in Truro.

“They’re sitting us in the corner, we’re sitting on our hands and we’re on mute. We have no voice. You’re not going to gag us. You’re not going to shut me up. I’m not stopping.”

The inquiry was established to examine how a denturist dressed as a Mountie and driving a replica RCMP patrol car was able to commit the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history. The RCMP’s many missteps during the attack – including failing to properly alert the public, neglecting to ask other police forces for help and allowing the gunman to slip away and continue killing for several more hours – are among the critical issues victims’ families want to see addressed.

The families say the inquiry commission’s “trauma-informed” approach is prioritizing protecting the feelings of senior RCMP officers who made key decisions during the manhunt to stop the gunman. Their boycott is in reaction to a decision by the commissioners to allow two police commanders who were central to the shooting response, RCMP Staff Sergeant Brian Rehill and Sergeant Andy O’Brien, to be questioned only by commission counsel in pretaped video interviews, and not by the families’ lawyers.

A third senior RCMP commander, Staff Sgt. Al Carroll, was allowed to testify Thursday via video conference, a special medical accommodation that the commission and the RCMP union declined to elaborate on.

Outside the hearing room at the hotel, a small group of protesters gathered on a sidewalk, most of them carrying homemade placards. Among them was Charlene Bagley, whose father Tom was fatally shot by the gunman early on April 19, 2020, while out for a walk on Hunter Road in West Wentworth, N.S.

“Trauma for who?” Ms. Bagley said. “They’re not thinking of the other people involved and their trauma – just the officers. Their trauma seems to trump everyone else’s.”

Rob Pineo, a Halifax lawyer who is representing many of the families in the proceedings, said the way the inquiry is handling RCMP witnesses is causing his clients further pain.

“Our clients are disheartened and further traumatized by the Commissioners’ decision to not allow their own lawyers to be present and participate in the questioning of whom they view to be amongst the most crucial RCMP ‘in command’ members,” Mr. Pineo said in a statement.

“Our clients firmly oppose the Commissioners’ decision and take this action to send a clear message that they will not be associated with this restricted fact-finding process for such critical evidence.”

After almost 40 years of service, Staff Sgt. Carroll was one month shy of retiring on April 18, 2020, when he was called in to the RCMP detachment in Bible Hill, N.S. He was among the first to learn that an active shooter was on the loose in nearby Portapique, N.S.

During an earlier interview with commission investigators, Staff Sgt. Carroll said the information he received indicated police were looking for an old, decommissioned police car that had no markings.

But that’s not what witnesses in Portapique were telling 911 call-takers. The inquiry has heard callers and witnesses at the scene repeatedly described the vehicle as a fully marked cruiser, complete with emergency lights.

Staff Sgt. Carroll said he was never trained to use Pictometry, an advanced mapping program that could have helped search for escape routes used by the killer, because he planned to retire.

Using a road atlas and other maps, Staff Sgt. Carroll and another Mountie concluded there was only one way for a vehicle to get out of the neighbourhood. But they were wrong. At about 10:45 p.m., the gunman escaped by driving along a little-used dirt road beside a blueberry field.

“That didn’t show up on the map we were looking at,” Staff Sgt. Carroll told investigators.

The inquiry has heard the killer’s rampage in Portapique started around 10 p.m., after he beat and bound his common-law wife and started shooting neighbours and setting their homes on fire. Disguised as a Mountie and driving the replica RCMP cruiser, he killed 13 people in Portapique before escaping.

The next day, the gunman, Gabriel Wortman, killed another nine people as he travelled more than 100 kilometres across northern and central Nova Scotia. He was shot dead by two Mounties just before 11:30 a.m. when he stopped at a gas station north of Halifax to refuel a stolen car.

Last week, the inquiry released a summary of evidence that pointed to considerable confusion over who was in charge of the RCMP operation that night. The inquiry also heard testimony last week about the “chaos in communications” that ensued when the RCMP’s two-way radios were overwhelmed by too much traffic.

The question of who was in charge in those crucial early hours was addressed in an earlier occupational health and safety report, which found the RCMP had breached the federal Labour Code by failing to ensure employees had necessary supervision.

During an inquiry hearing on May 19, the chairman of the commission, Michael MacDonald, asked another staff sergeant, Steve Halliday, if it would have been better if a single person had been in charge on the first night.

“I agree with you that one person [should be in charge], when at all possible,” Staff Sgt. Halliday said, acknowledging that at least three other Mounties were issuing orders on the first night.

“But with police operations, sometimes there is a tendency for there to be multiple people, and it can create trouble with who’s in charge and tying up the radios.”

Ms. Bagley said she is losing hope that she will ever get the accountability she has been seeking from the RCMP.

“We’ve been wanting answers and we’ve been wanting the truth. With the announcement of this week’s accommodations, it just shows that we’re probably not going to ever get that,” she said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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