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

The public inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shooting is on track to be one of the most expensive independent probes in Canadian history, with months to go before the commission behind it delivers a final report with recommendations intended to prevent similar tragedies.

New figures from the Privy Council Office show Ottawa and the Province of Nova Scotia have awarded more than $18-million in contracts, a cost split 50-50 as part of the joint federal-provincial inquiry. The federal government also reports it had spent more than $7-million on salaries, benefits and operating costs as of the end of December, an amount matched by the Province of Nova Scotia.

Reported salary and operating costs for the 60-staff Mass Casualty Commission don’t include the last three months of the 2021-2022 fiscal year, or any of the spending that has occurred since March. If the commission’s operating expenses continue at its current level, the total costs for the probe could approach $50-million.

The commission still has several months of work ahead of it before it delivers a final report in November examining the rampage in April, 2020, by a man impersonating a Mountie who killed 22 people – the worst attack of its kind the country has ever seen.

The Nova Scotia mass shooting probe has spent millions on legal consultants and public relations firms that provided advice, according to the federal document. That guidance hasn’t helped the commission avoid controversy as it attempts a new model of public inquiry – relying on foundational documents to present preliminary findings, as opposed to the traditional judicial style that primarily relies on witness testimony.

Ottawa withheld allegations against RCMP Commissioner, N.S. mass murder inquiry says

It also adopted a “trauma-informed” mandate that prioritized the mental health of key participants, including police, but sparked accusations that process allowed some officers to avoid accountability. The commission’s approach to witnesses has at times provoked protests, a boycott and anger among victims’ families upset some RCMP commanders were shielded from cross-examination by their lawyers.

The inquiry began under a cloud of suspicion, when Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston accused the commission of not being transparent with victims’ families around how witnesses would be handled.

Criticism with the process has continued, with allegations last week the federal Justice Department withheld information from the inquiry that appeared to show RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki interfered in the mass shooting investigation in April, 2020, for political reasons. That has ignited a storm of controversy in Ottawa and plans for a parliamentary hearing into whether the commissioner attempted to influence the investigation to help the Liberals’ pending gun control legislation.

“They’re acting in ways that inquiries don’t normally act. So the general public, without a good explanation, is concerned and suspicious,” said Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor in Halifax. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen an inquiry with this level of public animosity and mistrust. And that’s a significant problem for any commission that needs the public trust to be able to do its job.”

The Mass Casualty Commission reported in March it has spent more than $25-million. It said the $18-million awarded in contracts does not represent total costs incurred at this point, but could not provide an estimated final budget for the inquiry.

By the time it wraps up, the Mass Casualty Commission could be nearly as expensive as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which cost $53.8-million. It will be significantly more costly than the 18-month inquiry into the Air India bombing of Flight 182, a terrorist attack that killed 329 people, including 268 Canadian citizens, which was given a budget of $13.5-million in 2005.

Inquiries are expensive endeavours, even those not measuring immense human tragedy. The Cohen Inquiry in 2009, the largest investigation of wild salmon management after the collapse of sockeye populations in B.C.’s Fraser River, cost taxpayers over $37-million.

But there has not been a lot of information provided about the more than $18-million awarded in contracts, a list heavy with consultants, law firms and other legal experts. Some of the costs – for venue rental, translation services and security – are self-evident, but others are open to interpretation, including an Ontario numbered company that was paid $16,500 for contributions to the “Research Advisory Board.”

“From a taxpayer’s point of view, we know the price is very high. And we know they’re trying a different kind of inquiry model. But we don’t have very much detail just how that money is being spent,” Prof. MacKay said. “There’s no counter-checks to make sure this is money well-spent.”

Some people who lost loved ones in the mass shooting have already decided the inquiry won’t give them the answers they want, no matter the cost. They’re angry because they feel senior RCMP commanders have avoided difficult questions about mistakes made during the police response.

“You guys can’t handle or want the truth,” wrote Nick Beaton, whose wife Kristen Beaton was killed by the gunman on the second day of the rampage, along with her unborn child, in a response to the inquiry on Facebook.

“RCMP members have reached out as they want the same thing, the truth and change, so no one else has to live this hell again. You’re not doing that and Canada, and the world, sees it.”

Prof. MacKay said there’s no set formula for costs when it comes to inquiries and that’s especially true when they’re developing a new approach to these type of probes. But in an environment of suspicion and mistrust, it’s been more difficult to convince the public this new model is an improvement on conventional inquiries.

“Maybe in the future, this will help other inquiries be better,” he said. “But I think in the short term, this has been a very significant challenge.”

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