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Limiting political direction of the RCMP, addressing intimate partner violence and overhauling Nova Scotia police response among major recommendations from Mass Casualty Commission

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In the summer of 2020, tributes to the Nova Scotia shooting victims piled outside a former church in Portapique, N.S., where the gunman lived. The rampage left 22 people dead, the worst mass shooting in Canadian history.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Limit political involvement with RCMP

The government needs to pass laws and put in place policies telling the federal minister of Public Safety not to interfere in RCMP operations, the Mass Casualties Commission says in its report into the 2020 Nova Scotia shooting rampage.

The recommendation is one of many proposed fixes to problems within the RCMP. The broad thrust is that the organization has a sprawling mandate, hidebound management and an institutional incapability of learning from past mistakes. Such points are often made in scathing language.

The report urges Nova Scotia, which relies on the RCMP for local law enforcement, to review its contract with the police force before renewing it in 2032. By that same year, the report says, the RCMP should wind down its current training models and consult with First Nations groups about how the Depot training grounds in Saskatchewan should be used in the future.

Many criticisms about the 150-year-old force are not new. The report doubles down on advice from other public inquiries that had previously probed the RCMP and reproduces reams of advice that the force and its political handlers have not implemented.

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Flags fly at half-mast at RCMP headquarters in Dartmouth, N.S., in April of 2020, after the mass shootings in Nova Scotia.TIM KROCHAK/AFP via Getty Images

The report calls upon parliamentarians to rewrite a clause in the RCMP Act that would put more distance between police and politicians.

The House of Commons is already mulling a private member’s bill that would do this.

“It has not progressed beyond its first reading,” NDP MP Alistair MacGregor said on Wednesday, recalling in an interview how he introduced that bill last fall after revelations from the commission’s testimony phase.

The RCMP Act states that the Mounties’ commissioner controls the police force but “under the direction of” the minister of public safety. The act does not spell out what this lawful direction should be, nor what it should not be.

The commission now wants Parliament to draw some red lines. The report recommends the RCMP Act be clarified and clearer policies be put in place so that the public safety minister can legally only direct the Mounties on matters of broad policy and must otherwise stay away from police operations.

The report advises that all instances of ministerial direction be logged and published. “Adhering to a practice of issuing written directives also helps to protect the government and the commissioner of the RCMP against allegations of underhandedness or of covertly seeking to exercise political influence,” the report says.

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Brenda Lucki, then the RCMP commissioner, attends Canada Day celebrations in 2022.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The MCC had unearthed records in which mid-level Mounties in Nova Scotia expressed concern that then-commissioner Brenda Lucki was trying to politicize their investigation.

On April 28, 2020, – eight days after the shooting rampage – Commissioner Lucki arranged a conference call with Mounties in Nova Scotia running the investigation into the killings. During that conversation, she referenced her recent interactions with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-public safety minister Bill Blair and their discussions about planned federal gun-control measures. She also pressed her subordinates in Nova Scotia to consider releasing to the public details about the gunman’s weapons, even though investigators wanted to withhold those details as sensitive investigative information.

Some officials in the room said they felt that Commissioner Lucki was inappropriately pushing a Liberal government policy. When commission officials started tabling these documents last June, a controversy erupted in Ottawa over whether Commissioner Lucki had been co-opted by political officials.

But she denied this was the case, as did Mr. Blair and Mr. Trudeau.

Ultimately, the report sides with the former police chief’s version of events. “Commissioner Lucki’s audio recorded remarks about the benefits to police of proposed firearms legislation were ill-timed and poorly expressed,” it says, “but they were not partisan or indicative of any attempted political interference.” She retired from the police force earlier this month.

– Colin Freeze

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The Nova Scotians killed in 2020 included married couples, retirees, an elementary-school teacher, a nurse and an RCMP constable.

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The gunman's common-law partner, Lisa Banfield, testifies to the commission. She had endured years of abuse from him.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Address ‘epidemic’ of intimate partner violence

Intimate partner violence was at the very core of the worst gun rampage in Canadian history, the commission report says. The violence began with an attack by the perpetrator on his common-law partner, Lisa Banfield. He had been abusing her physically, emotionally and psychologically for close to 20 years.

“Many mass casualties begin, as this one did, with an act of family violence,” the commission states. And though an attack of this scale may not have been predictable, the commission concludes that his long-standing pattern of escalating violence could have – and should have – been addressed. “For far too long, we have misperceived mass violence as our greatest threat without considering its relationship to other more pervasive forms of violence. We do so at the expense of public safety and community well-being,” the report says.

This violence is an epidemic, the commission states – and it must be acknowledged as such by every level of government. The commission also calls on those same governments to commit “epidemic-level” funding to the anti-violence sector, which it stresses must be “viewed in tandem with police agencies as equal partners in preventing violence.” This must include stable core funding for programs that support survivors of gender-based violence, as well as for preventative programs, including interventions for abusers.

The commission found the RCMP did not treat Ms. Banfield as a surviving victim of the mass casualty, as an important witness who required careful debriefing and who would need support services.

The commission heard that the gunman in this case had witnessed violence at home from a very early age. He was abused by his father – who was abused by his father, who was abused by his father. When he grew up, the gunman began to emulate those same behaviours. Though some of that violence was physical and overt, he was also known to use coercion and control over those around him – a form of abuse that continues to be overlooked.

In its recommendations, the commission calls on the federal, provincial and territorial governments to establish an expert advisory group “to examine whether and how criminal law could better address the context of persistent patterns of controlling behaviour at the core of gender-based, intimate partner and family violence.”

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A demonstrator speaks out against a wave of femicides in Quebec in 2021.Christinne Muschi/Reuters

Across the country, the commission found that risk assessment tools – which are used to determine the level of risk an abuse victim faces, and the likelihood that a situation could turn lethal – are being used inadequately and unevenly by police.

The commission recommends that the federal government develop a common national framework for “women-centric” risk assessments, led by experts within the anti-violence sector.

The commission acknowledged the “sobering” number of reports and recommendations drafted previously to address intimate partner violence in this country – including out of the Renfrew County inquest last summer into a triple femicide in rural Ontario in 2015.

Moving forward, it recommends that Ottawa establish an independent and impartial gender-based violence commissioner “who can serve as a champion and assist in holding governments and other organizations to account.”

Molly Hayes

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'Fewer guns, fewer corpses,' reads a sign beside a mock coffin at a pro-gun-control protest in Toronto.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

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Amanda Byrd, counsel for the Mass Casualty Commission, testifies last May about the weapons used in the Nova Scotia killings.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Firearms: Stricter gun laws, overhaul of classification system

It was an open secret throughout Portapique that Gabriel Wortman owned a small arsenal of firearms. The commission found that at least 35 people knew of his gun collection and three reports had been made to police.

That, combined with his known history of violence and intimidation, should have raised red flags among local law enforcement. Yet, there was virtually no police follow-up, the report states.

A more thorough investigation might have found that he owned at least four guns, all purchased and possessed illegally. The report states he smuggled three guns – two pistols and a semi-automatic rifle – over the Maine border and acquired a fourth from a friend’s estate.

The commission heard from gun advocacy groups arguing that since Mr. Wortman was already operating well outside the law, recommending new gun controls would be a wasted effort. Others said the tragedy should be a catalyst for long overdue changes to the country’s gun regulations.

In its recommendations, the commission opted for the latter approach, calling for an overhaul of existing gun laws beyond what the Liberal government has already implemented and proposed.

The commission report calls on the federal government to prohibit all semi-automatic handguns and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns that shoot centre-fire ammunition and accept magazines capable of carrying more than five rounds.

Ottawa has already been working toward a similar goal, banning hundreds of models of semi-automatic rifles shortly after the deadly rampage and, more recently, freezing handgun sales. But the report calls the federal government’s approach “fragmented” and recommends a complete overhaul of the country’s firearms classification system, which designates models as non-restricted, restricted or prohibited.

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The gunman's fire-destroyed property on Portapique Beach Road, as seen in May of 2020.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

In Portapique, the gunman had stockpiled significant reserves of ammunition despite having no firearms licence, formally called a possession and acquisition licence. The commission wants a prohibition on magazines capable of holding more than five rounds and licensing requirements for people buying magazines and owning ammunition.

The report goes on to make recommendations around the intersection of firearms and intimate-partner violence, calling for a revocation of firearms licences for anyone convicted of domestic violence. It also endorses a series of recommendations made by a previous inquest encouraging the chief firearms officer for each province and territory to review the licence of anyone charged with a domestic-violence offence and be more vigilant about revoking or suspending the licence of anyone with intimate-partner violence risk factors.

But none of those controls would have blocked the mass murderer from smuggling weapons over the border or illegally obtaining a gun from an estate. The report suggests that federal, provincial and territorial governments should crack down on illegal gun transfers from estates by ensuring firearms enforcement officers receive death notices and educating estate administrators about gun laws.

At the border, the report found that the Canadian Border Services Agency is routinely blocked from accessing vital intelligence on gun smuggling held by other police services. The agency has a position responsible for collecting and disseminating firearms intelligence in the Atlantic region, but it’s gone unfilled for years, the report states.

The commissioners propose creating a universal platform for sharing records and information among law-enforcement agencies.

Patrick White

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RCMP block the entrance to Portapique Beach Road on April 19, 2020, the day after the killings started.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

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Counsel Roger Burrill shows the MCC pictures of the replica police car the gunman drove.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Overhauling Nova Scotia police response and communication

As the shootings unfolded on April 18, 2020, the only public communication from RCMP about the murderous rampage was a tweet saying police were responding to a firearms complaint in Portapique sent out at 11:32 p.m.

The commission report found this insufficient and seriously understated the threat of the gunman to the public. It was also the only information shared with the public until the next day at 8:02 a.m.

The commission found that this inaccurate and untimely communication – which also omitted the fact that the gunman was in a replica RCMP cruiser and disguise – deprived citizens, particularly essential workers, of the threat to their lives and information they needed to protect themselves.

The commission said RCMP must change its communications policies to reflect ones that were already recommended as a result of the Moncton mass shooting in 2014, in which three RCMP officers were killed. Additionally, RCMP should activate public communications staff as part of their critical-incident response in future. Police agencies should be sharing the best information available when there’s an active threat to the public, including location, scale and duration of threat, the commission recommended.

By 10:30 p.m. on the night the rampage began, RCMP had received reports from numerous sources that the gunman was driving a replica cruiser. The commission found this information should have shaped command decisions from that time forward. It recommended the RCMP should launch and publicly share an international evaluation of best practices in radio transmission and incorporate that into its training and practices.

Unbeknownst to police, the gunman had escaped down a blueberry field road, a dirt track known to the community. When the police did learn about the blueberry road the next morning, they failed to reconsider their assumption that the gunman died by suicide, showing limited analysis and flawed decision-making, according to the report.

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RCMP mobilize at the gas station in Enfield, N.S., where the gunman was confronted and killed.Tim Krochak/The Canadian Press

The RCMP had failed to assign a scene commander in Portapique, which created gaps in the initial response, including the containment of the gunman and duties to seek out and attend to other possible victims and witnesses, the commission found.

One of the recommendations was that RCMP should amend its policy to identify which non-commissioned officer should attend a scene during a critical incident, while other supervisors should refrain from giving orders.

The commission also found unacceptable delays in assigning a critical-incident commander. Overall, the RCMP response was hindered by systemwide poor communication and failures of co-ordination. Instead of co-ordinating a strategic response, police prioritized a reactive pursuit of the gunman, which overlooked how to protect others, and at times caused additional harm.

The findings highlighted a crucial detail about police preparedness: Contrary to national RCMP policy, the Bible Hill RCMP had no emergency operational plan, and Nova Scotia RCMP had no violent-crime-in-progress emergency operational plan at the time of the deadly rampage.

The commission recommends that Canadian police agencies implement five principles of effective critical-incident response, including preparing for them before they happen, providing information to the public to help people protect themselves during a critical incident, and evaluating every critical incident to learn lessons. In addition, the RCMP should ensure operational plans are current and that they be used.

Another finding was that most supervisors responding to Portapique had not taken mandatory online training in critical-incident response.

The commission recommends that RCMP launch an external expert review of its initial critical-incident-response training for front-line supervisors within the next six months and publish it on the RCMP website.

There were several recommendations around the capturing of information during 911 calls, including improved access to recordings, more training and reviewing logging software.

In the aftermath of the rampage, there was a dearth of accurate and timely information from RCMP, compounding the trauma and grief of victims’ families and Nova Scotians.

The commission found that RCMP wrongly prioritized institutional and investigational demands over the needs of survivors and family members, and over public demands for information.

In the future, RMCP must revise the force’s national communication policies to state the main objective, which is to provide accurate information about police operations and respond to media in a timely and complete manner, with minimal withholding, recommended the commission.

Lindsay Jones

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A broken heart honouring the Nova Scotia victims hangs on a utility pole in Bass River, N.S., in 2020. The killings sparked criticism of how law enforcement delivers emergency warnings electronically.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

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A test of the Alert Ready system in 2018. Alerts are sent via The Weather Network, but its license is due to expire in August of 2023.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Nationalize the Alert Ready system

Canada is unusual among high-income countries in that its public alerting system, known as Alert Ready, is overseen by a private company, Pelmorex Corp., the owner of the Weather Network.

Michael Hallowes, an architect of Australia’s national alert system who later worked in Britain on this issue, said this arrangement was abnormal, as was the fact the system was designed by Canada’s radio and television regulator. Normally, he told the commission, a government agency that oversees emergency preparedness and response takes the lead on this file and is accountable for the system.

The commission appears to have taken his testimony and that of other experts to heart: It is recommending Ottawa and the provinces and territories begin a joint review of Alert Ready that will, at minimum, nationalize the system. It also wants to see Public Safety Canada create federal standards for when the public needs to be warned it is facing an emergency that threatens life, livelihoods, health and property.

And, the commission said, this overhaul must be completed soon: the Weather Network, which is controlled by Mississauga businessperson Pierre Morrissette through Pelmorex, is set to have its licence to operate the system expire by Aug. 31.

Those were the core recommendations on how to improve the use of Alert Ready, which the commission found top Mounties in the province repeatedly refused to adopt over the previous years, saying this reticence “reflects the RCMP’s broader lack of attention to preparing for critical incidents, and particularly to the role of public communications during such incidents.”

Near the tail end of the murder rampage, a civilian emergency official called a top Mountie to say the province could send a public alert if needed. A staff sergeant approved that proposal, but the perpetrator was killed minutes later so Alert Ready was never used.

A public survey from the commission drew hundreds of responses, some expressing utter shock that the system was not used, and anger that – if it was – lives could have been saved.

Consultants hired by the commission noted that the April, 2020, shootings already appear to have been a significant catalyst for positive changes on this front, such as numerous police agencies across the East Coast signing onto the service as well as British Columbia pledging to expand its use over and above tsunami alerts. Plus, in the two years since the event, the RCMP have used the system at least 11 times in Nova Scotia and 23 times across the rest of the country.

– Mike Hager

Public safety and police: More from The Globe and Mail

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Reporter Lindsay Jones explains the commission’s report on the Nova Scotia shootings and its recommendations for police. Subscribe for more episodes.

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Many women who suffer from intimate partner violence don’t trust the police. Why are they the default response?

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