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Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, says the average Canadian today 'has the benefit of hindsight.'Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Brian Sauvé, the head of the RCMP’s national union, says criticism of police actions connected to the Nova Scotia mass shooting that left 22 people dead in April 2020 have been unfair, and that the force’s handling of the initial attack was an “almost textbook response.”

Mr. Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, was pushing back against those who say RCMP mistakes may have contributed to the shooting, during which a killer went on a 13-hour rampage while dressed as a Mountie and driving a look-alike RCMP vehicle.

“The average Canadian today has the benefit of hindsight. If we look at all the information available to us, we are going to armchair quarterback,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

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Last month, the union was criticized for arguing, in a motion at an ongoing inquiry into the killings, that forcing RCMP officers to testify publicly at the inquiry would be too retraumatizing for them. Mr. Sauvé said he understood why families of victims opposed the motion, but he argued that the union has been co-operative with the inquiry process and that its position on the testimony had been mischaracterized.

The inquiry, known as the Mass Casualty Commission, rejected the union’s motion, and three RCMP officers testified and were cross-examined last week. The commission began public hearings on Feb. 22.

“There’s no pound of flesh to be had here,” Mr. Sauvé said. “The perpetrator was killed. There’s no trial, there’s nobody going to jail. So it’s totally understandable that Nova Scotians and Canadians want some closure. And part of that closure is the ability to ask in public hard questions of those who responded that night.”

Mr. Sauvé said the Mounties who responded to the shootings dealt with “a career’s worth” of traumatic events in the span of two days. Anyone who doesn’t understand the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on police likely won’t ever be convinced, he added.

“If a reasonable Canadian looks at this and says ‘well, that’s what they signed up for,’ then they’re not paying attention,” he said. “The evidence is abundantly clear that public safety personnel are overwhelmingly overrepresented in mental health injuries.”

But there remains a lot of anger in Nova Scotia over how the RCMP handled the shooting response. The three RCMP officers who testified in the public inquiry last week, all of whom were first on the scene in Portapique, N.S., told the commission they were frustrated by a lack of clarity around who was in charge the night the attack began, and that they didn’t know what the plan was to find the gunman or his victims.

The three were the only officers inside the community for several hours. The gunman, Gabriel Wortman, murdered 13 people in Portapique while RCMP reinforcements set up a perimeter on a nearby highway that failed to stop him from slipping away and continuing to kill.

The inquiry revealed that the Mounties assumed the killer had died by suicide in Portapique, and as a result felt there was no need to alert the public immediately. The police didn’t learn until the next day that he had escaped. He would kill nine more people before being shot dead himself by an RCMP officer.

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The family of shooting victim Heather O’Brien has accused RCMP officers of lying about the details of Ms. O’Brien’s final moments. They produced data from a FitBit watch she was wearing that suggested her heart continued beating for hours after police decided she was beyond saving and called off an air ambulance.

Nick Beaton, whose pregnant wife, Kristen Beaton, was killed by the gunman, has questioned why the RCMP didn’t tell him for eight hours that his wife was dead. In social media posts, he has said he is angry at the Mounties for failing to properly warn the public that the gunman was on the loose and driving a look-alike RCMP vehicle, and said his wife would be alive today if she had known.

In a lawsuit they filed against the RCMP, victims’ families say the force failed to issue a provincewide emergency alert during the rampage. They also accuse police of not acting on credible information about the gunman’s replica police vehicle, or past allegations that he had illegal weapons and had been violent toward women. The lawsuit says the RCMP should have called in local police, who knew the area and could have responded. The force relied instead on reinforcements from farther away in the province and New Brunswick.

While individual officers may have done the best they could, there were clearly failings in the way the RCMP as a whole responded to the mass shooting, said Wayne MacKay, a professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University.

“I think a lot of people in Nova Scotia have many legitimate questions about how the RCMP handled this,” Dr. MacKay said. “I think they’ve been badly hurt by this. I think the lustre of the RCMP and their image has taken a hit here, because they’re not really delivering on that promise of going above and beyond all other police forces. There were system failures up and down the line.”

While police actions during and prior to the mass shooting are a focus of the public inquiry, there has been no discipline to date for any RCMP members who played roles in the response to the rampage. That includes two officers who shot up a firehall in Onslow, N.S., that was being used as a shelter for residents during the hunt for the gunman.

Last month, the two Mounties were cleared of potential criminal charges by Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team, which argued the officers, who shot at a civilian outside the hall, had reasonable grounds to believe the man may have been the killer. The Onslow fire chief has complained that no one from the force has apologized for traumatizing the people who were cowering inside the firehall that morning.

Mr. Sauvé insisted the RCMP’s rank and file remain widely supported by the communities they serve in Nova Scotia. He suggested people angry at the police force should focus on other areas of the justice system and government policy.

Those other areas, he said, include mental health programs, the Canadian firearms registry, American law enforcement officials, provincial domestic violence policy and agencies trying to prevent weapons from being smuggled across the U.S. border. Some of those topics will be addressed at later stages in the public inquiry.

“We need to focus on root causes. We can talk about the police response, but what got the perpetrator to where they’re at?” Mr. Sauvé said. “We shouldn’t be talking about 13 hours, because we need to be talking about the five years before, and how someone in Canadian society got to a point where they made the decision to go on an active shooting spree.”

Dr. MacKay agreed that root causes need to be examined, as well as questions about whether RCMP officers in large rural counties like Colchester County, where the attack began, are adequately resourced.

But the national force also needs to answer some difficult questions about how the killer managed to elude them for so long, and continue killing, while the public was in the dark, he said.

“This screams out for a clear explanation as to how this happened.”

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