The public inquiry into the worst mass killing in Canadian history has been plagued by a putrid stink from its very start, when the federal government and the province of Nova Scotia tried to get away with avoiding one altogether.
After the families of the 22 victims who were killed during the rampage in April, 2020, spent weeks demanding a full inquiry, Nova Scotia Attorney-General Mark Furey and federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair (both of whom, notably, had long careers in law enforcement) announced they would launch a three-person closed-door “review panel” instead, which would lack subpoena power and the ability to cross-examine witnesses. Mr. Blair suggested that this impotent review, which no one actually asked for, would actually be the “best way” to uncover how the killer evaded law enforcement for 13 hours. The families, who were understandably livid, staged a public protest in response, which embarrassed the federal and provincial governments enough to get them to yield to an inquiry in the end.
The Mass Casualty Commission, as it would come to be known, was then supposed to start in October last year, but was delayed twice, until Feb. 28. The families, meanwhile, were complaining that they were being left out of the proceedings (even though the commission claimed that further consultation with families as one of the main reasons for the delays), and that their lawyers were not given access to a witness list to prepare for possible cross-examination. The daughter of one of the victims – a retired firefighter and navy veteran who’d bravely responded to a fire set by the gunman – had to pen an open letter to the commission, saying her family was “losing more faith by the day” in the process.
And when the hearings did eventually get under way, they came with even more curiosities and frustrations. Documents suddenly disappeared from the Mass Casualty Commission website without explanation, though some were later reposted. The relevance of a victim’s Fitbit, which showed her heart beating hours after an RCMP officer pronounced her dead, was initially disregarded by the Commission but was still being debated when it released its foundational documents. A leaked video, first posted by Frank Magazine, showed police encountering the killer at a gas station during the manhunt (though they appeared not to recognize him) shortly before he was shot dead at a second gas station – an encounter that was never mentioned by the RCMP, nor included in the summary report by Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team, though it was referenced in the Commission’s documents.
But perhaps the Commission’s cruellest decision thus far has been to allow three senior RCMP officers special accommodations while testifying, citing its so-called “trauma-informed approach.” RCMP Staff Sergeant Brian Rehill and Sergeant Andy O’Brien were interviewed by commission council only – without cross-examination – in pre-recorded video interviews; Staff Sergeant Al Carroll testified via Zoom, not in person. None of these officers were on the ground during the manhunt for the shooter, but instead were managing the response from the dispatch centre – or in the case of Sgt. O’Brien, directing officers from his home, since he’d had by his own admission four or five drinks of rum that night. (He insisted he was not impaired.)
Outraged by the commission’s decision to allow key decision-makers to avoid cross-examination – in effect, prioritizing officials over people seeking answers for their lost friends and relatives – families of the victims staged public protests for the second time since the 2020 massacre, and many have boycotted the proceedings. In a statement, a lawyer for some of the families said their clients “will not be associated with this restricted fact-finding process for such critical evidence.” Others pointed out that in courts of law (which, of course, this is not), accommodations are made for those experiencing trauma that still allow for cross-examination, including allowing witnesses to testify alongside a support person or behind a privacy screen.
If the foremost aim of this inquiry is indeed to piece together how and why a killer was permitted to terrorize an entire province for 13 hours, then it should operate from a position that puts disclosure and transparency first, that includes all information by default, and that thoroughly questions all involved individuals. But if, instead, the mission is to offer a perfunctory vehicle for comfortable questioning that tries to preserve the dignity of the RCMP during proceedings that the government never wanted in the first place – well, that mission is well on its way to completion.
But the effect of such a project will only be to further corrode the trust between a wounded community and a law enforcement agency apparently sworn to protect it – officers who know they are signing up for trauma when they take the job in the first place. This will only deepen the anguish of those who lost loved ones – an absolutely brutal outcome for people who have suffered so much already.
There was a stink around this commission from the get-go. Unfortunately, months later, it’s only getting worse.
Editor’s note: (June 9, 2022) This article has been updated to clarify information on documents disappearing and reappearing, as well as details about Fitbit documentation and the release of a gas-station video.
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