It was just after 8 p.m. on April 18 when Jenny Kierstead received a text message from her sister Lisa McCully: a photo of a glass of red wine held up to a grey sky along the quiet shores of Cobequid Bay.
“She loved that beach, she loved the ocean, she loved nature and she loved life,” Kierstead told Global News. “I wake up in the middle of the night just devastated by this new reality.”
It was the last time she would hear from her sister.
McCully was among 13 people killed that Saturday evening in Portapique, N.S., a close-knit community of about 100 people, roughly 130 kilometres northwest of Halifax.
The gunman dressed in an authentic police uniform and driving a replica RCMP cruiser, would ultimately kill 22 people during a 13-hour rampage across rural Nova Scotia, leaving behind charred houses, burnt vehicles and irrevocably shattered lives.
“This is something we never thought our family would be a part of,” said Kierstead, who lives in Halifax. “I never thought that my life narrative would include being a victim of gun violence.”
Close family members are now left searching for answers about why this tragedy, among the deadliest mass killings in modern Canadian history, could have happened.
“It feels like a stab wound. It’s so raw,” Kierstead said.
“There is such a heaviness. Last night I just curled up in bed and just wailed from my deepest depths.”
Kierstead said McCully only knew the gunman as an “acquaintance” but said there were some relationships in the community that “were under stress.” She didn’t provide further details.
“There was some community conflict and I don’t know the details of it, but I don’t think that really justifies any of this,” she said.
The RCMP has remained tight-lipped about any motive for the killings but has said the gunman had a long history of disputes with associates, business partners and even family members stretching back years.
RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell said investigators were examining the shooter’s long history of disputes to determine whether they played any role in the killings.
“There was certainly a fairly sizeable amount of information that there were individuals who had had a number of disputes with the gunman over a certain period of time,” Campbell told reporters earlier this week.
“And it appears to be a lengthy period of time. That included everything from associates to business partners to family members.”
McCully, 49, was a mother of two children, a teacher at Debert Elementary School, a musician and a natural leader, according to her younger sister. The family had a memorial for McCully last weekend, while friends and co-workers watched via webcast due to physical-distancing measures sparked by the new coronavirus.
“She had work that she loved as a teacher. And she had two children that she adored and she really savoured every moment,” Kierstead said.
Photos of McCully skiing, biking and singing in videos to cheer up her students fill up her Facebook page. In one video she gently strums a ukulele while singing with her children Tonight, You Belong to Me as a “goodnight song to our friends and family.”
Kierstead said she was hoping to thank the 911 dispatcher who stayed on the line with the two children as they huddled in the basement as gunfire and flames raged outside.
“That dispatcher was the kids’ lifeline for two long hours,” she said. “Our whole family has deep gratitude for every first responder who was on the scene that night.”
And it was not just McCully who left behind kids. RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, who was among the victims of the shooting, was a mother of two, one in Grade 6 and the other in Grade 8. Truro residents Greg and Jamie Blair left behind four children: Tyler, 27, Craig, 24, Alex, 11, and Jack, 10.
“They’re struggling, as all of the children are, who are affected by this tragedy. They’ll never be the same,” Kierstead said. “This incident really just showcases our mental health crises. There are people who are in dire need of help.
“We as a community, as a society, need to take more care and take care of everyone.”
The victims also include small business owners, health-care workers, corrections officers and a retired navy vet. Emily Tuck, 17, and her parents, Jolene Oliver and Aaron Tuck, were killed in their home in Portapique.
Kierstead said she has forgiven the gunman who she said “wasn’t in his right mind” and is overwhelmed by the support the family has received from the community.
“I always thought my sister had celebrity status. She was just so vibrant and charismatic,” Kierstead said. “I’m sad that she’s not alive to see it.”