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Dalhousie law professors ask premier to launch public inquiry into mass shooting

Police remain tight-lipped on details about the N.S. shooter
After nearly a month since the mass shooting, Nova Scotia police are still not sharing details about the investigation. Some are saying the RCMP needs to be more transparent.

More than 30 faculty members at Dalhousie University’s law school have signed a letter urging Nova Scotia’s premier to call an independent public inquiry into the shooting rampage that took 22 lives last month.

On Thursday, Premier Stephen McNeil said a review of the tragedy should be led by Ottawa, with the province providing support and assistance.

However, 33 of the roughly 40 faculty members of the Halifax university’s Schulich School of Law signed a letter on Friday urging McNeil to initiate a public inquiry with broad terms of reference.

They say in the letter the inquiry’s terms must allow for a critical review of the procedures and decisions employed by police during the April 18 and 19 shootings, and in the months and years leading up to the tragedy.

READ MORE: Premier’s stance on Nova Scotia’s ‘support’ role in shooting inquiry puzzles experts

They also want the inquiry to consider broader social and legal issues that may have been contributing factors, including domestic violence.

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“An internal investigation will not suffice. Independence, impartiality and transparency are essential components of maintaining public confidence in the administration of justice. Only a public inquiry can satisfy these requirements,” they say in the letter.

New photos provide look at Nova Scotia gunman’s home
New photos provide look at Nova Scotia gunman’s home

The premier again said Friday he believes Ottawa should lead the inquiry into the shooting because the RCMP is a federal police force with national protocols.

“We can only call an inquiry that constitutionally fall under the responsibility of the province of Nova Scotia. While we have the responsibility for policing, it’s clear the RCMP fall under the Constitution with the federal government, as well as the firearms fall under the Constitution with the federal government,” McNeil said.

“With all respect to the law professors, we believe the federal government … should be the one who would call for whatever they determine for a review.”

However, the professors’ letter says Nova Scotia is responsible for law enforcement and the administration of justice in the province.

“The process that your government sets in motion now must be robust enough to assure Nova Scotians that you are doing all that is in your power to ensure that this will never happen again,” the letter says.

Christine Heart stops to pay her respects at roadside memorial for Lillian Hyslop in Wentworth, N.S. on Friday, April 24, 2020. 22 people are dead after a man went on a murderous rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities.
Christine Heart stops to pay her respects at roadside memorial for Lillian Hyslop in Wentworth, N.S. on Friday, April 24, 2020. 22 people are dead after a man went on a murderous rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Hennessey

Family members and legal experts have repeatedly called for more information on the police handling of the rampage, which lasted more than 12 hours.

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The perpetrator’s prior history of domestic violence has also been raised as a key issue to examine.

READ MORE: A detailed timeline of how the Nova Scotia shooting rampage unfolded

The Mounties provided a timeline of the rampage indicating that it began in Portapique, N.S., on April 18 after a domestic assault incident where Gabriel Wortman detained and abused his common law wife.

Police have said she managed to escape into nearby woods where she hid until early in the morning of April 19.

Earlier this week, a former neighbour of Wortman said she reported an account of a 2013 incident of domestic violence by Wortman to the RCMP in Truro.

Brenda Forbes said she reported witnesses telling her that Wortman had strangled and beaten his common law partner, and she said she told police there were guns in the house.

The RCMP said in an email Friday they can’t find a record of the complaint at this point.

READ MORE: Neighbour reported mass shooter’s domestic violence, weapons to police

The legal scholars say the public inquiry could establish what prior abuse occurred and explore the role it played in Wortman’s evolution into a mass killer.

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Amanda Dale, a feminist legal scholar based in Chelsea, Que., said in an email that “the behaviour of the perpetrator in the Nova Scotia mass shooting was classic behaviour for a misogynist.”

She said an inquiry could subpoena documents and bring witnesses forward to “compel a truth-seeking exercise,” where witnesses wouldn’t face repercussions for giving their testimony.

Dale, a member of the advisory committee of the Canadian Centre for Legal Innovation in Sexual Assault Response, said an inquiry could also assemble expert testimony on the links between domestic assault and acts of mass shooting that have occurred in Canada.

She said areas to consider in the Nova Scotia mass shooting include an examination of the adequacy of existing gun control laws and the so-called “red flag” laws that allow people to report imminent risk of gun violence.

Questions remain weeks after mass shooting
Questions remain weeks after mass shooting

There are also unanswered questions about how Wortman managed to obtain replica police vehicles and decorate them with RCMP decals and how he obtained four semi-automatic weapons.

In addition, the Mounties have faced questions about why they relied on social media to advise the public of an active shooter when they could have sent an emergency notification to every phone in the province. Some relatives who lost loved ones have called for the issue to be examined as part of a public inquiry.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2020.