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Review of Nova Scotia shooting to examine cause, police response and victim engagement

Bill Blair, federal minister of public safety, and Mark Furey, attorney general and minister of justice for Nova Scotia, to announce review into Nova Scotia shooting.

The federal and provincial governments announced Thursday a “joint independent review” of the April mass shooting that left 22 people dead in Nova Scotia.

At a press conference, public safety minister Bill Blair and Nova Scotia justice minister Mark Furey said there will be a “broad” and “restorative” review of the 13-hour long shooting spree that stretched across the province.

The review will examine the “causes, context and circumstances” of the shooting that killed 22 people — including the death of an RCMP officer; the response from municipal police forces and the RCMP to the incident; and the steps taken to inform, support and engage with the victims, families and other affected citizens.

How the Nova Scotia mass shooting unfolded: 13 hours. 22 dead. 16 crime scenes.
How the Nova Scotia mass shooting unfolded: 13 hours. 22 dead. 16 crime scenes.

It will not be a full public inquiry, despite family members of victims calling for that process as late as Wednesday when nearly 300 relatives of victims and their supporters marched through Bible Hill, N.S., demanding a transparent and open inquiry.

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In a statement released on Tuesday by Robert Pineo, a lawyer working with victims’ families, said the review is not sufficient to get to the bottom of the tragedy or bring closure for his clients.

In an email, he called the review “wholly insufficient to meet the objectives of providing full and transparent answers to the families, identifying deficiencies in responses, and providing meaningful lessons to be learned to avoid similar future tragedies.”

Review of Nova Scotia shooting to examine cause, police response and victim engagement
Review of Nova Scotia shooting to examine cause, police response and victim engagement

Pineo said his clients had envisioned a public inquiry like the one that followed the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster, where interested parties had the opportunity to question witnesses.

“Without proper and thorough questioning, the panel will be left with incomplete and untested evidence upon which to base its decision,” he wrote.

Read more: Hundreds march to demand public inquiry into Nova Scotia shooting

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The review will be chaired by former Nova Scotia Chief Justice Michael MacDonald. He will be joined by former Saint John Police chief Leanne Fitch and former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan.

The panel will make recommendations on “preventing and managing” similar mass killing events “wherever they may occur” with a final report being presented to the Blair and Furey, who will then release the report to the public.

Nova Scotia shooting: Federal, provincial governments to launch joint independent review
Nova Scotia shooting: Federal, provincial governments to launch joint independent review

Furey said he expects the panel to take a “hard, broad and objective look” at what happened.

“We’ve heard the calls for answers and know that the survivors, families of the victims and the broader public want a process to get answers that is independent from government and will make recommendations in an impartial and transparent manner,” Furey said.

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“This review responds to those needs.”

Read more: ‘No confidential informants at issue’ in redacted RCMP documents related to N.S. shooting

Report to be completed in little more than a year

An interim report, which will be made public, will be provided by the panel by Feb 28, 2021, according to the terms of reference in the review.

The interim report will include the status of the review and any findings it has made to that date.

A final report that lays out the panel’s findings and recommendations will be delivered to the ministers by Aug. 31, 2021. It will then be made public.

The terms of reference say that the province’s justice minister and the minister of public safety will “ensure, within the scope of their respective authorities,” that the institutions and departments “participate fully in the review”

Victims of Nova Scotia mass shooting march to demand public inquiry
Victims of Nova Scotia mass shooting march to demand public inquiry

The minister will also be responsible for ensuring the panel is provided with all documents, interviews and inputs that it feels are necessary.

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If an institution or individual fails to cooperate with the review, the two ministers are supposed to be notified in writing. The panel can also notify the public about a lack of co-operation.

In effect, the panel will not have the power to compel testimony or evidence and cannot subpoena individuals or groups.

All documents and information collected by the panel will be kept confidential. It will be up to the panel whether any testimony will be held in public.

Read more: 37 Canadian senators sign letter for public inquiry into N.S. shooting

Addressing public concerns

The topics in the review’s terms of reference appear to be designed to address the issues raised by the public in the wake of the shooting.

As first reported by Global News, and subsequently verified by RCMP, the rampage began in Portapique, N.S., with the gunman assaulting his common-law partner, who would eventually escape and survive the overnight rampage by hiding in the woods until the morning of April 19.

Gabriel Wortman’s former neighbour, Brenda Forbes, has told Global News she notified RCMP that Wortman had viciously beaten his partner in 2013 — a complaint the Mounties have no record of today.

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In response, the review has been tasked with examining the “contributing and contextual factors” of the shooting, including the involvement of gender-based and intimate partner violence.

Another class-action lawsuit launched in relation to N.S. mass shooting
Another class-action lawsuit launched in relation to N.S. mass shooting

The review will also look at police policies, procedures and training for gender-based and intimate partner violence.

The gunman escaped a cordon set up around the Portapique, N.S., area by driving a mock-up of an RCMP vehicle and was wearing what appeared to be an authentic RCMP uniform.

The review will, as a result, examine police policies on the disposal of police vehicles and associated equipment, kit and clothing.

A fire-destroyed property registered to Gabriel Wortman at 200 Portapique Beach Road is seen in Portapique, N.S. on Friday, May 8, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
A fire-destroyed property registered to Gabriel Wortman at 200 Portapique Beach Road is seen in Portapique, N.S. on Friday, May 8, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan.

Questions have also been raised about what relationship, if any, the gunman had with police prior to the rampage.

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It’s a topic that will be examined by the panel as it looks at any interactions the gunman had with the RCMP, social services, including mental health services before the rampage began.

Read more: Security experts say emergency alert could have saved lives during N.S. shooting

Security experts have also raised concerns over the lack of communication from police during the shooting.

After alerting the public on Twitter at 11:32 p.m. AT, that they were responding to a firearms complaint in Portapique, N.S., there was no further alert or statement issued for eight hours.

Social media was used to provide information and the public alert system established under Nova Scotia’s Alert Ready Program was never used, despite the fact that police knew that the gunman was travelling in a mock-up police vehicle.

Police have said they were close to issuing an alert but held off once the gunman had been shot at a gas station roughly 100 kilometres away from where the rampage began.

Meet the woman who tried to stop N.S. killer’s abuse years ago
Meet the woman who tried to stop N.S. killer’s abuse years ago

The review will examine communications during and after the event, including “appropriate use” of the public alert system.

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Police were alerted as far back as 2011 that the gunman had an intention to kill a police officer and was in possession of a large stash of weapons.

Read more: Police had bulletin warning of Nova Scotia shooter’s intention to ‘kill a cop’ in 2011

However, RCMP weren’t able to share what, if anything, was done with the tip. The bulletin and any records associated it would have been purged from their systems approximately two years after it was received.

Since the gunman held property in Dartmouth as well as Portapique it appears the division of police forces may have caused some confusion among the agencies that were responsible for investigating the report.

As a result, the review will look at policies around the police response reports of the possession of prohibited firearms, including communications between law enforcement agencies

Nova Scotia shooting: Nova Scotia justice minister emphasizes independence of review
Nova Scotia shooting: Nova Scotia justice minister emphasizes independence of review

Additional topics that will be included in the review:

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  • The actions of police, including operational tactics, response, decision-making and supervision
  • Communications between and among the RCMP, municipal police forces, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Criminal Intelligence Service of Nova Scotia, The Canadian Firearms Program and the Alert Ready Program
  • Police policies, procedures and training for active shooter incidents
  • Policies with respect to the police response to reports of the possession of prohibited firearms, including communications between law enforcement agencies
  • Information and support provided to the families of victims, affected citizens, police personnel and the community
  • The status of implementation of recommendations from prior review and how to track and implement the recommendations

The costs of the review will be divided between the provincial and federal governments while the review “must not compromise any police investigation” about the shooting.

Read more: N.S. MP recipient of abusive calls, veiled threats after supporting gun ban, inquiry into shooting

In a statement on Thursday, the RCMP said it welcomed the joint review and that the force will co-operate fully.

“We owe it to the memory of those we lost to learn as much as we can from this terrible tragedy,”  said Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman of the RCMP.

With files from The Canadian Press