It’s a process Nova Scotia’s attorney general admits no one “outright asked for.” And yet it’s exactly what everyone will get.
During a press conference held Thursday, the federal government and Nova Scotia announced a joint “independent review” into the mass shooting in April that left 22 people dead and many more people grieving.
The announcement, made by federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Nova Scotia Attorney General Mark Furey, falls short of the full-scale public inquiry victim family members, academics, advocates and politicians have been calling for.
“I’m disappointed that it’s not a public inquiry,” said Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law.
“That’s what many people, including the families, have been calling for.”
The independent review panel will have no power to compel witnesses or testimony, no power to subpoena evidence, no power to challenge any agency or organization that refuses to provide information, and no power to make binding recommendations to the government.
Instead, the panel will make recommendations on “preventing and managing” similar mass killing events “wherever they may occur.” An interim and a final report will be presented to Blair and Furey, who will release those reports to the public. Documents and information collected by the panel will be kept confidential, and it will be up to the panel whether any testimony will be held in public.
Despite calls for an inquiry, Blair and Furey insist the review is the best path forward for providing timely answers to the many questions about why the shooting took place and what might be done to prevent similar events in the future.
Review vs. inquiry
There are several key differences between a full-fledged public inquiry and an independent review, MacKay said.
Top among these is the ability of a public inquiry to require witnesses to provide information under threat of legal consequence if they do not, he said.
As the name suggests, public inquiries are also very open processes, MacKay said, where testimony is offered during hearings accessible to the media and the public. The information gathered — excluding that which must be kept confidential due to concerns about privacy or sensitivity — is largely known and available to the public before any final recommendations or reports are prepared.
MacKay said this process is designed to ensure independence, transparency and impartiality — features Blair and Furey acknowledge victims’ family members said were priorities when expressing their desire for a public inquiry.
“One of the key distinctions, as the Public Inquiry Act states, is a large commitment to making just about everything that’s possible public,” MacKay said.
Despite his concerns about the nature of the review — and the perceived lack of independence, transparency and accountability — MacKay said he has “great confidence” in the review panel members chosen by the government.
He also said his concerns about the lack of legal authority are softened somewhat by the scope of the review, which specifically says it will look at any underlying causes that may have contributed to the shooting and the police response to it.
Review is the best option
In their joint press conference, both Blair and Furey acknowledged the calls from victims’ family members for a public inquiry.
Furey acknowledged that none of the victims’ families or anyone else involved in the decision-making process asked for a review. Blair, meanwhile, said he understood why people might want an inquiry and may feel disappointed with the announcement of a review.
Still, both said they believe the independent review under its specific mandate is the best and fastest means of finding answers and making recommendations to governments on how to change things and possibly prevent or better manage similar events in the future.
Furey and Blair also said that the panel may make recommendations before releasing its final report in August 2021 and that governments may choose to act on those suggestions before the review process is concluded.
The pair added that they have directed all government agencies under their authority, including municipal and federal police forces, to cooperate with the review process fully.
When pressed by Global News to explain past remarks in which he said any review must have the power to compel witnesses to testify and must be able to make binding recommendations to the government, Furey insisted the review is the best option available.
“The panel will do what I believe to be exhaustive, competent and thorough work, and we look forward to the recommendations,” Furey said.
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Furey also added that regardless of whether the process is a full-scale inquiry or a review as currently structured, recommendations would not be binding on the government. He and Blair did, however, say the governments are committed to implementing whatever suggestions might come from the panel.
Families disappointed by review
Many of the victims’ families and community members in rural parts of Nova Scotia where the shooting took place have been calling for a public inquiry.
A lot of the concerns surrounded how the RCMP responded to the shooting.
Concerns have also been raised about what the RCMP may have known about the gunman prior to the shooting — including past reports of domestic assault, stashing of illegal weapons and threats of violence.
Despite knowing the gunman was likely wearing a police uniform and driving a replica police vehicle, which included look-alike RCMP decals and a lightbar, the force waited hours before notifying the public of these details.
And when they did send out messages, they used Twitter and not the province’s emergency alert system, which experts have told Global News was designed precisely for the type of situation police were responding to in April.
“The ‘Independent Review’ announced by Ministers Furey and Blair is wholly insufficient to meet the objectives of providing full and transparent answers to the families and the public, identifying deficiencies in responses, and providing meaningful lessons to be learned to avoid similar future tragedies,” wrote Robert Pineo and Sandra McCulloch, two Halifax lawyers representing some of the victims’ family members in a proposed class-action lawsuit against the RCMP.
While the pair give credit to the government for choosing former Nova Scotia Chief Justice Michael MacDonald to chair the review, they say the inability of the panel to compel witnesses to testify and to properly cross-examine evidence will diminish its ability to find the answers victims’ families and others deserve.
They also say the government has heard from families and “must know” they want to participate fully in a public inquiry.
“Without proper and thorough questioning, the panel will be left with incomplete and untested evidence upon which to base its decision,” Pineo and McCulloch wrote.
“This is completely contrary to our Canadian notions of fair and transparent justice.”
In a written statement released Thursday, Nova Scotia RCMP said they welcome the joint review and intend to cooperate fully with the panel. The RCMP also said they will work closely with the ministry of public safety and Nova Scotia department of justice to make sure the review has all available information that’s required.
-With files from Alicia Draus.