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After backlash, governments agree to hold public inquiry into Nova Scotia shooting

Feds order public inquiry into Nova Scotia massacre
WATCH: The federal government is now proceeding with a public inquiry into the Nova Scotia massacre that left 22 innocent people dead in April. Elizabeth McSheffrey looks at why Ottawa is changing paths now, and what the inquiry has the power to do.

The decision to hold a review into the mass killing in April that resulted in the deaths of 22 people in Nova Scotia took three months to arrange. In less than a week the decision has been undone after a massive wave of public backlash.

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced on Tuesday a public inquiry will be held into the mass shooting that began in Portapique, N.S. on April 18 and came to an end nearly 100 km away, 13 hours later.

“The Government of Canada is now proceeding with a full Public Inquiry, under the authority of the Inquiries Act,” said Blair in a statement.

Read more: Protests in two Nova Scotia locations over failure to call inquiry into mass shooting

Activists, legal experts, opposition parties and family members have all expressed concern that a review panel would, unlike a public inquiry, not have the power to subpoena documents or to compel testimony.

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Public inquiry to be called into April’s mass shooting
Public inquiry to be called into April’s mass shooting

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, was one of those critics.

“I’m happy both levels of government have now recognized that a full public inquiry is what’s needed to do justice to finding out what happened and to prevent this in the future,” MacKay said after the announcement.

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

In Blair’s statement, he said that the inquiry will be equipped with the ability to summon witnesses or require them to provide evidence as well as the power to subpoena documents.

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Former Nova Scotia chief justice Michael MacDonald, former Fredericton police Chief Leanne Fitch and former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan, all of whom were supposed to function as the review panel, have agreed to serve as commissioners in the inquiry, Bill Blair said.

MacKay told Global News that he’s happy that the government appears to have recognized the many shortcomings of the “flawed review process” it first put in place, including its inability to compel witnesses or evidence and a lack of transparency due to strict confidentiality rules.

Halifax feminist advocates call for public inquiry into mass shooting
Halifax feminist advocates call for public inquiry into mass shooting

Nova Scotia’s justice minister had said on Tuesday that he’d support a public inquiry but only if the federal government agrees to a joint inquiry.

Mark Furey said that the provincial government would support a public inquiry as long as the federal government agreed that the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency, Criminal Intelligence Services Canada, Canadian Firearms Registry and the Public Alert Ready System, would participate and offer testimony.

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Activists say N.S. shooting review might not go far enough to consider feminist lens
Activists say N.S. shooting review might not go far enough to consider feminist lens

Furey welcomed the federal government’s announcement late on Tuesday, saying that it was critical that people had confidence in the process.

Terms of reference for the inquiry were not available and the scope of the investigation was not immediately clear on Tuesday but MacKay said the announcement of a public inquiry means the process going forward will be done in the open.

He said the decision will afford victims’ family members and the community the opportunity to participate fully and to find answers to the most pressing questions.

Read more: Public rally calls on government to reverse its decision on Nova Scotia shooting review

“Not only is the right thing to do and the effective thing to do, but it responds to the legitimate concerns and other affected victims,” said MacKay.

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Harry Bond, who lost his parents Peter and Joy during the mass killings in April, said that the announcement of an inquiry meant that the families of victims were finally being listened to after protests and rallies.

“This should’ve been right from the get-go. We never should have had to fight for it,” he told Sarah Ritchie, anchor of Global News at 6 Halifax, on Tuesday.

Robert Pineo and Sandra McCulloch, two Halifax lawyers representing some of the victims’ family members in a proposed class-action lawsuit against the RCMP, also welcomed the news of an inquiry.

“The public inquiry will ensure that the people who need to speak will speak, that the documents that need to be seen will be seen, and that a full and complete understanding about what happened, and how it can be avoided in the future, will be achieved,” the pair said in a statement on behalf of the families they represent.

Dartmouth-Cole Harbour MP Darren Fisher at his office on Nov. 29, 2019.
Dartmouth-Cole Harbour MP Darren Fisher at his office on Nov. 29, 2019. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

Nova Scotia MPs break ranks

Tuesday also saw multiple Nova Scotia Liberal MPs broke ranks with their colleagues and called for a public inquiry into the mass shooting.

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Darren Fisher, MP for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, Lenore Zann, MP for Cumberland-Colchester, Sean Fraser, MP for Central Nova, Mike Kelloway, MP for Cape Breton-Canso, and Andy Fillmore, MP for Halifax, all issued statements that they had heard the complaints from their constituents.

“I recognize that many Nova Scotians, including the victims’ families, are concerned about the authority and scope of this review, versus a public inquiry,” Fisher wrote in a statement.

“I believe the decision to move forwards with a joint-review was made with good intentions; however, the gravity of this tragedy demands a greater response.

Read more: The review ‘no one’ asked for: Calls for public inquiry into Nova Scotia shooting rejected

Zann told Global News on Tuesday that she had repeatedly requested a public inquiry from Blair’s office.

Zann, whose constituency is where much of the killings occurred, said the Nova Scotia Liberal caucus was not consulted by the government before the review was announced.

“I think it was remiss by both the Department of Public Safety and also the attorney general of Nova Scotia. I think they should have included us,” she said.

After the public inquiry was announced she called the result an example of “democracy in action.”

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“Government is listening and they heard the pleas of the people of Nova Scotia and in particular the families of the victims and they also heard myself and my colleagues who were asking them to do the right thing and have a public inquiry,” she said.

“I am really pleased that we are going in this direction.”

Bridgewater crowd calls for N.S. shooting public inquiry instead of review
Bridgewater crowd calls for N.S. shooting public inquiry instead of review

 

The five MPs who broke ranks with their colleagues on Tuesday were among the 10 Nova Scotia MPs who had signed a letter on the day that the review was announced welcoming the decision.

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, MP for South Shore-St. Margarets and the only cabinet minister from Nova Scotia declined to comment on the matter as a Nova Scotia MP and instead referred all requests to Blair’s office.

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In a statement, the Conservative Party of Canada welcomed the decision for a full inquiry.

“For months, the families of the victims have been calling for a public inquiry to get answers.  Those calls were shamefully ignored by the Trudeau and McNeil Liberals, who instead announced a public review last week,” the party announced in a statement signed by Chris d’Entremont, MP for West Nova.

“As many Nova Scotians have pointed out, the public review fell far short of what was expected and deserved.”

— With files from Global News’ Brian Hill, Jesse Thomas and Sarah Ritchie

Editor’s note: This piece was updated at 8:51 a.m. on July 29 to correct an error. MP Lenore Zann requested a public inquiry from Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office, not the Prime Minister’s Office. Global News regrets the error.