The phone kept ringing. Over and over again Harry Bond tried to reach his parents at their home in Portapique, N.S., on Sunday, April 19.
Bond was worried about whether his parents were still alive.
At the time, news was spreading about a gunman’s murderous 13-hour rampage that began down the street from where his parents lived.
“You know it started in Mom and Dad’s backyard and you can’t get hold of them,” Bond said. “The phone is ringing and nobody is answering.”
Peter and Joy Bond were among the first of 22 people killed in the shooting spree.
But Bond said he only found out that his parents had died on April 20, nearly two days after they were shot. He and his brother got this news after driving to a police roadblock in Portapique and demanding answers.
His experience mirrors what happened to other relatives of the victims. In a proposed class action lawsuit, they allege the RCMP misled Canadians about what really happened.
Some victims’ families have said they were told by the RCMP to watch the news for updates about the investigation, rather than receiving this information directly. They also said police released statements to the public that falsely claimed families were notified of the details before they were sent out.
“We’re not being told anything,” Bond said. “When we find something out, it’s through the media.”
Victims rights advocates and criminologists who spoke with Global News say it’s critical that victims of crime receive information directly from police and not second-hand through the media or via police press conferences.
But there are no rules that require police to disclose this type of information with families — not even victims rights legislation adopted by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government in 2015, they say.
“That’s just not acceptable,” said Tammy Landau, a criminology professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University.
“(Police) should have a real firmly established protocol of how to communicate with victims ahead of any announcement or any press release.”
The concerns are the latest criticism aimed at the RCMP over its response to the shootings, including questions about why it failed to issue an emergency alert to warn the public about the danger they faced.
The provincial government agreed in late July to hold a public inquiry into the shooting in response to intense public pressure.
RCMP committed to the truth
The RCMP said it is committed to discovering the truth about the shootings and sharing this information with victims, families, media and the public. The force also said it assigned a family liaison officer to the case immediately after the shootings to update victims’ families and provide support as needed.
But the RCMP acknowledged that early in the investigation, information was shared with the media before it was shared with victims’ families.
“Families did raise the issue that they wanted to be notified ahead of time when material was being released to the media and since then, we have done that,” said RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke in a written statement.
The RCMP also said it finished informing families about deceased relatives on April 20, the day after the shootings. The reason for the delay, the force said, was to ensure victims were properly identified before notifying families.
“Given the nature of the incidents that were occurring, including many victims and scenes, Next of Kin notifications happened as soon as possible,” said RCMP Cpl. Lisa Croteau.
But brothers Justin and Riley Zahl said they still didn’t know days after the shootings whether their parents John Zahl and Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, whose Portapique home was set on fire by the gunman, were among the victims.
The RCMP also released a statement on April 22 that said it had not yet confirmed the identities of all the victims.
“Our members are working with the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service to identify victims and connect with their families as quickly as possible. I can assure you that as soon as we identify victims, we are notifying their next of kin,” the RCMP said.
‘You don’t know what to believe’
Bond disputes the claim that the RCMP shares every detail of the investigation with families before releasing information to the media.
“It’s hurtful,” Bond said. “You don’t know what to believe.”
“You wonder what the hell it is they’re hiding.”
On April 24, RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell said during a press conference that a witness saw the gunman pull over and shoot a victim while driving a mock police vehicle. The gunman then continued down the same road where he shot and killed another person in their vehicle, Campbell said.
Campbell told a different version of these events at a press conference six weeks later.
“I can confirm through the investigation and witness accounts that the gunman did not use the RCMP replica vehicle to pull over any of the victims who were in their vehicles at the time,” he said at a June 4 press conference.
Campbell explained that this latest description was based on eyewitness accounts that contradicted what he said earlier and that investigators had since changed their interpretation of what happened.
“The reality is that people give us information and that information is interpreted,” Campbell said. “Since that time, it’s been confirmed through the investigative team that the eyewitnesses at the scene do not describe that the gunman was pulling over any vehicles.”
The victims’ families allege in their proposed class action lawsuit that the RCMP “deliberately misled” the public when Campbell said no one was pulled over by the gunman while he was driving a replica police cruiser with fake RCMP decals and an authentic lightbar mounted on top. Police have described the vehicle as a “very real look-alike.”
The RCMP has not yet responded to the lawsuit as the case still needs to be certified by a judge. Certification of class action lawsuits is not automatic and can be opposed by the government.
Tony Merchant, lead lawyer in a proposed class action lawsuit against the RCMP by families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, said the type of case launched in Nova Scotia — one that doesn’t include RCMP employees as plaintiffs — has never been certified by a court. But this type of case is new, he said, and the process can take years.
Meanwhile, Christian Leuprecht, a policing and security expert at Royal Military College in Kingston, said it’s not unusual for police to change their version of events, especially during complex investigations.
Details collected early in an investigation are often viewed differently once more information is available, he said. Officers with major crimes experience will also view evidence differently. This could change how the police understand certain details, including witness statements.
Leuprecht also said eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable and that their accounts routinely do not align with other evidence.
“It’s complex and I wouldn’t necessarily chalk it up to malicious intent,” he said.
Still, he said, the RCMP opened itself up to criticism over the way it reacted when the gunman, Gabriel Wortman, was still on the loose, including its use of Twitter rather than the province’s emergency alert system to warn local residents.
“Some of it is also just pure incompetence,” Leurprecht said.
A ‘right’ to information
Nick Beaton, whose pregnant wife Kristen was killed by the gunman, said in late July at a rally for victims’ families that he also felt he was being left in the dark.
“We find out from you guys, the media,” he said. “Not one family member has been told something before we’ve seen it on the news.”
Darcy Dobson, whose mother Heather O’Brien was killed by the gunman, expressed similar concerns at the rally.
“We have no more details than anybody else,” she said. “That’s frustrating because these are our loved ones and we deserve to have those details before the rest of the world.”
In 2015, the government passed the victims bill of rights, which includes a right to information about the “status and outcome” of an investigation into a criminal offence. Victims are also entitled to information about their role within the criminal justice system, including any legal proceedings.
But Landau, the criminology professor, said these rights are “more symbolic than anything,” and that the bill should be thought of as a “statement of principles” rather than a guarantee to protection.
“Unfortunately, victims’ interests are very poorly represented by the state and they are marginalized and mistreated by all criminal justice organizations,” she said.
Landau also said there are no consequences for when police and other government agencies violate a victim’s rights.
The federal ombudsman for victims of crime, Heidi Illingworth, made similar remarks in a January 2019 interview with the Canadian Press when she said that the bill of rights doesn’t go far enough and that victims need “legally enforceable” rights.
“If we’ve given rights in legislation, there has to be a remedy to that right, otherwise it’s not an actual right,” she said.
Still, there’s nothing stopping police from developing clear and enforceable policies that treat victims respectfully, Landau said.
“(Police) choose not to because they perceive it as possibly interfering with their own agenda and their own ability to carry out their jobs,” she said.
Global News asked the offices of Justice Minister David Lametti and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair whether they support penalties for police agencies that violate a victim’s rights. Neither answered this question directly.
Responding in a written statement, spokespersons for the two ministers said the government provides financial assistance to the provinces, territories and non-governmental organizations to create and support victims services.
They also said the ombudsman can investigate complaints about alleged breaches of victims’ rights.
“We have made significant advances towards creating a criminal justice system where victims, survivors and their families are treated with courtesy, compassion and respect and are better able to access the justice they rightfully deserve,” said Lametti’s spokesperson Rachel Rappaport.
Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus did not respond directly to a question about whether he supports creating penalties for when victims’ rights are violated.
However, in a written statement, he said Conservatives will continue pushing to improve legislation that advances the rights of victims, including working with the federal ombudsman.
He also challenged the government’s commitment to finding out the truth about the Nova Scotia shooting, saying calls from victims’ families for a public inquiry were “shamefully ignored” by the governments of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.
The decision to launch a full-scale public inquiry was only made after significant backlash from victims’ families, legal experts, senators and politicians, including several Liberal MPs.
Victims often left ‘in the dark’
One factor the RCMP was likely considering when deciding what information to release to families and the public was the spectre of a full-scale public inquiry, Landau said.
Although the RCMP initially held a series of press conferences in the days and weeks following the shootings, it’s been nearly three months since they last faced questions in a public setting.
Police have also said disclosing certain details could jeopardize their ongoing investigation, including the possibility of tipping off anyone who might have assisted the gunman.
Aline Vlasceanu, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, said it’s understandable the RCMP might not be able to release every detail about an ongoing investigation. But she believes police have a “moral obligation” to keep victims informed.
One of the most frustrating things for victims, she said, is balancing the desire to know everything about an investigation with the reality that police work often moves slowly and sometimes secretly.
She also said the amount of information shared with victims depends largely on the investigators assigned to a case. Sometimes victims receive a lot of details, other times they get very little.
“It’s not the first time I’ve heard that victims are being kept in the dark,” she said.