For South Colchester Academy principal Scott Armstrong, it’s difficult to walk through the hallways and classrooms at school without thinking of his former colleague, Lisa McCully.
The pair worked together for three years at Debert Elementary School, where the bubbly 49-year-old taught grades 3 and 4. Armstrong describes her as an “absolute treasure” — a mother, musician, volunteer and woman of faith.
“I think about it probably every day,” he said, “and I think anyone that’s worked with Lisa, whether it be through school or through her church connections — she was someone that’s unforgettable.”
Armstrong spoke with Global News in Brookfield, N.S., six months after a lone gunman went on a 13-hour rampage, killing McCully and 21 other innocent Nova Scotians, including RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson.
The rampage began in the small coastal community of Portapique, and ended when the gunman was shot by police at a gas station in Enfield.
It was a tragedy unlike any Nova Scotia had ever seen, capturing hearts and minds across Canada and the world at a time when no one was allowed to gather and grieve. Communities connected virtually to support each other and share art, musical memorials and more.
“The outpouring of support that we’ve had from across Canada is just unbelievable,” said Tom Taggart, a municipal councillor in the district where the attack began.
“Locally, back when the tragedy happened, I could have asked for the moon and people would have given it to me.”
Since the massacre took place, police documents unsealed in a court challenge by journalists have revealed disturbing allegations about the gunman, his paranoia, habits and alleged violence.
Despite the barrage of upsetting headlines, many who are close to the tragedy say the last six months have been marked not by darkness, but the resilience, love and compassion of their communities and beyond.
“I haven’t even started sending out thank yous to people,” said Jenny Kierstead, McCully’s younger sister.
“I’ve just allowed myself to receive their goodness and let it fill me and allow it to restore my faith in humanity.”
Speaking from her home in Halifax last month, Kierstead said sharing her compassion and love with survivors and other victims’ families has given her strength on her healing journey.
She described her sister as a “champion of everyone’s wellbeing” — a coach and source of support for anyone who needed her.
In the months to come, Kierstead said she’d like communities and governments to offer more support to those suffering from mental health challenges, and for individuals reach out for help when they need it.
“Moving forward, if I were to request a change from humanity, it would be to start a daily practice of remembering that light, remembering the goodness within ourselves and tuning in,” she explained.
“Fear is damaging and it isolates us even more, so I think we do need to battle that and reaffirm in our own minds that people are good so that we can learn to trust again.”
For some, healing and closure will be linked to the completion of a public inquiry, which aims to establish how the attack took place and whether there’s anything that could have been done to prevent it. That process was ordered in late July after days of protest demanding one, led by the victims’ family members.
Armstrong said the resilience and unity he’s seen in the last six months fills him with optimism.
“Once we have closure take place I’m sure our community can rebound can rebound stronger than we were before,” he said.
“I think we owe that to the families of the victims and also the victims themselves to rise above this and work together as a community so we can continue to live in an area that we all love.”
Taggart said his constituents are ready to move on, and return to being known as “Portapique, just another sleepy community.” The people have inspired him, he added, and are feeling better every day.
“We have a tremendous potential ahead of us with the movement of people out of the cities to the rural communities,” he explained.
“All the communities are part of that (new) geopark, we have new quality broadband coming in — we have a great future ahead of us down that shore.”
As the healing process continues, Nova Scotia RCMP are still investigating the massacre — the deadliest mass shooting in modern Canadian history.
The operation, dubbed ‘H-Strong,’ is currently in the midst of determining how the gunman accessed his weapons, whether anyone knew of his plan in advance, and whether he had help carrying out the attack.
The Mounties have not provided an on-camera update on the investigation since June, when they revealed the preliminary results of a psychological autopsy on the gunman.
They declined an interview request for this story, but in a written statement, said the tragedy has impacted them deeply.
“For many members, the incidents and investigation are the most difficult they will have in their careers,” said Cpl. Lisa Croteau. “We are resilient and will continue to serve our communities to keep them safe.”
The provincial and federal governments, meanwhile, are working to establish the framework and terms of reference for a public inquiry into the shooting. That process delayed when former deputy prime minister Anne MacLellan withdrew as a commissioner, resulting in a search for her replacement.
“They’re in the final stages of that vetting process and I’m hoping this will be the last cabinet out we’ll have this discussion,” Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey told reporters last week, hinting that news on the inquiry may be coming soon.