Late in the evening of Saturday, April 18, 2020, a gunman embarked upon one of the deadliest killing sprees in modern Canadian history.
Thirteen hours later it was over, leaving scars on the rural community of Portapique, N.S., the province and the entire country.
Twenty-two people lost their lives that weekend. Many more people lost someone they loved.
In Episode 12 of 13 Hours: In the Dark, we investigate a mysterious phone call near the end of the killing spree and explore the families’ search for justice, accountability and answers.
Amelia Butler got a call from her mom’s cellphone right around 11 a.m. on April 19. When she answered, there was no one on the other end.
She called back over and over, but her mom, Gina Goulet, didn’t answer. That’s when Butler knew something was wrong.
She and her mom were texting earlier that morning and they both knew the name of the man at the centre of the massive police search.
He was a denturist — like Goulet.
“She was nervous when she found out who it was,” Butler said.
Goulet’s clinic was in her own home, so the gunman could easily have known where she lived, Amelia said.
But that morning, neither of them had any idea the gunman had just murdered two people less than two kilometres away from Goulet’s house in Shubenacadie.
“She tried to call me,” Butler said. “I’d say it was like the last thing that she tried to do.”
After dozens of calls went unanswered, Butler and her husband decided to drive to her mom’s house about a half hour away.
They got turned around by police at a roadblock near the crash site where Joey Webber and Heidi Stevenson were killed, adding about 20 minutes to the trip.
By the time they arrived, Goulet was no longer alive. One of her two dogs inside the house was also shot.
The gunman was gone by this point, Butler said. But court documents released after the killing spree say he left behind the RCMP uniform that served as his disguise, along with Joey’s vehicle. The gunman also drove away in Goulet’s car.
Butler and her husband were the ones who called police to the scene.
They question why the roads in the area weren’t blocked off sooner and whether that might have saved her mother’s life.
“It’s really frustrating,” she said. “There’s nothing that will change what happened, but I can’t even imagine this ever happening ever again.
“There’s got to be something that would be done differently, much differently.”
In the dark
Almost a year after the killing spree ended, families of the victims want answers.
They want to know why law enforcement couldn’t stop a man disguised as a police officer from travelling nearly 100 km across rural Nova Scotia for nearly 13 hours, killing 22 people and burning several homes and vehicles to the ground.
They want to know why the RCMP didn’t use the emergency alert system to warn the public about the danger they faced while the gunman was on the loose.
They also want to know what investigators did and didn’t do following past reports that the gunman owned illegal weapons and that he committed acts of domestic violence against his common-law spouse.
The families want accountability, too, from the police who are hired to protect them, and from the politicians who make the laws that are supposed to keep them safe.
But all of this will have to wait.
After holding six news conferences between April 19 and June 4, 2020, Nova Scotia RCMP haven’t faced a single question from the media in a public setting.
Politicians, who repeatedly call the killing spree an unprecedented tragedy, have also offered few answers.
Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin said he believes there are “many things” the province can change to improve safety.
When pressed to provide an example of anything that’s changed since the killing spree ended, he pointed to proposed legislation that, if adopted, will make it illegal to sell or own police equipment and uniforms in the province.
The federal government, meanwhile, introduced a ban on assault-style weapons last May, including makes and models used by the gunman during the killing spree.
Critics of the ban, including survivors of the École Polytechnique massacre, say it doesn’t go far enough because it allows current gun owners to keep their weapons, even though they won’t legally be allowed to use them.
In a letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 18, 2021, survivors and victims’ family members of the 1989 massacre said he would no longer be welcome at any remembrance ceremonies marking the tragedy if proposed gun control legislation isn’t changed to include a mandatory buy-back program for existing assault-style weapon owners.
“If you carry on with this bill, we will never again accept to have you by our side as we mourn the death of our daughters, our sisters, our friends, during annual commemorations,” the letter said.
Trudeau responded to the criticism on March 19, saying the legislation was based on an “in-depth study.” But he added he’s convinced the current approach is the best way to keep Canadians safe.
“I look forward to the parliamentary hearings on that bill to make sure that we’re doing everything we can,” Trudeau said.
“We are looking to find ways to keep people safe. And we are confident that our approach is the right one. But we’re always open to listening to testimony that may suggest possible improvements.”
Gun owners say the government’s ban unfairly targets law-abiding citizens.
The federal government also suspended the sale of decommissioned RCMP vehicles, like the one used by the gunman, pending the outcome of an internal review.
But this change wasn’t implemented until nine months after the killing spree, and only after a 23-year-old man was arrested in Antigonish, N.S., for allegedly impersonating a police officer while driving a used police car.
Rankin has also said an ongoing public inquiry into the killing spree could trigger more policy changes.
“We need to work, obviously, with our stakeholders that are involved in police enforcement, our emergency centre, so they have access to that. There’s so many things we can do, I believe. And there’s an independent inquiry that will go over everything from top to bottom that involves different levels of government,” he said.
“I’m very eagerly awaiting the recommendations from that so that we can make sure that a tragedy like that never happens again in this province.”
But a public inquiry wasn’t the first choice for provincial and federal politicians.
Former Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey, a retired RCMP officer, and federal public safety minister Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief, said last July that there would be an “independent review” instead of an inquiry.
The pair initially said they approved this approach, which would not allow the panelists to compel evidence or testimony, because they believed it would get answers faster and result in less retraumatization for the victims’ families.
But the families disagreed, and so did politicians, including several Liberal senators and MPs.
In the face of public pressure, the federal and provincial governments backtracked and announced a full-scale inquiry into the killing spree.
The commission of inquiry must submit an interim report to the provincial and federal governments by May 2022 and a final report is due six months later.
Women have long called for killings of this nature to be assessed from a feminist perspective.
The public inquiry, which has not yet begun hearings, will consider the role of gender-based violence in the killing spree.
One of the commissioners is Kim Stanton, a Toronto lawyer who served two terms on the federal advisory council on the Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence.
One reason experts say it’s critical to consider mass killings from a feminist perspective is that women, intimate partners and children are disproportionately targeted.
On Dec. 6, 1989, a gunman walked into the engineering department at École Polytechnique in Montreal and opened fire.
He told the men to leave and then killed 14 women, before killing himself.
A letter written by the shooter said, “I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker.”
It wasn’t until 30 years after the killings that a plaque was added to the memorial at the school identifying this as an attack against women.
The Toronto van attack in 2018 is another example of mass violence against women.
A man drove a van into crowds of pedestrians on a busy street, killing 10 people — eight women and two men.
The killer told police he carried out the attack in retribution for years of sexual rejection and ridicule by women. He said he was part of the “incel movement,” a fringe internet subculture of men who say they are involuntarily celibate.
In Nova Scotia, the gunman had a history of aggressive behaviour that included allegations of violence against his common law partner. He pleaded guilty to brutally assaulting a teenage boy in 2001. The beating was so severe that it resulted in the boy being hospitalized.
The gunman was given a conditional sentence with no jail time, a weapons ban and a $50 fine.
A former neighbour, Brenda Forbes, said she told police that he owned illegal weapons and that he was violent toward his partner.
Forbes said police didn’t take it seriously. The RCMP said it has no record of her report.
Experts say these events and past allegations suggest there were missed opportunities for an intervention.
Tracy Vaillancourt, the Canada Research Chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention, said intimate partner violence is a “huge red flag” that an individual may commit violent acts against others.
Research also shows a link between violence against women and mass murder.
There were 18 mass murders in the United States in 2018, according to a paper written by Allison Marganski, an associate professor and director of criminology at Le Moyne College in New York. A common factor in 15 of the mass murders — roughly 83 per cent — was violence against women, she wrote.
Elizabeth Yardley, a criminology professor at Birmingham City University in the U.K., wrote a paper that said roughly four in 10 victims of mass murder are family members of the perpetrator. She cited two st
udies that put the rate between 38 and 42 per cent.
“The killing of family members is more prominent in mass murder than in single homicides,” she said. “The indiscriminate slaughter of strangers by a crazed killer is the exception to the rule.”
Yardley said this type of mass murder often begins with a man killing or harming his family, and then sometimes going on to kill strangers in public places.
That’s what police say happened during the Nova Scotia killing spree, when Gabriel Wortman assaulted his common-law partner and then went on a rampage, murdering neighbours, associates and complete strangers.
Farrah Khan, a gender-based violence educator at Ryerson University in Toronto, said she’s tired of participating in commissions and waiting for politicians to review recommendations they don’t ever enact.
She wants the role gender-based violence played in the killing spree to be understood and discussed.
“This is predictable and preventable,” she said.
“The violence that happens, that is seen as private in our homes, impacts the public violence that happens in our community.”
Gina Goulet was warm and outgoing, the kind of woman who could walk into a room full of strangers and leave with friends. She worked as a denturist for 27 years and owned her own clinic.
“She was so passionate about just helping her clients and she always just kind of joked that she literally got to put smiles on peoples’ faces, which is exactly her personality,” said Gina’s daughter Amelia Butler.
Gina was a single mom to Amelia. They were extremely close, more like sisters than mother and daughter.
When Gina was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2016, she “took it on the chin,” Amelia said. The pair were together for every treatment.
“We got a lot of time together in those moments and those appointments, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Amelia said.
She beat the odds, recovering from cancer and getting back to working and travelling. She had a setback in late 2019 and underwent a second surgery in early 2020.
Amerlia said they remained close through it all.
“It’s just what we did for each other. She would have done the same for me,” she said.
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