Losing a mother to murder is horrific. Losing two mothers to murder — there’s no word for that.
But that’s exactly what Traceena Arnold has been going through for the last year. She vividly remembers the feeling when she couldn’t get in touch with her adoptive mother, Dawn Gulenchyn, on the morning of April 19, 2020.
“It just sent me into a sheer panic of: I can’t do this again, I can’t,” Arnold said.
She and her brothers Jonathan and Ryan Farrington saw news coverage about an ongoing shooting spree that began the night before in the community of Portapique, N.S., where their parents retired.
For Arnold, it was reliving horrors from the past.
She was 16 years old on Feb. 15, 1985, when her mother Winnifred Arnold was murdered in a random attack.
Dawn Gulenchyn was a close family friend who took her in and made her part of the family.
“It’s hard enough losing one parent to tragedy,” Arnold said. “But, being fortunate enough to have two moms and lose the second mom in a terrible tragedy is just unbelievable.”
Dawn and her husband Frank Gulenchyn were among the 22 people murdered by Gabriel Wortman on the weekend of April 18 and 19, 2020, during a 13-hour-long killing spree. The gunman burned the Gulenchyns’ house to the ground, along with four other buildings and several vehicles.
The tragedy is now considered the deadliest killing spree in modern Canadian history.
Nearly a year later, Arnold and her brother Jonathan Farrington got together on March 23 for what would have been Dawn’s 63rd birthday.
Adding to the pain of their loss, Farrington said he has very little information about what happened that weekend.
“It just feels like everything is just being swept under the carpet,” he said.
Families seeking answers
Farrington is part of a proposed class-action lawsuit against the RCMP and the province of Nova Scotia.
The lawsuit is one way families are seeking accountability for questions that remain unanswered.
Neither the provincial Emergency Management Office nor the RCMP have explained why a province-wide emergency alert was never sent.
Instead, police used Twitter to release limited and at times inaccurate information during the 13-hour manhunt.
A wounded witness told officers that he had been shot by a man named “Gabe” who was driving what looked like an RCMP car minutes after they arrived in Portapique at 10:26 p.m. on April 18.
RCMP released the name of their suspect nearly 10 hours later, and it took another two hours before they tweeted that he was disguised as a police officer. By then he had killed 19 people.
The RCMP’s communication with the public and its failure to use the emergency alert system will be examined at an upcoming public inquiry. The Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission will submit an interim report in May 2022 and a final report six months later.
The inquiry was launched by the federal and provincial governments in July after victims’ families held protests to demand transparency.
As they wait for the inquiry to provide recommendations, both levels of government have avoided answering questions.
Eleven months after the shootings, Nova Scotia’s government introduced legislation to restrict the sale and ownership of police paraphernalia such as cars, uniforms and decals.
Farrington said his faith in the inquiry process, like his faith in the RCMP, is gone.
“They seem untouchable,” he said. “They don’t have to provide anything to us.”
The RCMP held six press conferences in the six weeks following the shootings, and has not publicly answered questions since June 4, 2020. Farrington said he has consistently learned new information about the investigation from the media.
“We deserve not to be blindsided by the news,” he said.
Thirty years of tragedy
One of the things families learned from the media is the type of weapons used by the gunman.
Wortman had five firearms when he was killed by police in a chance encounter at a gas station in Enfield.
He stole one from RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson after murdering her. Police say the gunman smuggled two semi-automatic handguns and a semi-automatic carbine from the United States, and illegally obtained another weapon, a semi-automatic rifle, from the estate of a friend.
The same model rifle has a chilling connection to another mass shooting.
A Ruger Mini-14 was used to kill 14 women and wound 13 others in the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in 1989. Survivors of that shooting have been demanding better gun control for the past 30 years.
“You cannot imagine how mad I am,” said Nathalie Provost, who was shot four times at Polytechnique.
Provost and other survivors called for a ban on assault-style weapons back in 1989.
Weeks after the Nova Scotia massacre, the federal government pledged to keep a promise and make significant change.
An order in council changed the classification listings to prohibit roughly 1,500 “assault-style” weapons.
While terms like “assault-style” and “assault rifle” are not legal classifications in Canada, they are frequently used by gun control advocates and the government to describe the type of high-capacity, quick-fire guns targeted by the ban.
“These weapons were designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to kill the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on May 1, 2020.
“We can stick to thoughts and prayers alone, or we can unite as a country and put an end to this.”
But when Bill C-21 was introduced in February 2021, it included a voluntary buyback program for the weapons. The Liberals’ most recent election platform promised a buyback for “all military-style assault weapons.”
Survivors and victims’ family members of the Polytechnique shooting told Trudeau in a letter on March 18 that he would no longer be welcome at remembrance ceremonies unless the buyback program is made mandatory.
“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.” He added he’s convinced the current approach is the best way to keep Canadians safe.
In an emailed statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the government is keeping its promise because the buyback will be available to owners of all of these weapons.
The government said the bill will enhance safe storage requirements and will mean these weapons cannot be used, transported, sold or bequeathed.
Blair’s spokesperson said the changes “will render the weapons legally useless.”
Survivors of the Polytechnique massacre say it doesn’t matter if the weapons are legally useless if they are still lethally used.
“As long as these weapons are still out there, accessible, they can be used by their owners. They can be stolen and used,” said Heidi Rathjen, who founded the gun control advocacy group PolySeSouvient, or PolyRemembers.
She called the proposed legislation a betrayal.
“After all these years, after all these promises, all these mass shootings, and support of most Canadians, the Liberal government failed to deliver the measure that was promised,” Rathjen said.
New Zealand weapons buyback
The government of New Zealand took swift action after a gunman shot and killed 51 people at two mosques on March 15, 2019.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised new legislation the next day.
“Our history changed forever. Now, our laws will too,” Ardern said.
Six days after the attacks, her government announced a plan to ban all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles, along with parts used to convert the guns and high-capacity magazines.
The law was passed less than a month later and the ban came into effect in December 2019.
New Zealand also instituted an amnesty and buyback program. More than 57,000 banned firearms and nearly 205,000 illegal gun parts were collected, according to New Zealand police statistics.
The Canadian government said its plan is informed by that experience.
New Zealand’s auditor general has said that because there was no reliable picture of how many weapons were in the country to begin with, they don’t know how effective the buyback plan was.
Blair’s office said Bill C-21 will require licensing of banned weapons.
“These measures will give our government information about where these prohibited weapons are, and who has them — information that will ensure our buyback program is effective in retrieving these weapons that are too dangerous for our communities,” said Blair’s spokesperson Mary-Liz Power.
It’s unclear if changing these laws sooner would have prevented Wortman from carrying out his crimes, given that he did not have a licence to own firearms and smuggled a number of weapons illegally.
Still, multiple witnesses have told police they knew about his weapons and that they assumed he had a licence.
Brenda Forbes, a former neighbour, said she reported his illegal weapons, but that police didn’t take her report seriously. The RCMP said they do not have a record of Forbes’ report.
Road to healing
Provost knows the cost of gun violence better than most.
“Thirty years ago people were asking themselves, will something like what happened in Polytechnique happen again one day?” she said.
“But the question now is not will it happen again, it’s when.”
Provost said the first year of her recovery was the worst, and she wishes the survivors of the Nova Scotia shooting have patience, courage and compassion for themselves.
“There’s something major broken, and the recovery is long,” she said. “It’s very hard for those around us to understand that even if you look like before, nothing is like before.”
Farrington said his mother’s birthday was the first time the reality of the loss of his parents hit him.
“I thought Mother’s Day would be hard and it wasn’t. I thought when their ashes arrived on my doorstep, that would be my moment,” he said.
Their ashes, their final text messages, and Frank’s tape measure are some of the only keepsakes he and his family have left. Everything else — all the photo albums, scrapbooks — was lost when the house burned to the ground.
Farrington hopes getting answers will allow him to begin the healing process.
“We just want to know why this happened, why he was allowed to have these vehicles, why he was allowed to possess these firearms that he didn’t have a licence for,” he said.
“Just tell us why.”
Visit Globalnews.ca to read and listen to full episodes ’13 Hours: Inside the Nova Scotia Massacre’