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Nova Scotia’s top RCMP officer retiring days before public hearings into killing spree set to begin

Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman, commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP, addresses a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Dartmouth, N.S. on Sunday, April 19, 2020. More than ten people have been killed, including RCMP Cst. Heidi Stevenson, after several incidents in Portapique, and other Nova Scotia communities. Alleged killer Gabriel Wortman, 51, was shot and killed by police. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan.

The RCMP’s top commanding officer in Nova Scotia will retire less than three weeks before public hearings into the deadliest killing spree in modern Canadian history are set to begin.

Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman announced her decision to retire internally to the Nova Scotia RCMP, a spokesperson for the force told Global News on Tuesday.

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No public announcement was made by either the Mounties or Bergerman. Her retirement takes effect Oct. 8, and public hearings into the killing spree that left 22 people dead begin Oct. 26.

“Assistant Commissioner Bergerman has served 35 years in the RCMP and she’s led the division for the last two-and-a-half years and she’s going to be retiring,” said RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Chris Marshall.

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Bergerman led the RCMP’s first public briefing about the killing spree hours after it ended on April 19, 2020. She provided details about the death of RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson and injuries sustained by another officer, Const. Chad Morrison.

“Today is a devastating day for Nova Scotia, and it will remain etched in the minds of many for years to come. What has unfolded overnight and into this morning is incomprehensible,” Bergerman said on April 19, 2020.

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She didn’t provide any information about how many others were killed or any other context about the killings. Chief Superintendent Chris Leather took over the briefing and provided further details.

The RCMP has faced intense criticism for its response to the shooting spree and its handling of the investigation.

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A public inquiry is tasked with investigating how the RCMP responded to the shootings, which began on April 18, 2020, in Portapique, N.S. The inquiry will also consider RCMP communication with the public and the families of victims.

Marshall said he can’t say whether Bergerman will participate in the inquiry.

“The inquiry is an independent process that’s not related to us,” he said. “Whether she would be called in as a witness, that would be up to the inquiry and not up to the RCMP.”

Departure could ‘taint’ public perception

Wayne MacKay, a professor emeritus at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, said Bergerman’s departure comes at an important juncture for the Mounties in Nova Scotia.

“It does seem a bit unfortunate that a leader in the Nova Scotia RCMP is departing at this critical time, when obviously the actions and response of the RCMP are going to be front and centre at the Portapique inquiry,” he said.

MacKay was among the first to call for a full-scale public inquiry into the killing spree.

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He said the lack of information provided by the force about Bergerman’s retirement — and why she’s retiring now — is yet another example of the RCMP failing to communicate properly.

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MacKay also said Bergerman’s decision to leave at this time could “taint” the public’s perception about the force’s willingness to participate in the inquiry fully.

“From an optics point of view, once again, it does seem kind of problematic,” he said.

Click to play video: 'RCMP released most detailed timeline yet of what happened in Portapique'
RCMP released most detailed timeline yet of what happened in Portapique

Meanwhile, Garry Clement, a former senior RCMP officer, said he’s “disheartened” by the timing of Bergerman’s retirement.

While Clement understands that 35 years is a long career for a police officer, he said Bergerman signed up to be a leader in the RCMP when she took the top job in Nova Scotia. Her decision to leave now is a “disappointment,” he said.

“I would have thought she would want to see this chapter through to the end before taking her retirement,” Clement said.

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The RCMP has previously said it will participate fully in the public inquiry. Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has also guaranteed that the Mounties will cooperate.

The force is also reviewing the hiring of two people tasked with providing information to the inquiry on behalf of the RCMP. This includes Bergerman’s husband, Mike Butcher.

Global News asked the RCMP for an update on its review in an email sent July 6. The RCMP acknowledged receiving the email, but provided no further response.

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