Long-awaited public hearings into one of the nation’s deadliest shooting sprees are set to begin Tuesday at the Halifax Convention Centre.
The Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) is tasked with investigating the killing spree that took place across a large swath of rural Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020.
The commission will assess the function of contract policing in rural Nova Scotia, police communication during the manhunt, and the role gender-based and intimate partner violence may have played in the tragedy.
Hearings are scheduled to run from Feb. 22 to the end of May. The RCMP, first responders and victims’ families are likely to participate.
The shooting spree was carried out by gunman Gabriel Wortman, a 51-year-old denturist from Dartmouth. He killed 13 people in the community of Portapique on the evening of April 18 and then killed nine more people the following day in the communities of Wentworth, Glenholme, Debert and Shubenacadie.
The gunman was shot and killed by two RCMP officers at a gas station in Enfield at 11:26 a.m. on April 19. It is believed he was on his way to Halifax when he was killed, where he planned to murder more people.
The hope going into the public hearings is that the RCMP will be made to explain its response to the shootings in a public forum. The last time the RCMP held a press conference about the shooting spree was June 4, 2020.
Public proceedings at the commission were supposed to begin in October but have been twice delayed. Participants in the inquiry, including victims’ family members, say they’re frustrated by the long delay and that they’re losing confidence in whether they’ll get the answers they were promised.
“I feel severely let down,” said Nick Beaton in a written statement released Feb. 14. His pregnant wife, Kristen Beaton, was shot and killed by the gunman.
How did we get here?
Calls for a public inquiry into the killing spree began almost immediately after police announced the gunman was dead.
Victims’ families, local politicians and members of the public were outraged that the RCMP didn’t use the province’s emergency alert system to warn Nova Scotians that a gunman was on the loose and that they used Twitter instead.
There were also concerns about how the gunman was able to evade police for so long — the manhunt lasted more than 13 hours from the time the first 911 call came in — and why the RCMP couldn’t contain him to a specific geographic location.
In July 2020, then-federal public safety Minister Bill Blair and Nova Scotia justice minister Mark Furey announced an “independent review” into the causes of and law enforcement’s role during the killing spree. The review would not be held in public and had no powers to subpoena witnesses or evidence if anyone refused to participate.
At the time, Blair and Furey said this was the best option available and would give victims and the people of Nova Scotia the timely answers they deserved.
Victims’ families and legal experts were furious with this decision. They staged protests and rallies calling on the government to launch a full-scale inquiry.
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Less than a week after the independent review was announced, Blair and Furey relented.
“Canadians deserve answers to how such a tragedy could occur,” Blair said on July 28, 2020.
“This situation requires that our governments work diligently with all those affected by this tragedy to bring forward the critical answers, and to ensure an event such as this will never happen again.”
The commission must provide an interim report to the federal and Nova Scotia governments no later than May 1 and a final report must be completed by Nov. 1. Once these reports have been submitted, federal and provincial ministers will review the documents and decide when to release them.
High hopes, lowered expectations
When Blair and Furey reversed their decision, victims’ families celebrated the announcement of a public inquiry as a major victory.
But their high hopes were soon dashed by a process beset with delays and closed-door meetings that many say haven’t lived up to what they were promised.
“I fought so hard for this public inquiry so that another husband and father would not have to go through this,” Beaton said.
“The commission is supposed to ask the hard questions and identify where things went wrong and how things need to change, but right now I just don’t see that happening.”
The commission has been tasked with taking a “trauma-informed” approach to determining what happened during the killing spree. But what this means in the context of the inquiry is unclear.
Generally, a trauma-informed approach refers to asking questions and conducting proceedings in a way that is less likely to retraumatize victims of crime and violence.
Legal experts and some of the victims’ family members have said this approach has become a “paternalistic” excuse for the commission to avoid asking difficult questions and to keep important details from the public.
Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer who represents many of the victims’ families in a proposed class-action lawsuit filed against the province and RCMP, said the delays and lack of transparency could jeopardize the inquiry’s credibility.
The lawsuit alleges that the RCMP didn’t respond to the shooting spree in an appropriate manner. For example, the lawsuit alleges that the RCMP did not deploy a helicopter capable of conducting nighttime searches to assist with the manhunt.
Global News has previously reported that the RCMP’s only helicopter in Atlantic Canada was out for routine maintenance at the time of the killing spree and was unavailable to officers.
Neither the RCMP nor the government have responded to the allegations contained in the lawsuit.
“It’s fair to say that across the board our clients are frustrated. They’re disappointed that we’re going into these proceedings with quite a bit of information that’s still lacking,” McCulloch said. “Their optimism that the process is going to produce meaningful results for them is waning.”
McCulloch also said she and her clients have yet to receive assurances from the commission about whether they will be allowed to cross-examine witnesses during the public proceedings. She also said her clients don’t know who will testify and under what conditions.
“This idea that they’re somehow going to get answers and get closure to their satisfaction out of this process is certainly deflating,” she said.
A spokesperson for the commission said victims’ families have been given information about the inquiry weekly since work began in the fall. This includes thousands of pages of documents, transcripts of 911 calls and video surveillance images.
The commission has also received input from the the victims’ families through their legal counsel which has helped shape the factual record of what happened during the killing spree, the spokesperson said.
“A public inquiry is not a trial, nor is it about assigning blame. Public inquiries are about change,” said spokesperson Emily Hill.