Ahead of the release of the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report, the brother of a man killed in the Nova Scotia shooting almost three years ago hopes it will lead to change.
It’s been more than six months since the commission concluded its public proceedings. A final report is expected on Thursday.
The public inquiry’s mandate included examinations of the police response, the killer’s access to firearms, gender-based violence, the assistance offered to those most affected, and the steps taken to inform the public as the rampage unfolded.
The final report is expected to include recommendations to improve community safety across Canada.
“I’m looking forward to the recommendations with the hopes that it’s going to make a difference for any kind of future situation – hopefully, never anything like this again,” said Scott McLeod, whose brother Sean was killed in the attacks.
Over the course of 13 hours on April 18-19, 2020, a gunman killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman, across three Nova Scotia counties, at times dressed like a Mountie and driving a replica RCMP vehicle.
The rampage ended when the gunman was fatally shot by two RCMP officers at a gas station in Enfield, north of Halifax.
The inquiry’s work included 76 days of public hearings, during which the commission released 31 so-called foundational documents and more than 7,000 exhibits and source materials.
The inquiry heard from 230 witnesses as part of its investigation, including about 80 members of the RCMP – and 60 of those witnesses testified at the public proceedings, half of whom were RCMP members.
McLeod attended the proceedings daily, hoping to learn more about how and why his brother died.
Those answers may never come.
“That’s a big thing. I would love to know, love to have them figure out more about what happened in my family situation,” McLeod said. “And I know there’s other families that are in the same boat.”
Sean McLeod and his partner Alanna Jenkins, both correctional officers, were murdered at their home in Wentworth, N.S., early on April 19, 2020.
The gunman spent about three hours at their home, but what exactly he did there is unclear.
“I would like to know … more of what happened at my brother’s place, considering he spent three hours there out of the 13,” McLeod said.
McLeod also wants to see changes in how the RCMP communicates with the public during and after emergency situations.
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The Mounties have faced intense public scrutiny for their failure to issue an emergency alert during the 13 hours the gunman was on the loose, instead providing updates through Twitter.
“The communication piece has got to be absolutely imperative,” McLeod said.
“After the initial incident started in Portapique, had an alert gone out, it may have changed the outcome of the balance of the following day for a lot of people.”
McLeod says he’s pleased RCMP have been using the emergency alert system more often — a system that ultimately wasn’t used in April 2020, with top RCMP brass saying it wasn’t a tool in their toolbox at the time.
But it’s not always an easy adjustment. A recent incident that prompted an alert in the Onslow area brought McLeod back in time.
“I mean, you’re right back to the weekend in April 2020 where everything went awry,” he said.
Opportunities for change
Lawyer Michael Scott, whose firm represents most of the victims’ families, told Global News that the communications and RCMP response issue is “central,” noting that there were problems before, during and after the mass casualty.
Before the attacks, Scott noted there were “missed opportunities” as there were previous reports and “warning signs” about the gunman, indicating there were communications issues within the police force.
During the event, police failed to properly warn the public about the gunman, who left a trail of violence across northern and central Nova Scotia.
And in the days after the attacks, the RCMP provided incomplete and at times incorrect information about what happened.
Scott said the recommendations coming in the upcoming report will be “the greatest opportunity that we have to effect positive changes in the future.”
“There’s a tremendous opportunity to get better … in handling communications and ensuring that people are advised clearly and honestly throughout these processes because obviously, the truth is critically important,” he said.
“And it appears that there is, and has been, a systemic issue with failure to communicate in the RCMP, and as a cultural issue, that definitely needs to change.”
Scott also had complaints about how the inquiry itself was handled. He said late, incomplete and redacted disclosure from the Department of Justice had an impact on transparency.
“We certainly would like to see some acknowledgement that perhaps the public inquiry itself could have been handled better, and that mistakes were made, because frankly, we don’t want to see those issued repeated in future inquiries of this kind,” he said.
Both Scott and McLeod would also like to hear an acknowledgment that the “trauma-informed approach” that the commission used was, in their opinion, inadequate.
McLeod said he understands the commission didn’t want to further hurt the families and survivors, but the damage has already been done and the best way to move forward is to get everything out in the open.
“We had all lost people and, you know, we’ve been hurt,” McLeod said.
“You get a bad cut, well, you’ve got to stitch it. Well, the stitch is not going to feel any better, but it’s going to help fix it.”
He also worries that the scope of the inquiry was too broad, and got bogged down by external special interest groups.
During his closing remarks on Sept. 23, 2022, commission chairman Michael MacDonald said, “From the outset, we faced an immense task, a very broad mandate and an equally ambitious timeline, requiring us to complete our work in just over two years.”
A new chapter
Still, there’s hope — hope the recommendations will focus on what happened, and hope that future tragedies could potentially be avoided.
“It’s our sincere hope that we make the most of this opportunity and that it is historic,” said Scott, the lawyer.
And McLeod hopes to see an independent committee to ensure the recommendations are implemented.
“If we’re spending all this time and effort into investigating all this stuff to figure it out, we need to take that extra step and make sure that after the recommendations are put out, that it can be followed up on,” he said.
Meanwhile, McLeod is looking forward to seeing the other families of the victims, who have formed a unique bond through their devastating losses.
He’s also looking toward the future.
“I do look at this as being able to close up this chapter. I’m not saying the book’s done, but at least this chapter,” he said of the report’s upcoming release.
“I’m confident in the fact that there’s going to be a lot of stuff that comes out of this that will be followed up on with individual families and individual groups. … (The) next chapter is going to be, ‘What do we work on first?’”
— with files from The Canadian Press