During the horrifying 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting that killed 22 people, an incident traumatized a group of firefighters who say they could never forget it, while many overlook it.
On April 19, 2020, hours after the gunman’s rampage began, two RCMP officers began shooting at a man in front of a fire hall in Onslow, N.S., thinking they had found the suspect. In fact, firefighters were inside terrified, thinking it was the killer who was firing shots.
Two days after the Mass Casualty Commission released the long-awaited report into the deadly shooting, the chief of the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade, Greg Muise, said he was glad to see the RCMP slammed with recommendations.
Muise said he believes people often overlook what had occurred at the hall.
“I can remember it all,” Muise said.
The hall was set up as a comfort centre for the community that day, with a municipal official stationed in front of the hall.
Muise was in the hall when he first heard the shots fired just after 10 a.m.
“We all took off running … Two shots came through our main door, hit the truck,” he said. “We still didn’t know what was going on outside.”
Muise said he recalls at some point two Mounties came in and told them to shelter in place, but said he never got an apology from the RCMP.
“We were in that room for an hour and never knew what was going on. It was a hard day for us, and it still is.”
Looking back, he said it seemed the Mounties didn’t even look who was there before they started firing. According to Muise, the people on the inside of the hall thought the killer was outside, while it seemed the officers thought he was inside.
Const. Terry Brown and Const. Dave Melanson testified before the commission of the inquiry in May of 2022, and said they believed they had found the shooter and defended their actions as consistent with their training.
The incident caused $43,000 in damage to the hall, Muise said.
“They saw they did wrong at the time … I just told them we want things to move on, we don’t want our hall with bullet holes in it,” he said, adding the RCMP did pay for the damage.
But, he said the police force never took accountability for the trauma they caused the firefighters. Muise still sees a counsellor every other week.
“I could never get over it … I’m the chief, and when I have a hard time coming to the fire hall – that’s not right.”
‘Too late’ for apology, firefighter says
Deputy chief of the fire department Darrell Currie agrees. He was also at the hall the morning of the shooting.
“I assumed that I would be dead that day,” Currie said. “It was very poorly handled, and continues to be,” he said of the RCMP. “Some accountability, I think it would’ve gone a long way.”
In a Friday interview, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Dennis Daley said: “I did reach out by email to two other people who were deeply affected by the incident and offered to meet and have not received a response, but I remain willing to meet at any time with those other two individuals.”
The assistant commissioner didn’t specify who exactly those two people were, but both Muise and Currie said an apology almost three years later wouldn’t take away the mental anguish the incident caused.
“I’m on long-term disability now,” Currie said. “I haven’t been able to work. I’ve been through dozens of different medications that help with depression and anxiety.”
Though it’s “too late for an apology”, there’s still room for accountability, he said.
Currie said he was pleasantly surprised with the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report, particularly their recommendations for the police force.
The report detailed the RCMP’s various failures in preventing, responding to, and reacting in the aftermath of the tragedy, and said the institution as a whole needs to be re-examined.
On the day of the report’s release, the interim RCMP commissioner and the head of the Nova Scotia RCMP said they’re committed to reviewing the recommendations, but both admitted they haven’t read the document.
For firefighter Currie, the release of the report was a milestone – one he hoped would bring him closure.
“I had hoped it would be some closure, and I think it is because of the recommendations … assuming the recommendations are followed through.”
— with files from Vanessa Wright and Alex Cooke