Ultra Vires


Lawyers of Families of Nova Scotia Mass Shooting Victims Share Frustrations

Representatives share family criticisms of public inquiry investigating the atrocity

Content warning: discussion of mass shooting and violence 

On Tuesday, September 20, lawyers representing families of those killed in the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia issued stark and wide-ranging criticisms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) actions before, during, and after the shooting. The lawyers were speaking before the Mass Casualty Commission (the Commission), established to examine the response by law enforcement. The criticisms expressed frustration with how families of victims had been treated by the RCMP, as well as anger with the procedure of the Commission itself.

The Commission’s public inquiry comes over two years after the mass shooting shocked Canada and the world in April 2020. Over the course of thirteen hours, Gabriel Wortman committed multiple shootings across Nova Scotia, killing 22 people and injuring three more before he was eventually shot and killed by RCMP officers in the town of Enfield. Wortman was using an RCMP vehicle and RCMP paraphernalia for at least part of the 13-hour period, which may have assisted him in evading police.

In the years following the mass shooting, the families of victims pushed for an expansive inquiry into RCMP failings before and during the event. There was significant public outcry after the Nova Scotia and federal governments initially decided to appoint an independent three-person review panel, a decision criticized as too narrow and lacking in transparency. Under this review structure, information collected by the panel as part of their review would remain confidential, and the panel could decide whether any hearing would be open to the public.

Following a negative public response, including rallies in Bridgewater and Halifax, Nova Scotia, on July 28, 2020, federal Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair announced a public inquiry. However, there are significant questions about whether the Commission can have any effect. The Commission cannot compel testimony, and the RCMP’s Operations Manual authorizes police to lie to a public inquiry if necessary to conceal the identity of confidential informants and agent sources. 

Additionally, individuals who have spoken at the Commission have pointed to the fact that recommendations brought forward by public inquiries are often not carried out.         

During final submissions on Tuesday, lawyers speaking on behalf of victim’s families identified both concerns with the RCMP’s response and the Commission’s process itself. Sandra McCulloch of Patterson Law pointed to problems with officer training and equipment that limited the RCMP’s ability to look for an active shooter at night, as well as communication problems between the RCMP and the public. When it came to the Commission, victims’ families raised their concern that they could not question significant witnesses like Wortman’s partner, who had helped arm him. Lawyer Tara Miller, who represents a relative of one of the victims, pointed to the fact that the Commission had relied heavily on documentation over direct testimony, further suggesting the evidentiary record may be lacking.

The Commission has been beset by delays since its initiation. An interim report was published in May 2022 and the release of the final report was originally slated for November 1, 2022. However, in August of this year, the federal and provincial governments granted a request to delay the release until March 31, 2023. The Commission cited a short timeline at the outset, COVID-19, and the unpredictable pace of document disclosure as reasons necessitating the delay. As a result, families of the victims will have to wait until next year for any conclusions and recommendations the Commission may set out to ensure better public safety in the future.

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