RCMP union head questions the need for a public inquiry into Nova Scotia shooting

It may raise uncomfortable questions about RCMP actions, but other policing observers say that a public inquiry is the only way to untangle the issues that led to the largest mass murder in Canadian history

On Monday, May 11, a court in Nova Scotia will hear arguments on whether information used by the RCMP to obtain search warrants to search property owned by mass killer Gabriel Wortman should be unsealed and made public.

A group of eight media organizations, including the CBC, Globe and Mail and Postmedia, have made an application to argue in favour of the release. The information will shed new light on where the police investigation into the April 18-19 shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 22 people – including RCMP constable Heidi Stevenson – is headed. 

David Coles, the lawyer arguing for the information’s release, says that the Canada Border Services Agency’s involvement in the legal proceeding suggests the warrants may reveal information about where Wortman obtained the unregistered firearms. 

But both the provincial and federal Crown attorneys are challenging the full release of the search warrant information.

Given the sensitivity of the investigation, there is the public to think about. And in Nova Scotia, the wounds are still raw from the violence. Residents haven’t had a chance to grieve. How do you get closure from this?

It hasn’t been written about much in the national press, but some legal and academic observers in Nova Scotia – as well as opposition party leaders – are part of the growing chorus calling for a public inquiry. Yesterday, the father of one of the victims joined the call.

Part of the reason for a pubic inquiry has to do with the many systemic issues the shooting has already raised. And part of the reason has to do with some of the RCMP’s operational decisions as events were unfolding in real-time on the ground.  

There are a number of questions – including whether lives could have been saved if the RCMP had issued an amber alert sooner. It’s a point the premier of the province has been vocal about. And last week, the RCMP announced plans to review its protocols around emergency alerts.

But there are other holes the RCMP will have to dig itself out of, including how Wortman, a cop wannabe in possession of RCMP uniforms and a number of replica police cars, seemed to escape the scrutiny of the local RCMP detachment, despite reports of a history of domestic violence. The killer’s rampage is said to have begun after an argument with his girlfriend who ran into the woods and stayed there overnight for safety after she had reportedly been tied up.

Also, what role relatives of the killer who are ex-Mounties may have played in unwittingly abetting his actions as it relates to his access to RCMP paraphernalia, has also come under the microscope, including on the radar of public safety minister Bill Blair. When you’re talking about the largest mass murder in Canadian history, things are bound to get messy.

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CCTV’s catch glimpses of the replica RCMP vehicle driven by Gabriel Wortman during his killing spree. 

Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation (a group that only last summer won the right to represent some 20,000 RCMP officers), says that speculation on “difficult senior operational decisions” is misplaced and hurts morale on the force. “Members on the street wear that when media blasts a headline that the RCMP could have stopped ‘x’ number of deaths. The guys on the street are not the ones who made the operational decisions.”

Sauvé says “There could have been a medication issue. There could have been an addiction issue. There could have been a family breakdown issue. There could have been a health issue. There could have been all sorts of things.”

But he says that “if the public wants to go down that road of a public inquiry, then let’s not look at what happened in the last 12 hours, let’s look at our justice system, [and] if our probation system if our health care system, if our firearms system if our community support system failed the public in any way.”

As well as reportedly issues of domestic violence, Wortman was convicted in 2002 of assault on a 15-year-old in what is described as an unprovoked attack outside the denture shop he owned in Dartmouth.

Sauvé says that “too often, public inquiries make recommendations on how the police could do better instead of focusing on how society can do better as a whole to avoid a scenario.”

Sauvé suggests that there were communication issues at play during the incident. “There have always been challenges with communications in remote areas. Public infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with technology,” he says.

From what he’s heard from RCMP members on the ground, “they did what they could with the information available.”

Tammy Landau, an associate professor of criminology at Ryerson University, says that a public inquiry with a broad mandate to explore all the systemic issues at play – including the issue of toxic masculinity – is the only “reasonable response.”

“This is the biggest mass shooting in Canadian history. This isn’t just about a guy who went off one day. There are other issues: his love of the police, his violence against women, his use of firearms. This is not a one-guy thing and it would be a terrible mistake and a terrible disservice to the public to look at this as the work of a lone gunman. The bigger issues are not just Nova Scotia issues.”

She says police operational decisions are also fair game. “There can really be a false distinction between police operations and policies. Because operational decisions have to be prioritized that’s a policy. It can’t just be the RCMP taking a look.”

Even before there’s a public inquiry, however, a coroner’s inquest (or fatality inquest as it’s known in some provinces) may have to be conducted. They’re mandated by law when someone dies in police custody. But it’s unclear at this point how Wortman died after “an altercation” with RCMP at a gas station in Enfield. At one point, the RCMP issued a tweet saying Wortman was “in custody,” only to be pronounced dead later. 

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The gunman caught on camera changing into a vest by the side of the road.

What happened will be for the Serious Incident Response Team, or SiRT, to figure out. The civilian-led agency is charged with investigating serious incidents of injury or death involving the RCMP. It’s currently investigating the particulars surrounding Wortman’s death and that of Constable Heidi Stevenson, as well as the shooting incident involving Wortman and a second RCMP officer who survived the incident.

SiRT will also be investigating a shooting incident involving RCMP officers at a fire hall that was being used to evacuate residents to safety while Wortman was still reportedly on the loose. Several media outlets reported the incident, but it was quickly lost in the coverage of the carnage. It’s unclear how it fits in to events, and initially, it looked like SiRT would be investigating the matter.

Police oversight is not exactly in its infancy in Nova Scotia – SiRT was established in 2012 – but oversight of the RCMP policing small rural communities that don’t have their own force – or a police services board to monitor them – has long been an issue.

SiRT gets high marks from Sauvé. But like similar police oversight bodies, there have been questions about transparency and impartiality. For example, those conducting investigations for the unit are not civilians, but police officers (including RCMP officers) seconded from other forces. It’s small annual budget ($600,000), also restricts the scope of investigations it can conduct. More recently, SiRT has undergone a change of leadership after its director had to go on medical leave.

Says Landau: “Policing is so fractured and so divided in small communities that it’s difficult to nail down an effective oversight body. With the RCMP the additional complication is that a lot of their policing is contract policing. It leaves them in this awkward position where they are federal police officers policing a tiny little community in Nova Scotia. Who tells them what to do? Well, under our model it should be the local community, but I suspect that not every community that’s policed in Nova Scotia has a police services board. Who is actually setting the local policy as they do in other parts of the country?”

Meanwhile, the shock and anger from the shooting linger.

“They have no accused to blame because the bad guy is dead,” says Sauvé. “So that adds another layer of complexity. We’re not going to have a court case. No one is going to be able to see the guy do the perp walk. Politicians will need to address that. Does that mean a public inquiry? I don’t know the right answer to that.”


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