HALIFAX — In the days following the mass shooting that left 22 people dead in Nova Scotia, the RCMP's statements to the public were riddled with mistakes, confusion and omissions, a newly released report reveals.
The document, published Tuesday by the inquiry investigating the 2020 tragedy, also asserts that key information about the case, including the victims' names and the types of weapons used by the killer, was withheld from the public longer than was needed.
The commission of inquiry does not have a mandate to assign blame, but the 126-page document lays out a long list of miscues and delays, some of which attracted the ire of senior RCMP brass in Ottawa.
The summary of evidence confirms that on the night of April 19, 2020, when the Mounties held their first news conference about the killer's 13-hour rampage, the RCMP initially chose to understate the number of people who were known to be victims.
The senior Mountie who led the RCMP's initial news conferences, Chief Supt. Chris Leather, said after being pressed by reporters that "in excess of 10 have been killed." However, before his 6 p.m. news conference in Halifax, Leather knew that victims were still being found and the official number stood at 17, the document says.
In media interviews later that night, the head of the RCMP, Commissioner Brenda Lucki, told the CBC that 13 people were killed. And just before 8 p.m. that night, Lucki told The Canadian Press that the death toll was 17.
The resulting confusion prompted a flurry of emails among senior RCMP staff. Jolene Bradley, director of strategic communications at RCMP headquarters in Ottawa, sent a message to her counterpart in Nova Scotia, saying, "Doesn't help that the (commissioner) is giving the number!!!! Am really trying to get that back in the box for you."
Lia Scanlan, director of strategic communications in Halifax, replied: "Thank you. It looks awful and I've had to ask my entire team to turn their phones off .... Lord help me!!"
At 10:21 p.m., Scanlan sent another email to headquarters, saying: "Can I make a request to stop changing number on victims. Please allow us to lead the release of information. It looks fragmented and inconsistent."
In a followup interview with inquiry investigators, Scanlan said government officials, including Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, were "weighing in on what we could and couldn't say" during media briefings. She did not provide further details.
Scanlan has told the inquiry that 10 was the number the Nova Scotia RCMP first used "because at a certain point, you have to call your information final."
By 11 p.m. on April 19, 2020, the RCMP had concluded that up to 22 people had been killed. The next day, Leather said the death toll had climbed to at least 19. The RCMP didn't reveal the final number until a statement was released on April 21, 2020.
At another point during the first news conference, Leather was asked if the killer was known to police. Leather said: "No, he was not." But that was not the case.
On the morning of April 19, 2020, the RCMP learned from police records that the killer had threatened to kill his parents in 2010 and had access to long guns. The records also confirmed he had told a police source in 2011 that he "wanted to kill a cop." And in early 2020, he had a bizarre but non-violent interaction with police who had parked their vehicle in the lot next to his denture-making business in Dartmouth, N.S.
As for the identities of the victims, Leather said on April 20, 2020, that no names would be released until Nova Scotia's medical examiner had confirmed the identity of certain individuals. The Mounties' own records, however, show that by 5:25 p.m. that day, all of the victims' immediate next of kin had been notified of their deaths — and that RCMP headquarters had confirmed its support for releasing the names.
By April 25, media reports confirmed the names of the 22 victims, but the RCMP had yet to provide a list.
The RCMP's operational manual says the names of deceased persons can be released once next of kin have been notified, but only if the disclosure will further the investigation, or there is a public safety concern or the identities have already been made public through other means.
On another front, Leather was asked at subsequent news conferences about the weapons owned by the gunman. He declined to provide details, saying he couldn't comment because the province's police watchdog agency — the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) — was investigating.
But the inquiry's document makes it clear the Mounties knew a great deal about the killer's firearms early in their investigation.
The RCMP had recovered multiple firearms from the stolen car the gunman was driving when he was shot dead by two Mounties at a gas station north of Halifax on April 19, 2020. A forensic identification officer had catalogued a list of five weapons, including two semi-automatic rifles, by April 21.
The types of guns used by the shooter, however, were not shared in the five news conferences that took place in the week following the mass shooting.
Internal RCMP documents show that on April 28, 2020, Lucki convened a meeting of senior RCMP officers, during which she said she was disappointed that details about firearms had been omitted. According to notes taken by RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell, Lucki said she felt "disobeyed" when those details were not shared.
Campbell’s notes say Lucki had promised the Prime Minister's Office that the RCMP would release the descriptions, adding that the information "was tied to pending gun control legislation that would make officers and public safer."
In response, Campbell told Lucki that he was the one who had asked the strategic communications team not to release the firearms details because doing so could jeopardize the RCMP's investigation into how the gunman obtained them.
The inquiry's document also takes issue with Leather's statement on April 20, 2020, that police did not know about the killer's replica police vehicle until the morning of April 19 — the second day of the killer's rampage.
The inquiry has heard the Mounties were first told the gunman was driving a fully marked replica cruiser shortly after 10 p.m. on April 18, 2020, when 911 calls starting coming in from Portapique, N.S., where 13 people were killed. More witnesses came forward at 10:25 p.m. and the next morning at 5:16 a.m.
The document also reveals that RCMP Const. Wayne Tingley had seen the fully marked RCMP replica in Elmsdale, N.S., on April 17, 2020 — a day before the shootings started. He noticed the car had a push bar — uncommon for actual RCMP cruisers — and lacked a licence plate but he didn't see the driver. Tingley provided a statement to the RCMP about his sighting on April 23, 2020.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2021.
— With files from Lyndsay Armstrong and Keith Doucette
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press