A lawyer for the family of the last person killed in the Nova Scotia mass shooting says it seems the "petty feud" between RCMP and municipal forces impacted how the tragedy unfolded, and how many lives were lost.
Jane Lenehan, who represents the family of Gina Goulet — the final victim killed late in the morning of April 19 in her Shubenacadie, N.S., home — gave a final oral submission before the Mass Casualty Commission on Wednesday in Truro, N.S., alongside other lawyers.
"We don't care who started it," Lenehan said. "It's been astounding to learn that this petty feud between the RCMP and municipal forces — who does what better, who's trained better, who's better resourced — may have had tragic consequences for Nova Scotians on April 18 and 19."
The commission is leading the inquiry into the mass shootings of April 18 and 19, 2020, where 22 people were killed across the province by a gunman driving a mock RCMP cruiser and stolen vehicles. Their final report is expected by March 31, 2023.
Lenehan said it's been disheartening for her clients to hear throughout the inquiry that the poor relationship between RCMP and municipal forces has only gotten worse over the past two years.
The inquiry has learned that tensions have escalated due to disagreements over the mass shooting response, policing standards, tracking special services, funding and the emergency alert system.
Two examples that "could have changed the outcome of April 19 had the relationships between our police forces been better" included emails between the RCMP and Truro Police that morning, Lenehan said.
Documents released by the commission show Chief Supt. Chris Leather emailed Chief David MacNeil in Truro at 10 a.m. to say the Mounties had the gunman "pinned down" in Wentworth — which wasn't true.
During his testimony, Leather agreed in hindsight that the information was incorrect, but he never followed up with MacNeil because he was busy. RCMP did not update MacNeil before the gunman drove through Truro about 15 minutes after that exchange.
Lenehan said it was "inexcusable" that Truro police weren't told that the gunman's mock cruiser had been spotted heading south from Lillian Campbell's murder scene around 9:40 a.m.
"It left police in the dark about the danger headed their way," Lenehan said.
She added that if both agencies had worked better together, Truro might have been in RCMP briefings and would have known to be on the lookout for the gunman.
The second example was the RCMP's decision not to bring in the Emergency Response Team from Halifax Regional Police, Lenehan said, and station them in a key area like Truro.
The commission has already heard about the frustration those ERT members had overnight on April 18 when they were denied a request for more members to be called out and sent proactively to respond.
Although the Halifax chief testified they needed a call from RCMP to send their ERT members into RCMP territory, Lenehan said it was upsetting for Goulet's family to see highly trained officers be shut down in this way with "management squabbles" seeming to play a role.
Lenehan said one of her clients told the commission in a recent group session "she really hopes that in the future the police forces in Nova Scotia can set their egos aside" and better protect the public.
Lenehan's suggested recommendations to the commission included the creation of one provincial ERT group with enough members and resources to protect the whole province.
Both Lenehan and other family lawyers said Wednesday the commission should recommend the RCMP get involved with an education program around the Alert Ready system.
Although the RCMP and Halifax municipal police can now send alerts on their own, Lenehan noted there still seems to be a distrust on the policing side that an alert would flood 911 call centres or result in vigilante justice.
She said an education program by the Mounties and governments would address this.
Lenehan also raised concerns around Sgt. Andy O'Brien Wednesday, echoing comments made by lawyers this week.
O'Brien testified he drank four to five drinks of rum over four hours before assigning himself to help in the Portapique response but wasn't impaired, which Lenehan called "preposterous."
The "only thing more shocking" than O'Brien's self-deploying that night is the RCMP's handling of the situation, Lenehan said, since the fact that his behaviour goes against RCMP policy had to be specifically pulled out of high-ranking members through direct questioning.
She also said her clients want to see the temporary moratorium on the sale of marked decommissioned RCMP vehicles to the public made permanent. Lenehan said any financial gain isn't worth the risk, made obvious through the gunman's rampage, and the Mounties can still recoup some costs through selling the cars for parts and scrap metal.
Charlene Bagley, whose father Tom Bagley was killed by the gunman the morning of April 19, was among the families attending the hearings Wednesday.
She told reporters outside the inquiry she was glad the hearings are coming to an end, but she doubts the final report will address the lingering questions she has. Bagley said she still doesn't know how one person could carry out all the killings and actions the commission suggests he did within 13 hours.
Although the commission is a fact-finding body tasked with issuing recommendations to avoid similar tragedies, not assigning blame, Bagley said there are RCMP members and others who should face consequences.
"It would be healing to see that those individuals are held accountable for their wrongdoings," Bagley said.
Lawyer Tom Macdonald, representing the brother of victim Sean McLeod, suggested that the commission make a finding about the allegations of political interference swirling around RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki that came up through the inquiry.
While Macdonald said he doesn't believe that interference took place in the "traditional sense," there was still the worrying impression that the Nova Scotia RCMP thought it might have happened — and that must be addressed.
Key recommendations Macdonald suggested included a clearer critical incident response and command structure for RCMP dealing with active shooters in rural areas, and training incoming officers in local awareness and geography by working with people like fire chiefs who know the area.
He also supported the idea of a committee to ensure the findings of the inquiry are actually done, but Macdonald said it should be kept small. He added that final decisions and announcements should go to a "czar," ideally a former judge, who would call out whether the report's recommendations were being done.
Various lawyers including Linda Hupman and Stephen Topshee, counsel for relatives of victims in the Tuck-Oliver family and Lillian Campbell, suggested changes for next-of-kin notifications and how the family liaison role is handled.
Hupman said Jolene Oliver's family in Alberta had a "horrendous" experience waiting hours and leaving calls and messages with many people before the RCMP confirmed Oliver, her husband Aaron Tuck and their daughter Emily had been killed on April 18.
In today's age of social media and constant news coverage, Hupman said RCMP and all police agencies need to expect that families will be calling for information about their loved ones near a major incident. She said Nova Scotia forces should follow the lead of Toronto and Peel agencies, who have mass casualty units that include dedicated phone lines and people to field those calls and pass along key information.
The family liaison officers should be included within those units, Hupman said, and have special training to deal sensitively with grieving family members. The inquiry has heard many families had issues with the one liaison officer assigned to handle most victims' families.
Hupman said the hope of her clients is that the outcome of the inquiry is a report of recommendations that will greatly reduce the potential of something similar happening in the future — but isn't optimistic it could "never" happen.
"No community is too small, too remote, too peaceful for another Portapique to happen," she said.
Hupman and other lawyers also supported the idea of doing away with the RCMP's six-month depot training course and turning to Finland's model of a multi-year post-secondary policing degree, which would be open to those hoping to work in both municipal forces and the Mounties.
The commission will hear more submissions from lawyers throughout the week.
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