Lawyers frustrated with mass shooting inquiry in Nova Scotia as deadlines loom

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HALIFAX — Eighteen months after a public inquiry was established in Nova Scotia to investigate the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history, lawyers representing most of the 22 victims say they are troubled about its slow progress and lack of witness testimony.

"We're frustrated with the pace," said Josh Bryson, a lawyer whose firm represents the family of Peter and Joy Bond, a retired couple in their 70s who were fatally shot in their home in Portapique, N.S., on the night of April 18, 2020.

With less than six months remaining before the inquiry's three commissioners are due to submit a final report to the federal and provincial governments, lawyer Tara Miller said the inquiry is running out of time, given the amount of evidence that has yet to be heard.

"We have a daunting calendar with a very tight timeline," said Miller, who represents a relative of victim Kristen Beaton, a nurse and pregnant mother of one who was gunned down while sitting in her car in Debert, N.S., on April 19, 2020. "The calendar is jam-packed."

So far, the inquiry has heard sworn testimony from 21 witnesses, but only nine have been RCMP officers involved in the 13-hour manhunt for the killer. More importantly, not a single senior Mountie has testified yet. The commission has committed to having senior officers testify, but no dates have been set.

"We feel we need actual, live witnesses," Bryson said in a recent interview. "That's the best form of evidence, participants with their own voices, with their own points of view."

As an example, Bryson cited testimony last month from firefighters Greg Muise and Darrell Currie, whose firehall in Onslow, N.S., was riddled with bullets when two RCMP officers mistook a man in the parking lot for the killer and opened fire.

"They testified about the harrowing details of their near-death encounter, where bullets were fired ... and they sheltered in place for 52 minutes ... fearing for their lives," Bryson said. "That wasn't captured in the ... documents. Not at all. That's why we need witnesses."

Unlike most public inquiries, the Mass Casualty Commission has focused much of its energy on producing a series of foundational documents, which are summaries of evidence collected during an independent investigation that started in October 2020 and is ongoing.

This approach was adopted to help the commission sift through 50,000 documents, including transcripts of more than 100 witness interviews — a massive compilation of evidence collected primarily from 17 crime scenes spread across northern and central Nova Scotia.

Bryson said he understands it would take too much time to hear testimony from every witness. But there is a growing sentiment among participating lawyers that too few key witnesses have been heard.

Miller said her clients believe the inquiry is relying too heavily on the foundational documents to the exclusion of live testimony.

"For the credibility of this inquiry and for the confidence of the family members and for Canadians, we need to have oral evidence under oath that can be challenged and tested with cross-examination," said Miller, who also represents a relative of Aaron Tuck, who was killed in Portapique with his partner Jolene Oliver and their daughter Emily Tuck.

Lawyer Sandra McCulloch, whose firm represents the families of 14 victims, has told the inquiry her clients are also concerned about "the overuse of foundational documents in place of live witnesses in testing evidence."

As well, McCulloch said there are concerns that some evidence presented has been out of sync with related witness testimony.

"We are resolute in our submission that we must hear from witnesses directly and allow them to be questioned in a contextual way .... Instead, we’re being pushed off to some time down the road," she told the inquiry on April 13.

Last week, McCulloch told the commission that two days of discussions and testimony about the RCMP's communications with the public were "missing some critical pieces" because the Mounties involved won't face questions until a later date.

There have also been complaints about the inquiry's use of so-called roundtable discussions and witness panels, which typically feature experts offering opinions about broader issues. These talks have tended to steer clear of specific references to the killer's rampage.

"This is a national inquiry with a national mandate, but it just seems so divorced from what happened on April 18 and 19 when it takes on a focus that is more academic," Bryson said. "When you have these policy discussions, they can appear to the families to be quite divorced from what they endured."

Bryson said the lawyers working for the inquiry have done a good job pulling together a vast amount of information, but he says the overreliance on documents is a real problem.

"The process to generate foundational documents from untested evidence, in many cases, does not give us a comfort level that we're actually getting the best product," he said. "These are statements where someone is not cross-examined, not challenged, not tested."

This week, the inquiry is scheduled to release foundational documents on the role of the RCMP emergency response team and on RCMP command decisions.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2022.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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