After N.S. mass shooting, American family member of victims lost faith in Mounties

HALIFAX — U.S. citizen Jennifer Zahl Bruland says the murders of her father and stepmother in Nova Scotia's mass shooting led her to stop believing in the quality of Canada's national police force.

In a Sept. 8 interview, the transcript of which was made public Thursday, Zahl Bruland told the public inquiry into the killings that the RCMP "appears to be broken," citing serious shortcomings in its response to the rampage.

Twenty-two people, including a pregnant woman, were killed on April 18-19, 2020, by a gunman with a record of violence who drove a replica police vehicle over a 13-hour period — eluding police, burning homes and killing residents.

Zahl Bruland's father, John Zahl — a U.S. Navy veteran and American citizen — and his spouse, Joanne Thomas, were among the early victims in the community of Portapique, where the couple had lived in their retirement home since 2017. In addition to Zahl's four children, the couple had adopted two of their grandsons and raised them.

The daughter, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and political science, said she had once believed the RCMP to be a top-notch police force, but now, "I worry for my friends and family that rely on them for safety."

She cited a number of issues uncovered by the inquiry, including the failure to issue an Alert Ready emergency notice, the lack of a helicopter for the search, and the ease with which the killer was able to buy decommissioned RCMP vehicles.

The oldest of four siblings, Zahl Bruland said she was surprised to learn from the inquiry that RCMP hadn't trained its general members to respond to active shooters in outdoor, rural, low-light environments.

She also noted the police force's failure to ask for more assistance from the neighbouring municipal police forces and said it was disturbing to learn from the RCMP that they were short on staff to cover a large, rural county.

Zahl Bruland told the inquiry's three commissioners she'd heard too often in the past two years that police "couldn't have saved anyone in Portapique," and doesn't believe that to be a definite fact.

She noted that three officers entered the community while the killer was still in the enclave and they had gone by her parents' house before it had been burned to the ground. "My parents are still alive when they arrived in Portapique," she said, while adding she didn't blame the officers for their actions.

The officers have testified their focus that night was to seek out and stop the killer, and they only entered the home of another victim, Lisa McCully, after her children called 911 to ask for help.

In the days after the killings, Zahl Bruland, who lives in Minnesota, said the RCMP's decision to only assign one officer to assist 21 of the victims' families was inadequate. She said the family liaison officer, Const. Wayne (Skipper) Bent, had too much work.

She said it seemed "very wrong" that by contrast, the family of an RCMP officer who was killed had access to two family liaison officers.

Meanwhile, Zahl Bruland said she has found being an American living in a different time zone meant she often didn't receive followup support suited to her needs.

Zahl Bruland said she found even simple services, such as a 1-800 number for mental health assistance, weren't easily accessible. She said when she called the number, she realized it didn't work for people outside of Canada.

She also told the commissioners she is paying for one of her two counsellors out of pocket. "They've also put a limit on the amount of counselling," she added.

"All services should be equally accessible and it should be kept in the forefront that each victim and family is unique .... One size does not fit all," she said.

The inquiry's final report is expected by March 31, 2023.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2022.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press