N.S. womens' shelters chastise RCMP for not recording threat complaints

N.S. RCMP say they are continuing to search their files for the threats report described by a transition house staffer in September. (Jane Robertson/CBC - image credit)
N.S. RCMP say they are continuing to search their files for the threats report described by a transition house staffer in September. (Jane Robertson/CBC - image credit)

A group of women's shelters say they have the records to back up a claim that Nova Scotia RCMP did not take a woman's complaint of being threatened seriously, after the Mounties said they could not find a report of the complaint.

The threat was revealed in September during a roundtable discussion on police accountability at the public inquiry into the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting.

A gunman disguised as an RCMP officer killed 22 people over a 13-hour rampage that began with an assault on his partner of 19 years. The commission is examining intimate partner violence as part of its mandate to examine the circumstances surrounding the murders.

During the roundtable, Emily Stewart of Third Place Transition House in Truro shared a client's story about being threatened.

Stewart said the Colchester County woman had reported to transition house staff, and RCMP, that a man told her "you know what Junior did to Susie? That's going to be you."

The comment was a reference was to the murder of Susie Butlin of Tatamagouche, N.S., who was killed by her neighbour, Ernie "Junior" Duggan in 2017.

Butlin made regular calls to the RCMP in the months about harassment from Duggan, but no actions were taken.The RCMP's Civilian Review and Complaints Commission is now investigating the Mounties' handling of Butlin's complaints.

Duggan was convicted of second-degree murder and given a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 20 years.

Stewart said during the roundtable session in September that RCMP told the woman, who also lived in the Tatamagouche area, that what the man had said to her was "not a threat."

RCMP found no records: lawyer

Federal lawyer Lori Ward wrote to the commission on Oct. 3 to address Stewart's comments and inform the commission of a response by RCMP.

Ward said Colchester County district commander Staff Sgt. Curtis MacKinnon reached out to Stewart two days after the roundtable to "identify the file for further review and follow-up action if necessary."

Ward said that Stewart provided MacKinnon with the time frame of the report — around a year and half to two years ago — and that the RCMP scored it a 2 out of 13 on a risk-assessment criteria.

Stewart would not provide the complainant's name, Ward wrote, and told police her client had no interest in revisiting the situation "due to the initial experience she had with the police."

Association stands by shelter records

In an email to the commission on Nov. 28 and released Thursday, James Goodwin, lawyer for  the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS), which represents Third Place and other women's shelters in Nova Scotia,  responded to Ward's note.

He said Third Place had since reviewed its files and could "confirm the veracity" of Stewart's comments.

"We are disappointed that the RCMP does not keep better records," Goodwin wrote.


Dawn Ferris, senior co-chair of the THANS board, said she first heard of the situation during a meeting when Stewart raised concerns that providing further information to police could be a breach of confidentiality.

"In small rural communities, everybody knows everybody. And so just passing on a name is not just a little thing. It could have big implications," Ferris said Wednesday.

She added that Stewart and THANS felt they had given the police enough details to complete their search.

Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Chris Marshall said in an email to CBC Thursday that Colchester County RCMP wanted the client's name so they could "identify any issues with the investigation" and find the incident in their records management system.

The RCMP has reviewed all 462 "uttering threats" files in Colchester County District since Jan. 1, 2017, but "no files were located with the details described," Marshall said.

The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan
The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan

The Mounties have expanded their search to include earlier files, Ward said in her email to the commission.

"Should the RCMP identify the possible file in question as a result of these efforts, it will undertake an appropriate file review," Ward said.

Ferris said the situation is another unfortunate example of a pattern that appeared throughout the inquiry of RCMP being unable to find full reports or details relating to serious complaints.

In the most notable example, Portapique resident Brenda Forbes contacted RCMP about the gunman's abuse of his partner, but it was was recorded as a community disturbance by responding officers.

"Veiled threats" like the one Stewart's client faced should always be taken seriously, Ferris said, so to hear that the RCMP haven't been able to find the report is concerning.

Ferris said while she feels systemic change is needed within the RCMP to ensure threats are properly documented, it's still important for anyone being threatened to come to police.

RCMP letter is an 'escalation'

Ferris said when these complaints are not properly tracked by police it leaves the women they serve with the impression "that their words don't matter."

Ferris also said Ward's email was an "escalation" her group had not expected.

"Sending a letter kind of discrediting Emily's comments to the Mass Casualty Commission just seemed like a little bit of an overreach," Ferris said.

"It seemed like they were throwing us as an organization under the bus, that we were being argumentative and not helpful to the situation, which is not the case."

Marshall said the purpose of Ward's letter "was not to dispute" Stewart's account, but rather assure the commission and participants that Stewart's comments were heard and taken seriously.

The RCMP appreciates the complexities of gender-based violence, Marshall said, "which makes our review of this incident even more important. This is why we initiated the review and updated the Mass Casualty Commission."

He said the RCMP remains "willing to review the complaint" should Third Place provide more identifying information about their client.