Justice department staff who set up support centres in the communities most impacted by Nova Scotia 2020 mass shooting say their work continues two years later, and it's been "humbling" to see how many people still haven't been reached.
The Mass Casualty Commission leading a public inquiry in Dartmouth, N.S., on Tuesday heard how people in provincial victim services, a funeral home and the medical examiner's office were involved in responding to the April 18-19, 2020, mass shooting.
Dana Bowden, director of the Department of Justice's victim services, and Kim Burton, now a department manager but who was front-line staff at the time, described how they set up four navigation centres in communities most impacted by the tragedy in May and June of 2020.
These centres in community buildings and schools in Portapique, Shubenacadie, Masstown and Wentworth were originally supposed to be open for only two weeks. They offered in-person support through victims services officers or navigators connecting people to more options, the inquiry heard.
Bowden said the need was so great that all stayed open six days a week through the summer of 2020. Two school centres closed in August, while the remaining two in Portapique and Wentworth slowed down eventually to two days a week but stayed open until January 2021.
"As we were in the communities there was a recognition that we needed to be there longer," Bowden said.
Both said they were also regularly supporting people in other areas through phone and email.
Bowden said although COVID-19 was a challenge in many ways, it was also helpful because with very few in-person court cases taking place, victim services officers and sheriffs were freed up to work at the centres.
They cut through a lot of red tape on behalf of families and community members, Bowden said, including handling the forms to get counselling through the Justice Department or other services.
While some days only one or two people showed up to a centre, Bowden said it was always worth it to be there.
Burton said despite all the hard work in those early weeks and months, many people had no idea what help was available. Since becoming a manager, Burton said she's spent a lot of time explaining what they do to both the public and government departments.
In just the last three months, Burton said she's heard about people reaching out to the department saying they wanted victims' families to be helped first, but are now ready for assistance.
She also said it's been "really humbling" watching people affected by the mass shooting testify before the inquiry for the very first time.
"I'm wondering 'why didn't we reach them yet?' I've had that experience this week. There's some people out there that we still haven't helped yet," Burton said.
On Monday, the inquiry heard from four Emergency Health Services (EHS) paramedics who responded to Portapique as the shooting began on April 18. They spoke candidly about how their employer did not do enough to support them in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Also on Monday, supervisors for the RCMP's operational communications centre talked about how the trauma experienced by their operators continues today, and has cut their workforce in half.
Burton said while they often find clients through police or Crown lawyers, she wants people impacted by the shooting to know they can refer themselves to victims services.
Their department has 188 clients impacted by the mass shooting with varying needs across the province, Burton said, including victims' families who they're supporting as the inquiry unfolds. She added that it's been a challenge getting families answers about the commission and how it works.
Getting information to victims' families was a challenge after the shootings, two staff members with the provincial medical examiner's office said Tuesday.
Lindsay Denis, a forensic nurse, said she was one of the people who spoke to families about where their loved ones had been killed, how the autopsy process would go, and when their bodies could be released to funeral homes.
As in many homicides, Denis said the RCMP limited what they could share with families.
"Police will ask us not to release information specific to certain things so that it doesn't compromise their investigation. So we tell the families exactly that… I can tell you the autopsy is done but I can't review any specific details," Denis said.
"There were questions I couldn't answer — and that was hard."
Denis said eventually her office did get clearance from the Mounties to share autopsy reports with families who were interested.
She later learned about group meetings between victims' families and police. Denis suggested the medical examiners' officer could be included at the table in the future so they could offer insight into how they work.
Another forensic nurse, Eveline Gallant, said it was also hard explaining to people why they could only share a victim's medical information to next of kin for privacy reasons. She said her office isn't authorised to share such information with other family or friends, even if they were extremely close to the victim.
When asked would have helped to have in the wake of the shooting, Gallant said they had to bring in a forensic anthropologist from Ontario to help with the autopsies of victims whose bodies had been destroyed by fires.
The people with these skills are a "scarce resource" in Canada, with only one in Nova Scotia and one in New Brunswick, Gallant said, so having more people in this field in the Maritimes would be a real help.
Local politicians Tom Taggart, the MLA for Colchester North and Christine Blair, mayor of the Municipality of Colchester, also spoke to the inquiry Tuesday about how they navigated helping their communities during and after the shooting.
Taggart, who was a Colchester councillor at the time of the massacre and represented the Portapique area, said the morning of April 19 he was on social media trying to offer advice.
Around 9 a.m., Taggart said he posted that citizens should stay inside their homes and not let anyone in, unless a police officer comes to their door.
"It wasn't like five minutes 'til I get a call from a policeman from another force that said, 'Man you gotta get that off there. You just can't have that,' " Taggart said.
"So that kind of communication I wish we'd have known … for us it was hard to react."
The commission moderator didn't ask which police force shared this information with Taggart, but the inquiry has heard that before the RCMP publicly tweeted the gunman was in a mock police cruiser at 10:17 a.m. they had sent a bulletin with those details to police across Nova Scotia hours earlier.
Both Blair and Taggart said that while it was a horrific time coming to terms with what happened that weekend, offers of help or condolences from around the world also poured in.
"One 80-year-old-plus gentleman knit an afghan … for each child that was there after the shootings that had been directly impacted because they lost parents," Blair said. "It meant a lot in the community."
The inquiry resumes Monday when public hearings will be held in Truro.
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