RCMP 'did their best' in response to N.S. mass shooting: federal Justice Department

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HALIFAX — The RCMP’s response to the 2020 shooting rampage that left 22 Nova Scotians dead was far from perfect, but police did their best, the federal Justice Department said Friday.

During the final day of public proceedings at the federal-provincial inquiry into the mass shooting, Lori Ward, general counsel for the federal Department of Justice, said there’s always room for improvement for all policing agencies.

“No response to a critical incident of this magnitude could be perfect, but when this crisis hit, the RCMP showed up, did their best and acted with courage, determination and dedication," Ward said.

It's difficult, she added, to separate what was known when the killer was at large on April 18-19, 2020, from what has been uncovered in the years since the tragedy. While hindsight is a valuable tool when used to learn lessons and make changes, it “can also impede a fair and objective evaluation of decisions made in real time.”

On the night of April 18, 2020, a man disguised as a Mountie and driving a car that looked exactly like an RCMP cruiser started killing neighbours and strangers in rural Portapique, N.S.

Ward said she is aware of the criticism levelled at the RCMP for allegedly dismissing witness accounts of the marked police car that the gunman was driving during the 13-hour rampage. She said the idea that the killer could have built such a car himself was beyond reasonable comprehension and was unlike anything police had seen before.

When the RCMP were sent photos of gunman Gabriel Wortman’s replica police cruiser the morning of April 19, 2020, it was initially viewed with “disbelief and incomprehension” by all members, Ward said.

“To assert that (RCMP) should have continued to search for a car identical to their own as opposed to turning their minds to alternatives like decommissioned cars is to view the events through the lens of someone who has now been familiar with the existence of the replica car for more than two years,” she said.

Ward, who at times before the inquiry had tears in her eyes, highlighted that among the “problems and failings” of the RCMP in the aftermath of the shootings was the delay in discovering some of the killer's 22 victims.

Harry and Cory Bond, the sons of Peter and Joy Bond — a couple murdered in Portapique, N.S., the night of April 18, 2020 — started hearing from acquaintances the next morning about shootings near Cobequid Court, the road where their parents lived.

The summary from the inquiry into the mass shooting says it was about 18 hours after the killings started before an RCMP officer found the Bonds' bodies inside their home.

“The anguish felt by the families of those victims at the thought of that lapse of time is unimaginable,” Ward said, adding that the delay is among the things the RCMP "wishes it could go back and change.”

To close out the final day of public inquiry proceedings, the three commissioners thanked all those who participated for their contributions and the public for its engagement.

A final report detailing recommendations from the inquiry will be released March 31, 2023.

Commissioner Leanne Fitch said that the inquiry has heard commitments from RCMP leaders and other “institutional representatives” that they will be open to the recommendations and are prepared to receive them.

“We are encouraged by these commitments and call on policymakers, institutions, community groups and members of the public to take action based on the coming recommendations,” Fitch said.

The commission of inquiry said it has conducted interviews with more than 230 people, including 80 RCMP officers, and has released 31 summaries of evidence — known as foundational documents — alongside more than 3,800 supporting materials and exhibits. As well, more than 900 members of the public shared their experiences of the mass shooting through the commission’s online survey.

Members of the public may submit suggestions for recommendations through email, mail or over the phone until Sept. 30.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press