TRURO, N.S. — The relatives of victims of the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting have told their lawyers to boycott the public inquiry investigating the tragedy, after its commissioners decided to prevent cross-examination of key Mountie witnesses.
The law firm representing 14 of 22 families issued a statement saying it was instructed not to attend the hearings on Wednesday and the next three hearings on the schedule. Patterson Law said the families are "disheartened and further traumatized" by the commission's decision Monday to prevent their lawyers from directly questioning Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill and Sgt. Andy O’Brien.
Rehill was the RCMP's risk manager at its Operational Communications Centre in Truro, N.S., when the rampage that claimed 22 lives over two days began in nearby in Portapique, N.S., on April 18, 2020. When the centre received reports of an active shooter, Rehill assumed command while O'Brien assisted in overseeing the early response.
Josh Bryson, a lawyer who represents the family of victims Peter and Joy Bond, attended hearings Wednesday but said his clients have instructed him not to attend the hearings involving Rehill and O'Brien.
"This is a definite setback … It's definitely not a good thing. We're not going to be there to question in our own voices on behalf of the families," said Bryson, standing outside the inquiry.
The federal-provincial commission of inquiry agreed Monday to provide special accommodations for three senior Mounties when they testify about command decisions they made as the tragedy unfolded.
Rehill and O'Brien will face questions from commission lawyers via Zoom calls that will be recorded and broadcast at a later date. Participants and lawyers who wish to observe their testimony must remain off screen with their microphones muted while each Mountie is speaking.
No reasons were given for the special arrangements. The commission has said this information is considered private because it deals with physical or psychological health needs.
Participating lawyers were told to submit questions for Rehill and O'Brien to commission lawyers in advance of the officers' testimony, which is expected to take place on Monday and Tuesday, beginning with Rehill.
Lawyer Tara Miller said her clients have given her instructions not to attend this week and next week.
"In addition to being fundamentally offside, what this decision does is further erode the confidence of family members who are the most affected," she said in an interview Wednesday.
"These are individuals who put children to bed alone at night. These are the individuals who celebrate Mother's and Father's days with memories."
Miller said it has been her client's position all along that participating lawyers should be allowed to engage in unfettered but appropriate cross-examination of witnesses.
"That is a fundamental tenet of any kind of a litigation proceeding, and that includes public inquiries," Miller said.
Miller said she has filed legal arguments but they have not been addressed by the commission. She said legal texts make it clear it is inappropriate for commission counsel to both ask questions and conduct cross-examinations, given the fact that they are supposed to remain neutral.
She said her client is not opposed to accommodations for witnesses. "But accommodations that remove the ability to ask appropriate cross-examination questions … That is not acceptable to us."
Miller said cross-examination of Rehill will be central to the inquiry's purpose.
"This was the individual who had command of the entire first response," she said. "The decisions that he made and why he made them, those are all questions that are highly relevant."
Meanwhile, Staff Sgt. Al Carroll — former district commander for Colchester County — is expected to testify Thursday via a live Zoom call. He will be provided with breaks during his appearance, the commission said Tuesday. He could face direct cross-examination.
The National Police Federation and the federal Department of Justice had requested that O'Brien and Rehill be allowed to provide their information by sworn affidavit and that Carroll testify in person with questions asked only by commission counsel.
The commission confirmed Tuesday it received a total of six requests for accommodations. One request was rejected and the commission agreed that two other witnesses could testify as part of a panel. Those witnesses were not named.
Commission chairman Michael MacDonald opened the hearing on Wednesday by discussing the decision on accommodations, saying he didn’t expect they would prevent the gathering of "necessary information" from the Mounties.
MacDonald, former chief justice of Nova Scotia, said that the commission has to take into account the mandate to be "trauma informed." However, he didn’t provide specific reasons on why having lawyers cross-examine witnesses would create trauma for the Mounties.
Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers took the witness stand Wednesday. He was the risk manager who oversaw the RCMP dispatch in Truro during the second day of the rampage on April 19, 2020.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.
— With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press