The Mass Casualty Commission has finally begun public hearings in Nova Scotia. Two long years since the tragedy of Portapique, a night of infamy when twenty-two people were killed over an agonizingly long thirteen hour period; the perpetrator driving the back gravel roads– his victims pre-determined, his justification firmly contained in his own mind. His thoughts and twisted goals now locked forever by his glory seeking death in an innocuous Irving gas station parking lot.
Two years in our lives would seem more than enough time one to conduct and complete any serious criminal investigation. After all, the one and only suspect was dead, albeit with numerous crime scenes but all conclusively tied to him forensically. However this is government, so we are just now at the stage of public witnesses and the tendering of what this 38 person Commission has found to date. Barbara McLean who is the Director of Investigations, even went so far as to say that the investigation is “ongoing” despite having collected thousands of documents and taken numerous statements numerous times from all involved.
These particular public hearings are to go for a further several months with the final report not due to be completed until November 2022. Some observers allege that the length and breadth of this investigation is in itself, by design, structured to mute the outrage. Time, or the buying of time, being the best governmental tool to dilute an upset public.
It began on February 22nd and the public record of it goes up to March 9th as this is being written.
Former Supreme Court Justice Michael MacDonald began the hearings with the usual thanks to the Indigenous for allowing it to take place on their “un-ceded territory”, which if nothing else signals to all that we are indeed involved in a governmental hearing. This is followed by a daily tribute to the victims with a listing of all of their names. Day after day this tribute will be repeated and over time runs the danger of becoming more political governmental theatre than substance.
The majority of the first day was an orientation, which then evolved into a panel discussion on the psychological impacts of the events on Nova Scotians and on the rest of Canada. This panel, which consisted of a therapist, a psychology professor, and the President and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. There were a few others, but suffice to say they were there to continue and extend that mantra of all of us having been victimized by the events in Portapique. The Commission felt that part of their mandate is a need to help us “normalize and validate emotions people have felt or have been feeling”.
This somewhat incongruous start continues into the next day which begins with another panel discussion this time designed to “introduce the communities”. This second panel consisted of Chief Sidney Peters who spoke about the Indigenous causes(Chief Peters specializes in Agricultural and Housing Programs); an Anglican Rector Nicole Uzans; Alana Hurtle, the head of the Rotary Cares Committee; and Mary Teed, a social worker.
The rather bizarre use and questionable need for these panels was summed up by a Global News reporter who asked during a question and answer session what these opening remarks and panels had to do with the questions uppermost in the minds of the families. He asked pointedly: “Do you feel that you have lost the families?” While another reporter asked the more obvious: “Whats the point of the panels?” A Halifax Chronicle reporter, clearly miffed at two already long days listening to pointless and mostly irrelevant commentary, asked whether if it was “necessary” to hear what it was like to be living in “rural” Nova Scotia.
It was suffice to say a rocky start.
One would be remiss at this time to not outline the nature and make up of the Commission. If one ever wanted to see a liberalized government structure in full bloom, this is your opportunity. One must also keep in mind that the Commission was formed after some reluctance by the Attorney-General for Nova Scotia and only after pressure arose from the victims families.
The Commission themes play consistently like bad Muzak. There is obsessive talk of victims, the constant strum of words like “working together”, “safer”, “stronger”, “shared understanding”, and a “shared purpose”. In his opening statement head Commissioner Michael MacDonald says with grandeur that one of the goals of the Commission is to make “sure that it never happens again”.
The other two primary Commissioners are Leanne Fitch, the retired seven year Police Chief of the Fredricton police department; who in her opening statement talks of her work in community policing, dealing with what she deemed the “most vulnerable”. The third Commissioner, Dr. Kim Stanton, a lawyer and academic speaks to making the world “safer”, and the commission leading to a “shared understanding” and a “shared purpose”.
Then there is the rest that make up the Commission. There are the Commission Directors: eight of them. Then there is the Commission Team which consists of a further 27 individuals; nine of whom are lawyers. One thing that sticks out, in fact it is rather striking, is the number of women on the Commission staff. Twenty-seven of the thirty-eight are women, thereby making up 72% of the Commission (22% of the RCMP in Nova Scotia are women). I honestly don’t know what that means or whether it will have any bearing on the outcome– one can only hope. The assigned seven “investigators” are all men.
Did I mention there were a few lawyers? The ones mentioned above just work for the Commission; then there are the lawyers for the victim families, the Federal Justice Department, and lawyers for the National Police Federation to name just a few. Those logging 8 hour billable days may be the only group which will survive this lengthy process.
So with all these lawyers one can make a few predictions. It’s going to go longer than necessary. Secondly, the gut wrenching truth, the bare truth, will be softened and weakened by a layer of protection over the various interests that may feel, or imagine, they have some exposure.
Running in the background and outside of the Commission are a couple of civil cases the lawyers for whom are present, and would more than relish some damning information to come out of these hearings. One is being brought by the victims families, and the other by Lisa Banfield who is suing over the suspect Gabriel Wortman’s $1.2 million estate.
Maybe, this is being too harsh or cynical, after all this is not a criminal proceeding. This is, in the words of the Commission mandate “…is not designed nor intending to determine guilt or assign blame”. They are there to work “in a restorative way”. They are there to “restore a sense of safety”, to insure that there is “public safety in our communities”.
To outline the investigational narrative this Commission is using what is termed “Foundational documents”. Although Roger Burrill, the Commission counsel, states that they are “foundational” and not “determinative”. The use of these “Foundational documents” is not common.
In a criminal proceeding one would tell the narrative with the presentation of evidence and witnesses usually in some form of investigational order. In this instance, they are only using witnesses in their words to “fill in the gaps” left by the Foundational documents. They are also vetting out crime photographs and you will not hear all of the 911 calls in their entirety. This they explain is so that they don’t victimize the victims once again; even though this policy clearly flies in the face of a fulsome disclosure. Our sensitivity as a Nation according to this Commission precludes us from knowing all the details, as gruesome as they may be and as uncomfortable as that may make us.
So far, three foundational documents have been shown– twenty-seven more are coming.
There are twenty-seven proposed witnesses up to this point in time and those witnesses will eventually include Commissioner Lucki, A/Commissioner (retired) Lee Bergerman and C/Supt Chris Leather. That will happen when they get around to the foundational document entitled “Command Decisions”. That testimony should prove slightly more interesting than a panel on whats it like to live in rural Nova Scotia but that may show my personal bias.
The first two foundational documents now on record pertain to the events in Portapique on April 18th and April 19th 2020. These are the base events from which all else will follow. The first officers responding, the calling of ERT, the trapped kids in the residence on Orchard Beach Drive. Even abbreviated, the circumstances facing the officers who arrived thirty minutes after the initial call and their subsequent ninety minutes spent together in the dark, not knowing where the suspect was, or even the extent of his damage will awaken the senses of every police officer listening.
Csts. Patton, Beselt and Merchant, were the only police in this man-made Hades. The house fires lit their way as they stumbled across bodies lying bloodied and unmoving in a yard or gravel driveway. Their senses over-loaded and in the end even though reacting as an “active shooter” procedure, can do nothing but “hunker down”. They deserve all our credit.
The original caller, Jamie Blair, calls 911 at 10:01 pm on that fateful night, witnessed her husband Greg being gunned down on the porch. She will die a short time later as Wortman comes after her and kills her in cold blood. The phone call ending.
The heroes will likely be the four children who huddled together in the basement of 135 Orchard Beach Drive, two of which, ages 9 and 11, had witnessed their parents being murdered. The two escaped to the McCauley residence.
Earlier Lisa McCauley an Elementary school teacher, had guarded the bedroom door, her children trembling behind her. She was shot through that door. When Wortman enters the bedroom, unaware of the children behind her, he shoots her once again.
The horror of those thirteen hours and the single mindedness of someone capable of such extraordinary violence is numbing to even listen to.
It is indeed unfortunate that this Commission is off to a less than auspicious start. Their desire to project empathy and understanding seems to overwhelm them, and thus may overwhelm the ability to get to any meaningful dialogue or expose what may have gone wrong. Legalistic and bureaucratic niceties seem destined to dull the edge of this inquiry. Future months of interminable testimony could prove more banal than enlightening.
There will be the predictable complaints of manpower, broken communication, and the odd moment of embarrassment. It seems likely that the lack of police investigation in the early days of Wortman, those days preceding his violent crusade, his domestic abuse, and his gathering of offensive weapons and building replica police cars will likely prove more damning than a lack of a Provincial wide Alert. The evidence of Lisa Banfield will undoubtedly give us a glimpse into a crazed man. Maybe it was all predictable, but these psychological breakdowns usually defy our current ability to understand.
This Commission is not designed to assign blame so blame they will not find.
In the end, Government Recommendations will flow with abandon from an over wordy eventual report, and they will all likely be dealt the fate of most government recommendations.
Making the families endure another eight months of this may in fact be the real re-victimizing– the families despair likely to be replaced with ever mounting frustration.
The rest of us may all be just another “casualty”… but stay tuned.