The “Casualty Commission”

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.

Photo courtesy of Flickr Commons by mrbanjo1138–Some Rights Reserved

Fifty Shades of Red

Twenty two victims, nine men and thirteen women, all who were alive and well on April 18th, breathing normally, carrying on normal lives–all never made it to April 20th. Their lives quickly and unceremoniously extinguished, their deaths carried out with ferocity and a single-minded intent.

The exact reasons why, now forever locked in the deceased and decaying brain of a middle aged non-entity Gabriel Wortman.

Dressed in a police uniform, driving a mock up police car, this male transformed the symbolism of  safety and security normally embodied by a uniform and the blue and red lights, into something much more sinister. The birthday party clown became the Joker. 

The largest mass killing in Canadian history unfolded over two days, possibly prolonged by a series of disparate events and plausible police miscues. One of their own, a twenty year veteran police officer drove face on to her own death. Distorted bodies lined the houses and yards of this small unheralded Nova Scotia community of Portapique. 

In the end ingenuity and perseverance did not bring down the shooter; he was brought down by a coincidence. The police and the suspect coming together by bizarre happenstance, at a local garage, where thankfully this time the police got the drop on the well armed killer.

From the very beginning there have been questions about the police and the response to the calls for help, both before the killings and during. The herd like media focused on the lack of use of the Amber alert which will likely prove to be a minor issue in the overall set of circumstances. Nevertheless, one can not shake the uncomfortable feeling that there are much deeper issues that were at play during those fateful 48 hours.

As the weeks following slid by, more questions both from the public and the family victims arose over how this individual, this denturist, who made false teeth in his normal working hours was constructing police cars in his garage, amassing weapons, and preparing for his armageddon. Violence was likely percolating for a number of years in the frontal lobe of Mr. Wortman so inconclusive evidence and analysis will occupy psychiatrists for years to come.

How had a person of such bizarre interests go undetected in such a small community? How is it possible that the local RCMP police could not have known about this person? Well, as it turns out, it sounds like they did, but the level of knowledge and any action they may have or should have undertaken is very much still in dispute. 

The family background pointed to a history of domestic violence and abuse or as the new liberals now refer to as “intimate partner violence”. Reports surfaced of the public calling in– from the likes of Brenda Forbes who alerted them to his assaultive behaviour to his girlfriend.  

Indeed a fight with a girlfriend may have been the spark that lit his anger— but this time the spark became a flame and the fire became one of increasing savagery throughout the night. 

There were concerns raised about a collection of guns being accumulated but again, no apparent response by the police, to investigate an allegation that normally should trigger alarm bells.  

During the night of killings, the police felt that they had cornered the suspect, only to find out that he simply drove out another way– to begin killing again. 

Twitter was used to warn people, probably not the most reliable warning of an emergency, especially in rural Nova Scotia. An Amber alert would clearly have worked better, but an Amber Alert is not intended for such circumstances and by the time upper management cleared the administrative fog to clear the way for the alert, the suspect had been killed. 

So for the next three months, the public demanded that a public inquiry be undertaken. After all, this was the largest mass murder in Canadian history. 

The weeks went by and the Nova Scotia government— led by their Attorney General Mark Furey— seemed to be stalling or dodging the questions that were coming up on an almost daily basis. The added twist was that Furey was a Liberal politician, and, also a former RCMP police officer of some 34 years. He retired as a manager, a District Commander for Lunenburg County.  

Both Furey and the Premier Stephen McNeil during those three months insisted repeatedly that they were “committed” to getting “answers” to the families of those killed, but neither publicly expressed any support for an inquiry or a review of the circumstances. Suspicions began to grow. 

If Furey is to be believed, and that is a big if, during this three months, he and his Ottawa Federal counterpart, Liberal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair were “negotiating” and determining what was the best way to proceed. Apparently they were discussing “all the options” during this time, including a public inquiry. 

As political pundits often note, emotionally driven inquiries are often political suicide. The RCMP has been taking body blows throughout this country for the last number of years and detailed prolonged exposure during an inquiry could and would have serious ramifications; not to mention the possible political fallout.

Old Bafflegab Bill Blair, overseer of the Mounties had to know that any negative impact on the RCMP would harm the re-election chances of the Liberals in the next election. Mr. Furey, a duly rewarded Mountie over the years may not have been eager nor relish the idea of throwing his former colleagues under the bus. 

The decision of these two muddling master minds needed to both appease the victim families and the public, but also limit their exposure, and hopefully have the results exhumed in a politically opportune time. So how could they meet those demands while still limiting the damage?

Their decision on July 23rd was to have a three member panel “review”. Closed doors. No testimony under oath. 

Even more hypocritically they jointly announced that the review should emphasize “contributing and contextual factors, gender based and intimate partner violence”  and “police policies procedures”  and “training for gender based intimate partnership violence”.  

Hearing the mandate of this review gave one pause. Did we miss something? Did somehow the cluster of circumstances which led to this deadly killing spree all be attributable to domestic violence? Did the accumulation of guns, the accrual of fake police cars, the operational decision making, the shots fired at the firehall, all turn into an issue of domestic violence and the suggested resolution be further police training in domestic violence? 

This is only understood when one considers that during these intervening months, some female protests had come about by women groups inferring that the mass murder was the result of inherent violence against women in society; pointing out that mass shootings almost always had a central theme of misogyny. These events were triggered, so this group proclaimed by the assault of the girlfriend and a history of violence between the two.

So, even though considering that the evidence of violence against women as a central theme was a bit of a stretch, it is safe territory for the Liberals. It is an intellectual territory where they are comfortable. It is a place where they can take a few body shots, but then fall back on to their righteous practised platform of support for women. 

During the news conference where they announced the “review” the talking points were clear. To assuage the public they lauded the panel members as being, “independent” and “transparent” and “experienced”. The review panel was to issue two reports, one in Feb 2021 and the final report in August 2021. 

The mandate was to look into the “causes” and “circumstances” but that it should be based on “restorative principles” and also “trauma informed”. There was emphasis on gender based violence and that the strongest need was to “inform, support and engage victims”. 

Mr. Furey laid it on thick, addressing the victim families and intoning that they, the Liberal government, would “walk with you through every step of your healing process” as the families clearly had been “injured physically and mentally”. He closed his statement by reading the names of all the victims, conjuring up images of the fall of the twin tours during 9/11.

After the two concluded their initial prepared statements, there were a series of phoned in questions from the National media, which focused in on the fact that the ordered “review” was not what the victims wanted. They wanted and were demanding a public inquiry after all, so why this?  The second often voiced complaint in the questions was that there was no ability to compel testimony of witnesses. Blair answered this by saying that he had “directed the RCMP ” to cooperate “with the review. This clearly assured nobody. 

 So, for the next 30 minutes as they continued to answer the same questions, we watched Blair and Furey dance the two step explanation of “independence” “integrity”. Their single explanation as to why not a public inquiry — it would take too long.

This was coming from the dance partners who waited three months to figure out anything at all. 

Who were these Review Board members who were “independent” and would be “transparent”? 

First, heading the review was to be Michael J. MacDonald a Chief Justice of Nova Scotia. As Chief Justice he was heavily involved in the Nova Scotia Access to Justice Coordinating Committee and promoted several judicial outreach initiatives to engage the Indigenous  and African Nova Scotian communities.  All laudable, but to think that he was coming from anything but the Liberal spectrum would a be a bit of a stretch. He had a history of championing for victims, so he would be in perfect concert with this slanted mandate of “restorative” principles. 

Number two. Anne McLellan a former four term MP, who served in the Cabinet as Public Safety Minister, Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. To say that this “academic” and “politician” was “independent” is clearly laughable. She is one of the few Canadian parliamentarians to have spent her entire career as a cabinet member in Liberal governments under Chretien and Paul Martin.

Justin Trudeau in 2019 after the Liberal party did not win any seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan hired her as an “advisor”.

Apparently this ethically challenged Federal government does not see conflict of interest even when it hits them on the head, so bubbly Blair spouts the ridiculous view of her being “independent” from the Federal government. 

Finally, the third review board member is Leanne Fitch, who clearly was chosen so she could appear to be representing the policing aspect.  Ms Fitch was a police officer for 34 years, rising to Chief in that bustling city of Fredericton, New Brunswick. She was the first openly gay female who served as the Fredericton Chief. The Fredericton police department has 113 officers, smaller than Richmond or Coquitlam Detachments of the RCMP.

She had been leading the agency when the four officers were killed in Fredericton. Also, while under her tutelage a number of Fredericton police officers were outed for alleged misconduct, and the administration was found to have broken New Brunswick Official Languages Act. Interestingly, in an interview with the CBC she felt that “she doesn’t expect the force to ever be the same after the shooting”. She too likes to stress victimization. 

Ms Fitch was also investigated by the NB. Police Commission in 2016, but the nature of the complaint and the findings were never revealed. It may be telling that a few weeks before the announced investigation, two officers had been fired from the force and three other officers were facing criminal charges. One of the females charged alleged that officers “have lost confidence in the leadership of the Fredericton force”. In the same news conference police union president Cpl Shane Duffy suggested that the police force “has created a difficult, if not poisoned, work environment for the police officers there”. 

So that in total is the three who according to these two governments represent “independence”, “transparency” and “expertise” needed for this “review”.

Unfortunately for these two governments, the ruse didn’t work. 

The general public saw through the hypocrisy which was oozing through this “review” announcement.  The protests resumed– led once again by the victim families. They marched on the Truro police office, again demanding a public inquiry. 

The Federal government bowed to the political pressure on July 28th, a mere five days after their “review” announcement,; changing their minds and deciding that a public inquiry would be held instead.

Mr. Blair announced the change in heart through social media (not willing to take questions this time), saying “We have heard the call from families, survivors, advocates and Nova Scotia members of Parliament for more transparency…”.

Apparently, they had been deaf for the first three months.

They also announced that the three individuals on the review, will now be proclaimed Commissioners of the Inquiry — no need to return their company cars.

Mr. Furey now also has seen the light and even had the audacity to say that this was what he wanted all along.

So why this bumbling and stumbling attempt at a “review” instead of a public inquiry?  

There could be only one conclusion. It was a hardened cynical political attempt to divert and mollify the rising victim voices, while clearly hiding their political backsides.

Both governments realized that any review, probe or inquiry is going to raise some serious political questions of the RCMP and their Provincial counterparts. Not so much at the individual member level —but at the broader and deeper administrative and management level. Blair and Furey should be ashamed of their contrivance.

This now public inquiry has the potential to strike at the deep-rooted problems in the RCMP. Training, seniority, supervision, levels of manpower, and emergency response will all be called into a tear stained and emotionally charged examination that will no doubt be covered live by all the television media.

The Commissioners will still try to distill the anger, but it will be difficult when everything is exposed to the public eye. The Province, as the contractual overseer of the RCMP will share in the fecal laced blame that will be thrown at the proverbial khaki and blue wall.   

Broadly, in a couple of years, we will likely find that the officers that night were trapped by the insanity of a killer– but also a Federal system which has been letting them down for years. 

Commissioner Lucki will resign (retire) just in time for the Liberals to claim they are now sweeping with a clean broom and that all the recommendations are already being implemented. They will conclude any future news conference with an apology to the victims families. They will pay out a civil suit.

After all, they have become very adept at the art of supplication and living with the numerous shades of embarrassment– the shades of red that surely are going to come from this protracted examination.

Photo Courtesy of Indrid_Cold at Flickr Creative Commons – Some Rights Reserved