Interim RCMP Commissioner Michael Duheme told a news conference Thursday that he had not read even the executive summary or recommendations of the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report.

As with lawyers for family members of the victims and accredited journalists, the RCMP received the report 24 hours before it was released to the public.

On Friday, Duheme again told CBC’s Information Morning host he had yet to be fully briefed and couldn’t answer questions on the report’s contents.

That attitude speaks volumes about the RCMP’s ongoing failure to communicate with the people it services.

It also led to plenty of public discussion and outrage over whether Duheme’s remark was a deliberate RCMP tactic to avoid making any real change. 

Or, that it is yet another example of arrogance towards Nova Scotians who hoped an apology might be forthcoming for some of the many mistakes described in the MCC report.

Instead of apologizing for police mistakes,  Duheme apologized“for the suffering endured by the families of the victims.”

Not nearly good enough.

Memorial for Heather O’Brien on Plains Road. Photo: Joan Baxter.

Indeed, the Mass Casualty Commission report went so far as to suggest the failure of the RCMP’s communications with the public during this crisis may have resulted in unnecessary deaths. 

On Sunday morning, April 19, 2020, Heather O’Brien and Kristine Beaton were using social media to monitor information about the shootings in Portapique. 

The RCMP had the name of the killer as early as 11pm Saturday night, but did not then release the name to the public.

The MCC report notes the failure of the RCMP to communicate to the public that the killer was no longer still in Portapique. By 8am Sunday, commanders told RMCP officers via a BOLO (“be on the lookout for”) that the killer might be “anywhere in the province,” driving a replica police car. 

But at 8:02am Sunday, the RCMP tweeted to the public: “#RCMPNS remains on scene in #Portapique. This is an active shooter situation. Residents in the area, stay inside your homes & lock yourdoors. Call 911 if there is anyone on your property. You may not see the police but we are there with you #Portapique.”

At 8:54am, another tweet went out that included the name and photo of the killer, but it also was hashtagged #Portapique and included no indication that he might not be in that community.

At 10:04am, another tweet said the killer was in Glenholme, but was also confusingly hashtagged #Portapique.

It wasn’t until 10:17am — nearly three hours after the RCMP had obtained a photo of the fake police car, and more than two hours after telling RCMP officers about it — that the RCMP told the public, via tweet, about the fake car.

By that time, along with four others, Kristen Beaton and Heather O’Brien had been killed. 

The MCC report comments:

 We also found that essential workers, including Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) employees [Beaton and O’Brien], were particularly at risk because of the nature of their work. The RCMP’s failure to share accurate and timely information, including information about the perpetrator’s disguise and replica RCMP cruiser, with these workers or their employers deprived these essential workers and their employers of the opportunity to evaluate risks to their safety and to take measures to better protect themselves.

The MCC goes on to say police have known for 30 years they have a responsibility to protect the public when an active threat is present, ever since Judge Moldaver with the Ontario divisional court ruled Toronto police had a duty to inform the public about the method being used by a serial rapist who was at large.

 [t]he law is clear that in certain circumstances, the police have a duty to warn citizens of foreseeable harm … The obvious purpose of the warning is to protect the citizens.

The class action lawsuit Patterson Law filed on behalf of more than 100 victims and property owners seeking compensation from the agencies overseeing the RCMP — the Attorney General of Canada and the Province of Nova Scotia — may partly explain why Duheme did not own up and take responsibility for the RCMP not stopping the killer sooner. 

During the news conference in Truro Thursday, Duheme did use the fact the RCMP is being sued as a reason for not answering questions. 

However, the Public Inquiries Act states that uncontradicted statements made by witnesses as well as documents gathered by the Inquiry can be used during lawsuits, unless the commission specifically ruled otherwise. 

The MCC report also notes that Nova Scotia has an Apology Act passed in 2008, which permits anyone to apologize in connection with any matter “without adversely affecting their legal position.”

Which makes Duheme’s mention of future legal action look like a flimsy excuse.

What other motives could the nation’s top cop have for not reading at least the executive summary (or being briefed by someone on staff) so he could reply to questions pertaining to reforming the RCMP?

Sometimes the hardest word is ‘sorry’

Well, one of the most interesting recommendations put forward by the MCC states the RCMP management culture will not change until it its leaders learn to apologize for its mistakes. Admit they are human. 

The Commission quotes an expert report from Bethan Loftus, a criminologist at Bangor University in Wales, who says “a key obstacle to experience-based learning stems from the dominance of professionalism — notably, the idea that the police should not make mistakes. If police organizations want to learn and improve, then they need to ‘normalize their view of human errors and incidents.’”

 Recommendation 37 of the MCC is titled “taking responsibility”:

 The Commission recommends that (a) The RCMP adopt a policy of admitting its mistakes, accepting responsibility for them, and ensuring that accountability mechanisms are in place for addressing its errors. This policy should apply at every level of the institution. (b) The demonstrated capacity to accept responsibility for one’s errors should be a criterion for any promotion within the RCMP.

Communications with the public during the rampage

The MCC report contrasts the use of social media by the RCMP in Moncton during the search for a suspect who shot and killed three RCMP officers and wounded two others with the use of social media by RCMP in Nova Scotia during the April 18-19, 2020 manhunt. 

The report on the Moncton shootings by Asst. Commander Alphonse MacNeil in 2014 concluded:

Having a continuous presence on social media during this crisis ensured accurate information was disseminated in a timely manner so as to counter any rumours or misinformation…providing messages with a “call to action” that asked the public to engage allowed them to participate without interfering with police operations and did not leave them wondering what they could do.

But the report from the Mass Casualty Commission noted a significant difference between the information conveyed during the Moncton shootings and those that began at Portapique:

Where Ret’d. A/Commr. MacNeil concludes that the RCMP conveyed accurate information to the public in a timely manner in Moncton in 2014, the same cannot be said of the RCMP’s use of social media in Nova Scotia in 2020. The tweet sent at 11:32pm on April 18, 2020, downplayed the incident in Portapique and conveyed no sense that there was an active shooter. It provided no information about the perpetrator, whose identity was known to the RCMP by this time.

As a means to improve the quality of information conveyed by police to the public during a critical emergency, the 2014 MacNeil report recommended calling out communications people and embedding at least one communications officer as part of the critical incident response team. 

The MCC report says there was no standard operating procedure at H Division for embedding a strategic communications officer at the command post to ensure the flow of information from those actively involved in the investigation was accurately conveyed to the public who might be at risk.

The MCC’s recommendation 17 is titled “Public Communication During Critical Incidents”:

The RCMP should amend its policies, procedures, and training to reflect the approach recommended in the 2014 MacNeil Report about the RCMP’s response to the Moncton Mass Casualty; that is, that the RCMP should activate public communications staff as part of the communications with the public after the murders.

Communications with the public after the murders 

Nova Scotia RCMP’s chief investigative officer, Chris Leather. Photo: Halifax Examiner.

During a 6pm news conference carried live on Sunday, April 19, Chief-Supt. Chris Leather said at least 10 people had been killed when the RCMP knew there were at least 17 dead.

On national television that night, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said there were at least 17 victims, which was the first sign of a disconnect between national headquarters communications people and H Division in Nova Scotia. 

On April 22, in response to growing public demands for a clear chronology of events, the RCMP posted a statement online which contained another major untruth: 

 [A]s soon as we learned that the suspect was possibly in a replica police cruiser and wearing what appeared to be an RCMP uniform, we immediately informed the public.

That was a lie. 

In his testimony before the MCC, Leather agreed the use of “immediately” was “probably not the best word to use” and he couldn’t recall why it had been chosen. 

On April 22, Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey, a former senior RCMP officer for 20+ years, called the RCMP’s deputy commissioner in Ottawa to complain that obvious questions from the media weren’t being answered during RCMP news conferences. 

On April 24, RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell told a news conference a victim of the shooting had told the RCMP there was one route and one route only out of Portapique. 

Another lie.

Campbell later explained to MCC investigators he had received that information from the RCMP’s chief investigator on the case. 

In fact, it was Kate MacDonald, the wife of Andrew MacDonald who had been shot by the killer while driving to check out the fires, who told police there was a back road that might provide an escape route. 

Because the RCMP critical incident commander never received MacDonald’s information, police persisted in believing the killer was in the area long after he was gone. 

 The report from the Commission states:

[T]o a very large extent, the inaccuracies within the RCMP’s public communications deflected attention away from errors in the RCMP’s critical incident response. In each instance, these inaccuracies made the RCMP response appear more organized, effective, and attentive to community safety than was, in fact, the case. Notably, with the exception of public updates being provided about the number of casualties, the RCMP did not issue corrections or take other direct steps to correct the information it had provided to the media.

The solution? Be prepared and have a clear communications plan for how to provide information during an emergency. The RCMP has more than 5,000 pages of policy at national headquarters (whew) but no clear directive on how to get information out during a mass casualty. 

The report continues:

To a certain extent, these problems reflected the chaotic nature of the response itself and the extent to which H Division personnel were reeling in the days and weeks after the mass casualty. However, as past reviews have also emphasized, providing timely and accurate public communications is a core responsibility of the RCMP, and the organization should proactively resource and plan for it.

Public frustration mounts

By April 25, some media outlets began suggesting a public inquiry should be called. 

On the same day, strategic communications director Lia Scanlan sent an email to RCMP headquarters requesting “more bodies” to help communications staff monitor media reports and brief senior RCMP officials prior to news conferences. The Nova Scotia team was stretched and exhausted after having worked a week of 24/7 and needed fresh legs. 

In her testimony before the MCC, Lucki acknowledged it took HQ far too long to send additional communications resources and suggested COVID restrictions delayed sending support. 

In its final report, the MCC said the senior leadership Ottawa failed to recognize that in addition to their workload, the people tasked with communications were deeply affected by the loss of a colleague (Heidi Stevenson) as well as the immensity of the tragedy and HQ should have supplied additional communications staff when requested.

The slowness with which information was being shared about the chain of events, the perpetrator, the role of Lisa Banfield, the firearms used, and the police response and investigation of the murders came to a boil during a conference call on April 28.

In that call, Lucki scolded both the H division communications and the province’s most senior RCMP officers for failing to carry out her instructions. 

The internal conflict within the RCMP over who was in charge when it came to informing the public and briefing political leaders has been documented by the Halifax Examiner and many others. It exposed the weakness of the RCMP’s senior leader (Lucki resigned a month before the release of the MCC report) and added to the public’s distrust of the RCMP.

Recommendation #26 could be considered a win for journalists and the public:

The Commission recommends that (a) The RCMP’s national communications policies should be revised to state clearly that the objective of the RCMP’s public communications is to provide accurate information about the RCMP’s operations, and in particular to respond to media questions in a timely and complete manner. 

This principle should be limited only by legal restrictions (e.g., privacy laws) and the minimum withholding necessary to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations.

The final report of the MCC detailing these problems is sadly not the first, as the Commissioners note:

 In 2007, Rebuilding the Trust, the Report of the Federal Task Force on Governance and Cultural Change in the RCMP chaired by David Brown (Brown Task Force Report), concluded that ‘[t]he RCMP has been unable to balance legitimate privacy and liability concerns with the need for openness and transparency.

The Brown Report observed systemic weaknesses in communications, both to the public and from management to members, including slowness, lack of transparency, and inaccurate information, and made recommendations including that the RCMP adopt ‘a crisis management strategy that will permit quick and accurate responses to the media and Canadians.’

Amen. Clear, accurate and timely communications with the public during an emergency event is, as the MCC report underscores, a core responsibility of the RCMP. 

Perhaps Duheme will read Volume 5, which spells that out. 

The tragic loss of life experienced here in Nova Scotia leaves the force no elbow room when it comes to making changes to get it right and get it right fast — before the next killer goes on a deadly rampage. 

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Is there anyway that we could fire them all and start over?

    The RCMP really screwed this up. They were called out on it and the head guy did not even read the summary before going before the public. Then he sites some nonsense for not even reading it?

    Shameful !! The guy should be run out of town. At the very least. Nothing will change until we fire them all and start over.

  2. Thank you for this piece. The RCMP must be held accountable. Writing like this holds their feet to the fire.