Last week’s seemingly out-of-sync release of an internal RCMP report into the shooting at the Onslow Firehall during April 2020’s mass shooting raises troubling questions.

Some are more easily and satisfactorily answered than others.

Let’s start with what happened on April 19, 2020, shortly after 10:20am. outside the fire hall located about 35 kilometres from the initial shootings in Portapique. The hall was designated as a comfort centre for people affected by the 13 murders the night before.

There are various versions.

On May 5, 2022, Const. Dave Melanson and his partner Const. Terry Brown, the two RCMP officers, told their version when they testified before the Mass Casualty Commission.

Brown said that, at around 7am, he’d interviewed Lisa Banfield, the killer’s common-law spouse, in the back of an ambulance in Great Village, and he specifically remembered her describing the killer wearing an orange vest.

A few hours later, after reports there had been more murders that morning and after another RCMP officer radioed in that he had passed the killer on the highway driving a replica RCMP cruiser and wearing a “reflective vest,” Brown and Melanson realized the killer must be on the move and set off in pursuit in their unmarked vehicle.

“I was prepared to expect to be shot at,” Melanson told the commission. “I figured it would be a given if we encountered him.” 

Shortly after that, they spotted a man in a vest beside an RCMP cruiser outside the fire hall, which was about 10 km. from the killer’s last known location. They quickly pulled to a stop in the middle of the road, got out and took cover behind their vehicle. Melanson testified he frantically tried to communicate on his portable radio but couldn’t get through. The inquiry determined he’d made eight different attempts.

Brown told the commission he then shouted out his identification to the person in the vest and ordered him to show his hands.

The person ducked down instead. “All I could see was that person in the orange reflective vest standing by the police car,” Brown testified. “So, while I’m yelling commands, he ducks down, and at that point I don’t know if he’s coming up again with a gun or what his intentions are. Then he ran from the back of the car towards the building and that’s when we discharged our firearms.”

It turned out that the man in the vest was David Westlake, a civilian emergency management coordinator who had come to the hall to help those seeking shelter after the violence in Portapique.

Brown fired off four rounds, Melanson one.

They didn’t hit anyone, but Westlake, who took cover in the hall with two firefighters, had no idea in that moment who was shooting at them or why. But Westlake insists the officers never identified themselves, never said, “’Show your hands.’ I heard, ‘Get down,’” he told commission investigators in an interview. “I am adamant to this day this is what I heard.”

The shooting only finally stopped when the real Mountie inside the police car — Melanson and Brown hadn’t realized he was in the car — got out and shouted across the parking lot at them through his radio.

Brown and Melanson said they did check to make sure no one was injured, then drove off in their continuing search for the killer. “I knew there would be time for explanation, but that wasn’t the time,” Melanson testified.

“I’m very sorry for the people that were in the building, the firemen that were in there. [I] had no idea they were in there,” Brown told the commission, but then added: “At the end of the day, it wouldn’t have changed my reaction. I believed that person was going inside the building to kill people.”

On March 2, 2021, nearly a year after the shooting incident, Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), which investigates incidents involving police, issued a report exonerating Brown and Melanson.

As they were approaching the Onslow Fire Hall, they saw a marked RCMP vehicle parked in front of the fire hall facing the road and a male wearing a yellow and orange reflective vest, standing by the driver’s side door of the marked RCMP vehicle. He was dressed in a fashion similar to other accounts of how the killer was dressed. The officers could not tell if the driver’s side door was open or if anyone was in the car because they were facing the passenger side of that vehicle.

When the officer yelled “police” and “show your hands”, the male did not show his hands but rather ducked behind the marked police car then popped up and ran toward the fire hall entrance. The officers discharged their firearms. Neither the male who ran into the fire hall nor the RCMP member who, unbeknownst to the officers, was sitting in the police vehicle were struck by the shots.

The investigation found that based on everything the officers had seen and heard since coming on duty and what they had observed at the time, they had reasonable grounds to believe that the male was the killer and someone who would continue his killing rampage. They discharged their weapons in order to prevent further deaths or serious injuries.

Accordingly, no criminal offence was committed, and no charges are warranted against either officer.

Included in the information “reviewed and considered in the preparation of this report,” SIRT noted, without comment, was a “Use of Force Expert Report.”

That 50-page report had been prepared by Joel Johnston, a former Vancouver police officer turned consultant, and it essentially accepted the officers’ version of events at face value.

While the then-SIRT director, retired judge Felix Cacchione, told the Mass Casualty Commission in an interview that he had “real concerns” with Johnstone’s “one-sided” report, and SIRT wouldn’t be using his services again, the reality is that SIRT’s report and Johnston’s “expert” report reached the same conclusion.

The document released last week by the Mass Casualty Commission was a January 2021 internal RCMP report prepared by its Hazardous Occurrence Investigation Team (HOIT) in response —and opposition — to Johnston’s report. It had been forwarded to SIRT.

Its five-page review identified “inaccuracies and omissions within the [Johnston] report which the HOIT believe bear relevance on the investigation of this incident.” Among other issues, the review notes that…

  • Johnston claimed to have reviewed a forensic identification report and photos, but they aren’t referenced in his report.
  • He only noted information from one single witness, claiming the other dozen witness statements “offered little assistance with the file review.” But HOIT notes one ignored witness reported his direct observations of the officers and provided additional information not in the officers’ statements.
  • Melanson claimed he tried to send a message over police radio before they opened fire. Johnston supports his claim; the review says there’s no evidence to support it.
  • Shell casings showed the officers were a long way — close to 90 metres — from Westlake when they began shooting.
  • Video indicates Westlake never ducked down as Brown claimed.
  • Johnston also doesn’t include a timeline of events. HOIT uses CCTV footage and a statement from the real Mountie in the police cruiser to estimate that Brown and Melanson began firing their weapons 10–15 seconds after they arrived on the scene at 10:21am — hardly long enough to determine who they were shooting at. “The reader” of Johnston’s report, notes the review, “is left with the impression Cst. Melanson and Cst. Brown were on scene for an extended period of time. CCTV from the firehall showed the unmarked police vehicle leaving east bound at 10:25 hours, four minutes after arriving at scene.”

“The HOIT believe the information as referred to above is critical to understanding the events that transpired at the Onslow Firehall,” Staff/Sgt. Bobby Haynes, the team commander, wrote. “The HOIT wish to draw this information to the attention of SIRT to ensure the Use of Force expert has taken these factors into account during the drafting [of] his report.”

The belated release of the HOIT review, of course, has only reignited longstanding doubts about SIRT’s version of events.

There’s no accountability whatsoever,” says Darrell Currie, one of the firefighters inside the hall when the Mounties opened fire. “They just open fire on a civilian and drive away.” Currie says the HOIT review makes clear that SIRT needs to reopen its investigation.

It does, but perhaps more broadly points to the need for an independent review of how SIRT itself operates.

When I first read about the release last week of this internal RCMP document — more than six months after the Mounties involved had testified before the commission — I’ll admit I was curious. And skeptical.

Was this another example — like the stuttering, self-interested release of damning RCMP documents, like the transcripts and recordings of the meeting between local Mountie brass and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki — of an RCMP coverup of information it would rather keep to itself?

So, I asked the Mass Casualty Commission, for the timeline of events leading up to the release of the document. Emily Hill, senior commission counsel, replied:

The internal memo from the Nova Scotia RCMP’s Hazardous Occurrence Investigation Team (HOIT) was provided to the Commission in October 2021 and disclosed to Participants on November 5, 2021. It was therefore available to Participants when Cst. Terry Brown and Cst. Dave Melanson testified in public proceedings on May 5, 2022. 

The memo was entered as an exhibit during proceedings on September 23, 2022 after it was identified by the Commission as a document it wished to have in its public record. It was made available on the Commission website once it was entered as an exhibit.

That, at least, is encouraging. The Mounties did provide the Mass Casualty Commission with an internal report that cast doubt on the official — SIRT — version of events and raised questions about their own colleagues’ behaviour.

But it doesn’t explain why SIRT so often sees the world through the myopic policing lens it does.

Or perhaps it does. In addition to its civilian director, SIRT’s team includes two so-called “civilian” investigators, “each with over 33 years of criminal investigation experience with the RCMP,” and two full-time seconded police officers, one each from the Halifax Regional Police and the RCMP.

Independent civilian oversight? Not really.

***

The quote from Mass Casualty Commission senior counsel Emily Hill was wrongly attributed in the original version. It has been corrected.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. There are a few key things to take from this:
    – “There’s no accountability whatsoever”
    – An independent study by a former, and well respected small town MP.
    – SIRT is made up of mostly rcmp members, and former rcmp.
    – “Independent civilian oversight? Not really.”

    We have all been led to believe that allegations of wrongdoing will be investigated, and they will. It has to happen so as to satisfy the public, and I’m sure meet with what is most certainly buried within the RCMP Commissioners mandate. But the manner in which that investigation happens, well that’s a different story. The name of the game is stretch it out for as long as possible, and use internal police officers specifically trained by the police to investigate their own. What could ever go wrong there? Leave whatever stone you want, unturned. Also, the provincial Commanding Officer has the right to agree, or disagree with any investigation. And last, but not least, the RCMP’s union has an opportunity. Due to the fact this organization cannot fix itself, the number of complaints is exploding at what surely the public would see as an alarming rate. So, even if an RCMP officer is found guilty, the union can simply stand up and say “unreasonable delay” in the investigation (it is also used by alleged criminals in the courtroom) and the organization will gladly drop the complaint against one of their own.

    There is yet another way out. Just this week, on the International Day of Violence Against Women, the RCMP posted a reminder that help is available through RCMPNS, or your local police. This certainly struck a nerve, as it should with all women and their partners. In recent years an RCMP officer was charged and convicted for sexual assault. The Nova Scotia Commanding Officer ruled his employment should be terminated. But at the mass casualty commission we learned he hadn’t been, when a lawyer for one of the shooting victims stood and asked RCMP Commissioner why that had not happened. “There were extenuating circumstances” was the public explanation. And surely enough the inside story is that some of his ‘old boys club’ colleagues had stuck up for him as being a great guy.

    So surely it was the officers momentary lapse of judgement that caused him to sexually assault someone. I wonder what would have happened if a scared to death civilian with licensed firearms in their home, came out and started shooting at the police during a moment of extreme panic when the mass shooting was happening? Or, if during that madness, a civilian refused to pull over and stop when requested to by a ‘possible’ police officer. It is obvious the female RCMP Commissioner can protect and retain an officer for serious criminal charges, who protects the rest of us?

  2. Way back when the shooting occurred and details began to emerge about the shooting at the fire hall – to a lay person, no background in policing or anything remotely close, none of the explanations of the RCMP as to why their officers opened fire, made one bit of sense ! Come to find out just reading this article, the 2 officers were there 10 – 15 seconds and began opening fire. They assessed the situation in 10 seconds – that’s amazing – just like in the movies ! The man they were firing at, is adamant, that the officers only said get down, not show your hands. How did those 2 officers check to see if everyone was alright, after they stopped firing ? Ask their fellow officer, after the fellow officer, told them over his radio, they were firing on one of their own ? As far as shooting towards the fire hall – what are the chances they could hit anything with any accuracy from 90 meters ?
    Then to pay some retired cop for his opinion – waste of money – it’s called not doing his homework anything to make the police look good !
    I don’t hunt, but have heard lots of stories of hunters firing first when they hear a sound, before actually making visual sight of the target(deer, rabbit, moose, etc) Otherwise, pretty good chance, you’re going to hit another hunter, if there are multiple hunters in the woods, in the same area.

  3. I’m obligated to remind everyone that Melanson is not just another traffic cop having an impossible day. He teaches carbine use, before and after this shooting.

    It is only reasonable to assume that “shoot first and don’t even bother asking questions; clearly you can get away with it” is what an new generation of officer are being taught today.