RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki “made a promise” to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and the Prime Minister’s Office to leverage the mass murders of April 18/19, 2020 to get a gun control law passed.
A week after the murders, Lucki pressured RCMP in Nova Scotia to release details of the weapons used by the killer. But RCMP commanders in Nova Scotia refused to release such details, saying doing so would threaten their investigation into the murders.
The Trudeau government’s gun control objectives were spelled out in an order in council issued in May 2020, and were encapsulated in Bill C-21, which was tabled last month, but the concern in April 2020 was the extent to which politics threatened to interfere with a cross-border police investigation into how the killer managed to obtain and smuggle into Canada four illegal guns used to commit many of the 22 murders.
The RCMP subsequently learned the killer paid a man named Neil Gallivan to purchase one assault-style rifle at a 2019 gun show in Houlton, Maine. The killer also obtained two illegal handguns from a close friend and collector named Sean Conlogue.
No charges have been laid against either Gallivan or Conlogue, and it’s still unclear why.
“Reduced to tears”
But the Mounties didn’t have that information on April 28, 2020 — just one week after the murders — when Nova Scotia Supt. Darren Campbell briefed journalists at a news conference.
Compared to earlier briefings given by Chief Supt. Chris Leather, the head of Criminal Operations, Campbell was much more forthcoming. He answered questions about the timeline for the murders, the possible motivation of the gunman, and the condition and role of intimate partner Lisa Banfield.
On the firearms question, Campbell told journalists he “couldn’t get into details… because the investigation is still active and ongoing,” except to confirm the gunman had several semi-automatic handguns and two semi-automatic rifles.
Shortly after the news conference Campbell, Asst. Commander Lee Bergerman, Leather, and Nova Scotia Communications director Lia Scanlan were summoned to a meeting. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki and a deputy from Ottawa were on the conference call. Lucki was not happy.
Campbell’s handwritten notes made immediately following that meeting describe what happened:
The Commissioner was obviously upset. She did not raise her voice but her choice of words was indicative of her overall dissatisfaction with our work. The Commissioner accused us (me) of disrespecting her by not following her instructions. I was and remain confused over this. The Commissioner said she told Comms to tell us at H Division to include specific info about the firearms used by [the killer]….However I said we couldn’t because to do so would jeopardize ongoing efforts to advance the U.S. side of the case as well as the Canadian components of the investigation. Those are facts and I stand by them.
Campbell noted that Lucki went on at length and said she was “sad and disappointed” that he had not provided these details to the media. Campbell continued:
The Commissioner said she had promised the Minister of Public Safety and the Prime Minister’s Office that the RCMP (we) would release this information. I tried to explain there was no intent to disrespect anyone however we could not release this information at this time. The Commissioner then said that we didn’t understand, that this was tied to pending gun control legislation that would make officers and the public safer. She was very upset and at one point Deputy Commissioner (Brian) Brennan tried to get things calmed down but that had little effect. Some in the room were reduced to tears and emotional over this belittling reprimand.
Keeping the death toll from the public
A document released by the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) today — “Public Communications from RCMP and Government After Portapique” — indicates there were earlier sources of tension between National RCMP Headquarters in Ottawa and ‘H’ Division in Nova Scotia over how information concerning the victims would be controlled.
Lia Scanlan was the director of strategic communications for the RCMP in Nova Scotia. She told the commission the national RCMP HQ was aware a news conference was planned for 6pm on Sunday evening, April 19, 2020, and it was “explicitly stated that we were doing all the communications.”
During this first surreal briefing only hours after the gunman and been shot and killed by police, most of the focus was on the murder of RCMP Cst. Heidi Stevenson rather than the murders of multiple civilians. Only 10 minutes into the press conference, and in response to a reporter’s question, Chief Supt. Chris Leather shocked most Nova Scotians when he confirmed there were “in excess of 10 victims.”
Leather had been told one hour before the briefing there were at least 15 confirmed victims at 15 crime scenes, with the possibility of more. Many who watched the live briefing observed the RCMP officer appeared like a deer caught in headlights.
But Nova Scotia ‘H’ Division did not have control of the message.
Contravening the agreed protocol, throughout the early hours of Sunday evening, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki agreed to a number of one-on-one interviews with reporters. At 7:36pm, CBC News quoted Lucki as stating there were 13 victims; at 7:40pm, CTV reported Lucki had said 14 victims; and at 7:56pm, the Canadian Press quoted Lucki as having confirmed 17 dead, including the gunman.
The public and the press corps were both confused and alarmed.
“So how does it happen that Commissioner Lucki….?”, MCC lawyer Krista Smith started to ask Communications director Lia Scanlan during an interview last February.
“I don’t know, ask National Headquarters,” retorted Scanlan.“The commissioner releases a body count that we (Communications) don’t even have. She went out and did that. It was all political pressure. That is 100% Minister Blair and the Prime Minister. And we have a Commissioner that does not push back.”
At 10:21 Sunday night, Lia Scanlan emailed Sharon Tessier, the senior communications manager at RCMP National Headquarter, and two colleagues asking them to speak to Lucki about releasing victim information:
Can I make a request that we stop changing the number of victims. Please allow us to lead the release of information. It looks fragmented and inconsistent. I spoke with the Commanding Officer tonight and we will be updating this tomorrow.
We knew at the time of the press event it was more than 10 (victims) but that is what we came to ground on for the event. That is our plan tomorrow, to update as our members continue their jobs and discover more crime scenes and bodies. The changes in number are causing our phones to ring off the hook…
For consideration, Lia
Despite the frustration of journalists and citizens trying to grasp the magnitude of what had happened in northern Nova Scotia, the reporting of the number of deceased would continue to change over the next couple of days.
At the second news briefing held Monday April 20 at 2pm, Leather said “I can confirm there are 19 victims but we expect there may be more.” Asked why, Leather suggested that because so many homes had burned to the ground, it might take longer to find and identify other victims.
That sounded reasonable. Unfortunately, it didn’t square with notes from the the Major Crimes Investigation unit. The notes show Investigators had confirmed 22 victims as of 11pm the previous Sunday night. At the 2pm news conference Monday afternoon, RCMP in Nova Scotia said they could not release the names of the civilian victims until the Medical Examiner had completed forensic identifications. But by 5:25pm that same day, the MCC document shows all next-of-kin families of victims had been notified so there was no compelling reason not to release the names.
Ultimately, the RCMP didn’t release the names until after media outlets, including the Halifax Examiner, had independently reported them.
In Ottawa, Public Safety minister Bill Blair and Commissioner Lucki conducted their own media briefing on Monday at 2:30pm.
The senior Communications manager from RCMP HQ, Sharon Tessier, had called Nova Scotia Comms earlier in the day to say HQ supported releasing the names of all victims. During his briefing Blair announced that the killer’s victims included “a nurse, a teacher, corrections officers, a serving police officer, parents, neighbours, and friends.” Blair and Lucki talked about “18 lives” being lost, adding to the inconsistency and confusion over how large a tragedy had occurred.
On Tuesday April 21, RCMP in Nova Scotia posted information on its Facebook account that named the communities where the killer had taken lives and confirmed a total of 23 victims. Later in the day that number was adjusted to 22 and the revised post acknowledged the killer had been shot and killed by police.