Nova Scotia Justice Minister, July 23, 2020. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

Allow me to make a modest suggestion.

First, a few assumptions.

Let’s assume Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey is correct. He and federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair chose the three-member “independent and impartial” panel to “review” April’s mass shooting in Nova Scotia “because of their experience in fact-finding and independence, in-depth knowledge of public safety, policing and gender-based and intimate-partner violence, as well as their understanding of shared federal-provincial relations and responsibilities.”

It seems a fair enough assumption.

Michael MacDonald, the panel’s chair, is a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Back in 1998, I watched as he presided even-handedly — notwithstanding the unsatisfactory outcome — over the controversial sexual assault trial of former premier Gerald Regan. As chief justice, he made efforts to diversify the judiciary and has been described by his predecessor, Joseph Kennedy, as “transformative” and “one of the great chief justices in the history of Nova Scotia.”

Anne McLellan, a former federal Liberal deputy prime minister, presider over many ministries including public safety and justice from 1993 to 2006, has become Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s tag-you’re-it designate for difficult files — from chairing a task force on the legalization of cannabis, to playing the role of special advisor on the SNC Lavalin affair, to… well, this mass shooting inquiry… er, review.

An aside. It is worth noting that, on Feb. 4, 2004, McLellan herself appointed a major public inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian citizen the US government shipped off to Syria to be tortured on the false assumption he was a terrorist. By the time its hearings ended 19 months later, in September 2005, the commission had heard from 85 witnesses, most in public. Two months after that, an inquiry-appointed fact-finder publicly concluded Arar had been tortured. On Sept. 18, 2006 — two years and seven months after it was appointed — the commission issued its final report exonerating Arar and concluding Canadian officials likely led to his deportation and torture.

That’s longer, of course, than the 13 months Ottawa and the province have given this review to come up with its public-hearings-free, context-less recommendations. While that may seem like a long time, it isn’t really. The fact is that during the Arar inquiry process — as with every public inquiry from the Donald Marshall royal commission to the ongoing inquiry into Lionel Desmond’s murder-suicide — public officials testified and were publicly held to account for their actions and for their failures to act. As important as its final report, that public process was a critical part of learning, accounting, correcting and healing. True restorative justice.

But I digress.

Leanne Fitch, the retired chief of the Fredericton police force, is equally impressive. A veteran of 34 years in the municipal policing business, including seven as chief, she served on a Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police committee that developed a national framework for dealing with intimate partner violence, and is currently involved with three research projects, also on intimate partner violence, at the University of New Brunswick.

So, OK. This is a review panel with gravitas and experience in many of the key areas that people — including the families of victims — have been demanding.

But the fact is the families asked for a public inquiry, not a review Why? As my Examiner colleagues catalogued the reasons a review won’t cut it following Thursday’s announcement:

Unlike a public inquiry, the review panel will not have the power to compel testimony, nor will it have subpoena power. The government ministers say, however, that all government institutions (i.e., the RCMP, but others as well) have agreed to “participate fully,” and if those government institutions don’t cooperate with the review panel, the panel “may notify the public about the lack of cooperation.”

In the event that the panel needs information from non-government institutions (such as telephone companies, banks, etc), the panel does not have the power to ask the court for production orders. But the government will assist the panel in those matters.

The Terms of Reference for the review panel calls its work to be “guided by restorative principles in order to do no further harm, be trauma informed and be attentive to the needs and impacts upon those most directly affected and harmed.” In short, the desire is to not further harm victims and family of victims through the process of the review. To that end, the testimony of those witnesses will not be public.

But documents and testimony from government institutions will also not be public, although the panel has the ability to refer to such documents and testimony in its published reports.

Let’s make another perhaps reasonable assumption. When the panelists issued their first collective statement hours after the official announcement of their appointment — “We believe the scope and mandate of the review announced today, July 23, will provide us what we need to do this work effectively and comprehensively” — they were simply mouthing the usual boilerplate bafflegab composed by a federal-provincial comms committee eager to put a shine and a sheen on a pig.

They almost certainly had not yet had the opportunity to digest the swelling outrage from all quarters about the limitations of their mandate.

And let’s assume finally that Premier Stephen McNeil meant it when he told reporters Friday that, “if these panel members … require more support from our government, more authority to achieve those answers… we will give them the authority to achieve that.”

OK, assumptions assumed.

Time for that modest suggestion.

But first…

The distinguished panelists can’t have missed the roaring-tsunami backlash that washed over news of their appointment to what Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells calls “a toothless, rickety review panel” and has effectively undermined their legitimacy. Consider:

  • … the anguished cri de coeur from family members like Amelia McLeod, whose father and stepmother were killed in the rampage. “They won’t give us a full public inquiry,” she declared in the Globe and Mail. “Why? Because they are covering up facts that happened that night and day. We deserve a full public inquiry. My parents deserve the truth.”
  • … the frustrations of inquiry-demanding senators like Mary Coyle. “We don’t need any more secrets around this, there’s already been enough erosion of public trust. This is not the best we can do. It’s pretty clear the voices of the families of those victims have not been respected.”
  • … the incredulity of legal experts like Dalhousie University law professor Archie Kaiser. “It’s as if [the governments are] living in some kind of alternate reality, particularly on the points of independence and transparency that they allege would infuse the independent review. I don’t understand how they maintained their positions, frankly, with a straight face.”

Given all of that, the panelists should now immediately issue a second public statement, this one written by themselves without the aid of government handlers.

The only way to ensure public confidence in the process, it should say, is for the federal and provincial governments to give them the necessary authority — as the premier suggested he would — to hold public hearings, compel witnesses, demand documents, and conduct a full, open and transparent inquiry into the Poratpique tragedy.

That’s my suggestion.

I will try not to hold my breath.


Postscript: One of the most intriguing — but least puzzling — aspects of the governments’ decision to establish this constrictive review instead of an open public inquiry is why they decided on an approach no one publicly asked for and almost everyone opposed.

The answer — perhaps finally to be officially revealed through access to information requests — is almost certainly that RCMP brass lobbied Mark Furey, a 32-year veteran of the force, and Bill Blair, a 30-year veteran of the Toronto police service, to bless a review it hoped it could control and contain.

Does anyone have a more logical explanation?

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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. Ninety-six pert cent of Canadians do not belong to a political party. Not one of them was qualified to be on this panel? Worse, all of the review members belong to the Canadian establishment that has ignored or nourished RCMP malfeasance since the 1970s.

    If McNeil wants to save time and money, he could just fire (OK, defund) the RCMP now and let the review ask questions later.

    Worth reading:

  2. Do the RCMP want the public to know how understaffed, undertrained and underfunded they are? No they do not.

    Their actions and likely mistakes in this horrific series of events are a reflection of the above.

  3. If this farce goes ahead, and I truly hope it does not, the committee should at least include a family member or designate. That way, when it starts to go off the rails, they will have no compunction letting the public know what’s up.

  4. A public inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shooting may not do much to fix the RCMP. The problems with the force are nationwide. Institutional change needs to extend to its operation across western provinces as well as Atlantic Canada. A public inquiry into the mass shooting that started in Portapique will air out lots of questions but not identify changes that can be applied across the country. Let this more discreet inquiry be the first step towards that national process. It’s either that or we join Alberta in considering creation of provincial forces.

  5. Wikipedia definition of ‘Kangaroo Court’…

    “A kangaroo court is a court that ignores recognized standards of law or justice and often carries little or no official standing in the territory within which it resides. A kangaroo court may ignore due process and come to a predetermined conclusion. The term may also apply to a court held by a legitimate judicial authority which intentionally disregards the court’s legal or ethical obligations.”

    We tend to think of a Kangaroo court as one that has already determined the guilt of the chosen defendant. In the Portapique case, the Kangaroo Court is being set up to exonerate the great failings of what is really the defendant here, the RCMP.

    ” Please give us a public Hearing” said no one ever!

    G. Ternan

  6. I’d dont share Stephen’s sanguine view of Fitch, Mclellan & MacDonald because I don’t see the main issue to be probed as being ‘what the RCMP did wrong on April 18-19 2020‘.
    Instead I see Foxes reviewing Foxes, veteran insiders of the Justice Industry specifically hired because they know the questions to avoid asking.
    I see the Portapique disaster as the mere culmination of 35 years of the police and justice systems in TWO provinces & Ottawa ignoring criminal actions and violence from GW.
    Fitch was on the Fredericton police from 1985-2019 : GW began his criminality there in her city during his UNB years, 1987-1991. Fitch as an impartial prober as to why the rookie crook wasn’t caught then ? Hardly.
    MacDonald is the former bagman of the Snow White of Cape Breton politics, Davey Dingwall, and his early elevation to the Bench was a partisan Liberal appointment by the federal Liberals. I have blogged why I see his handling of the trial of Liberal premier Regan in a much different light than Stephen does today.
    The best chance to stop GW early was when he was charged in 2001 with beating up a child for no reason. Why GW skated then and then for decades later involves a probe into the NS justice system that MacDonald was such a big part over exactly the same time frame.
    GW’s long love-hate relationship with the federal RCMP is bound to drag in the federal justice department – of which Mclellan was once the head of. She too is hardly Snow White. Stephen may have forgotten her crass role in elevating under-qualified NS Liberal bagwoman Heather Robertson to the Bench, over which a judge resigned and Chief Justice Constance Glube poured scorn to a Parliamentary committee. I haven’t.
    In a real open public inquiry, these three won’t be in the judges’ chairs ; they’d be in the defence docket…

  7. A shiny pig with lipstick. I like that you brought forth the suggestion that Premier McNeil could give the authority to compel witnesses, etc. I mean, he can do that right? I’m sure he wants to help us Nova Scotians get through this tragedy, right? After all, that must be his main goal one would think.

    And likewise, I have been wondering this, the rcmp have stated all along they will support a full inquiry if that is the decided process. So to me that looked like the rcmp really welcomed this transparency and even believed it was the right thing to do. However, now that a review is what’s going on, why haven’t the rcmp been jumping up and down yelling that we should be having an inquiry instead??? Where do the rcmp stand in all of this??? Hiding behind politicians of course.They were spineless before this and they are even more spineless now (if that’s possible). Hmmm…

    We also need justice for Susan Butlin who was murdered in Tatamagouche in 2017 after begging for help by rcmp for over 2 months. They have blood on their hands, yet they seem to sleep perfectly well at night just like Furey and MCNeil. I don’t understand how they maintained their positions, frankly, with a straight face.”

    When Law professor, Archie Kaiser said “I don’t understand how they maintained their positions, frankly, with a straight face” I had to laugh (although it’s not one bit funny), but it does beg the question, how do they keep straight faces??? The fact is these are the kind of people who seek out positions of power and control, sociopathic narcissists.
    People with a conscience do not sleep at night when they know they have wronged so many traumatized people. If I were a witch I would cast a spell on these sociopaths and have them relive the same night terrors the rest of us have had to deal with.