A roadside memorial for Kristen Beaton who was killed in the April 2020 shooting in Nova Scotia. The memorial is a pink cross surrounded by flowers, photos, Nova Scotia flags, and painted rocks.
A roadside memorial for Kristen Beaton. Photo: Jennifer Henderson Credit: Jennifer Henderson

Last night about 50 people attended an open house hosted by staff members of the Mass Casualty Commission. The meeting was held just a few kilometres from the Plains Road in Debert where Kristen Beaton and Heather O’Brien were killed in April 2020. 

The rampage which began in Portapique claimed 22 lives before police caught up and killed the gunman in Enfield 13 hours later. 

One of the victims was 36-year-old Joey Webber, a father on his way to the garage to buy furnace oil when he saw a car and stopped to help Constable Heidi Stevenson trapped inside.

“We wanted to let them know we are here,” said Joey Webber’s aunt, Victoria Dickie. She was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a colour photo of a smiling, handsome man who was her nephew. “We have a list of questions that we passed on tonight to someone with the Commission. I came to find out if they were sincere and I feel somewhat reassured. There will be no rest until we get some answers.”

A class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the victims’ families naming the RCMP and Province of Nova Scotia alleges Joey Webber’s family was not properly informed by the RCMP about the handling of Webber’s body after his death. 

Bullet holes in the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall.
Bullet holes in the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

“I’m from the shooting at the Onslow fire hall,” said Joy McCabe. McCabe was standing at her kitchen window Sunday morning April 19 when she saw two men jump out of an unmarked car and begin shooting at a parked RCMP police car and a uniformed Emergency Measures official. Fortunately no one was killed in what appears to have been a serious communications issue among officers during the manhunt. A report by the Serious Incident Report Team (SIRT) said as much. The gunfire from police damaged a wall and a fire truck as well as terrorizing several volunteers inside the fire hall.

“An apology would be nice and I would like to know what happened to those two RCMP officers,” said McCabe. “For a whole year nobody from the RCMP came to see us. I just need some answers. Why aren’t they taking shooting practice or learning how to handle their guns? I now have PTSD and anxiety. It’s hard to go to work every day when I jump anytime there’s a bang.”

Developing a coordinated approach to the grief and trauma experienced on a large scale by dozens and dozens of families scarred by the actions of a lone gunman is what drew Serena Lewis and Dr. Karen Ewing to last night’s open house. 

Serena Lewis lives in a neighbouring village to Portapique and was a grief counselling coordinator with Nova Scotia Health at the time of the shooting. Karen Ewing is a family doctor who was working out of the Bass River Clinic. 

“I’m here because I’ve been interviewed by the commission and I have more information to share,” said Ewing. “I want to ensure their recommendations deal with how to offer services to communities which I feel were lacking at the time. We could have used more help. I know there are programs to help front-line workers and first responders that weren’t implemented.”

Ewing said some short-term help was available from the province’s Victim Services program but that was limited and fragmented. Lewis and Ewing spent more than an hour talking with Commission staff and Ewing says she is pleased they will continue to meet to determine if a more coordinated approach to counselling can be put in place. 

“We are aware of people who are very traumatized and have not yet been able to talk about their experience,” said Lewis. “I think it’s difficult for many people who have been approached repeatedly by media and lawyers and yet no one has come to them and asked, ‘how are you doing’?”

Lewis and Ewing said mass shootings in the United States and elsewhere in the world suggest it can take 20 years for communities to recover and specific counselling programs developed in those countries could be implemented here.

“The commission’s work will be done in 2022 but what happens to our communities after that?” asked Lewis. “I have grave concerns about that.”

Family members of the gunman’s 22 victims have been told the investigation into what happened is ongoing and that some information will be summarized in documents that will be sent to the group’s lawyer this fall. 

The families are among 60 participants in the formal Public Inquiry process. Barbara McLean, the commission’s director of Investigations and former deputy chief with the Toronto police, said members of the media and the public will see those summary documents as witnesses are called and the documents are entered as evidence during the public hearing process. 

That process, which also includes roundtable discussions with experts, gets underway in Halifax late in October, but McLean could not say when the first documents will be posted online for the public to read.

The three commissioners — retired Chief Justice of the NS Supreme Court J. Michael MacDonald, retired Fredericton Police Chief Leanne Fitch, and constitutional lawyer Kim Stanton — will make their final report and recommendations in November 2022. 

Meanwhile, as many as 60 full-time people are employed by the commission. Some are part of the Investigations team doing interviews, combing transcripts and listening to hours of radio communications among police detachments. Others are hired as part of the Commission’s legal team, research and policy team, community engagement team, and mental health team. 

An interim report will be issued next May. Three additional open house gatherings are scheduled for the next three afternoons in Truro, Millbrook, and Wentworth. More information is available here.

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

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