The RCMP failed survivors and surviving family members of the April 2020 mass murders, according to the Mass Casualty Commission.

The report found that RCMP H Division and the Nova Scotia Victim Services were unprepared for the “immense need” in the mass casualty’s aftermath. Some individual officers and service providers did their best to adapt existing services, but those attempts “fell short,” showing “a lack of institutional preparation and coordination for an incident of this scale.” 

“In the absence of a coordinated and planned approach, ad hoc attempts to scale up services were insufficient.”

Cops pointed guns at victims’ loved ones

The report found that in the aftermath of the deaths of the victims, next of kin notifications were inconsistent with RCMP policies. Family members said notifications were carried out poorly or not carried out as quickly as possible.

“In some instances during and after the mass casualty, next of kin notifications were provided on roadsides or near crime scenes, because family members came to the place where their loved ones had died,” the report said. 

Among several examples, it pointed to three instances where concerned family members had guns pointed at them or were threatened by RCMP members as they tried to determine what had happened to their loved ones. 

Dan and Susan Jenkins, mother and father of Alanna Jenkins, drove to Wentworth on April 19, 2020 seeking information about their daughter and her partner Sean McLeod.

“They were advised to leave by an RCMP member who pointed her firearm at Dan Jenkins. This member promised to call Mr. Jenkins, but Mr. Jenkins never heard from her again,” noted the report. 

It was six to seven weeks before the pair received official confirmation about their daughter’s death from the medical examiner’s office.

“Other families experienced both delay and insensitive delivery of notifications in a manner that does not fully accord with the RCMP guidelines,” the report found.

Members of Heather O’Brien’s family went to the scene of her death on Plains Road “several times” over a six hour period on April 19, 2020. They first showed up at 10:20am, when they first became concerned about her. Their last appearance at the scene searching for answers was at 4:54pm when they were informed of her death. 

“On one of these occasions, Cst. Ian Fahie and Cst. Devonna Coleman pointed a weapon at Ms. O’Brien’s daughter, Michaella Scott, to prevent her from approaching her mother’s car and used threatening language,” the report said. 

O’Brien’s husband, Andrew O’Brien, also recalled how an officer at the Debert side of the Plains Road roadblock directed him not to approach his wife’s car, saying “Mr. O’Brien, don’t make me shoot you.”

He also ended up identifying his wife from a photograph taken at the scene.

The commissioners found that although some of the challenges RCMP experienced providing timely death notifications to next of kin could be attributed to the “magnitude” of the incident, “many of these difficulties were systemic rather than situational.” 

They also noted some members weren’t adequately trained to complete the task with “the required sensitivity.” 

“The inadequate handling of next of kin notifications caused additional distress to family members,” the report said. “In some instances, this led family members to begin questioning the RCMP’s response at this important juncture of transitioning from critical incident to major case investigation.”

The commission’s finding was that the RCMP’s next of kin notification policy and guidelines are inadequate. 

“These notifications were not carried out in a coordinated and timely manner. RCMP members were not adequately trained to carry out these duties with skill and sensitivity.”

Family liaison officer overwhelmed

A white man with a dark suit and glasses sits with his hands folded.
Wayne “Skipper” Bent testifies at the Mass Casualty Commission on June 21, 2022.

The report also examined the role of the family liaison officer. Cst. Wayne (Skipper) Bent was assigned to the families of those whose lives were taken, as well as the civilian survivors. This was described as a job he did “virtually on his own.” 

“The role was too great for one individual, with the result that families’ needs were unevenly met, despite Cst. Bent’s best efforts. This decision also placed unacceptable stress and expectations on Cst. Bent,” the report said. 

“The RCMP failed to scale up its policies and practices to fully address the needs of the large group of family members bereaved by the mass casualty.”

Although some families expressed appreciation for Bent’s work, the report noted that as the sole RCMP liaison he was “often overwhelmed” by his job. 

“Every aspect of Cst. Bent’s role was undefined by policy of direction from superiors, including to whom he was responsible to provide information (for example, which survivors); what information he was supposed to provide; and with what frequency,” the report said. 

“He had received no formal training and, at the time, none existed.”

This resulted in the main finding that RCMP didn’t provide adequate information services to those most affected due to “systemic gaps” in policy, the inadequate allocation of personnel, and the lack of provision and training for personnel charged with providing these services.

Police kept families in the dark

The report also highlighted how the RCMP didn’t share information with the public or with family members.

The commissioners wrote that one of the effects of these “problematic practices” was that the RCMP had no established mechanism to share information with families in advance. 

“For this reason, families often learned important information from the media. This was partly a result of Cst. Bent being the only liaison,” the report said. 

“It was also because, in the initial stages of the investigation, the RCMP did not appear to prioritize sharing information with family members first, nor have a policy or practice to do so.”

One of the report’s other main findings was that after the mass casualty, the RCMP “prioritized institutional and investigative imperatives” over the needs of survivors and family members. It also called the RCMP’s information-sharing practices with survivors and family members “inadequate.”

The support services provided to grieving family members should be responsive to their expressed needs, and time should be taken as necessary to ensure that they receive accurate information, including information about why certain facts might be unknown or withheld. 

An implementation point mentioned in the final report’s Executive Summary and Recommendations noted that a family liaison officer should offer “meaningful updates and guidance” about investigations and general information on related offices and services. Those could include, but aren’t limited to, the medical examiner, insurance, crime scene and evidence cleaning, and mental and physical health supports. 

Medical Examiner told not to release details of deaths

The final report also found that in some cases, family members trying to access timely information were hindered by RCMP efforts to “limit the release of information by other parties.”

One key example highlighted in the report and cited as a main finding was the RCMP issuing instructions to the Medical Examiner Service. The RCMP directed the medical examiner not to release cause, manner, or circumstances of death to the families. 

The commissioners found this RCMP directive was “unnecessary and harmful in the circumstances of this investigation,” adding that it compounded the grief and mistrust of some family members. 

“After the Commission became aware of this directive, we took steps to ensure that it was lifted,” they wrote.

“The Commission connected those families who wished to learn more with the Medical Examiner Service so that they could receive information about their loved ones’ deaths and have their questions answered in private.”

Lessons learned

The report also outlined lessons learned when it comes to police-based services meeting the needs of survivors and affected people. Ensuring the basics of victim support are solidly in place and that “interoperability” between emergency responders is effective and well-established will enable “the scaling up of critical incident response” in the event of a mass casualty.

“Numerous previous inquiries, reviews, and reports have identified inadequacies and limitations in the RCMP provision of information and other services to victims and other affected persons,” the commissioners wrote.

They also noted the RCMP’s “institutional culture” should value services provided to survivors and affected people as “significant police work essential to public safety and community well-being.”

“Advance planning is required to scale up victim services to meet the needs of survivors and other affected persons during and after a critical incident,” the report said. “Additional protocols and expertise are required to meet the demands resulting from these incidents.”

Click here to read the final report.  

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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