For the families of 22 people murdered in the rampage that began in Portapique on the night of April 18, 2020, this October will be an important month. That’s when the Mass Casualty Commission will finally begin its public inquiry on the worst mass murder in modern Canadian history.
And the week of October 25 is when lawyer Rob Pineo will ask a judge in a Truro Supreme Court to certify a class action lawsuit seeking millions of dollars in damages from the RCMP and the Province of Nova Scotia. The dollar amount has not yet been calculated.
The statement of claim filed by Pineo alleges the RCMP failed or breached the standard of care required to protect the people they were hired to serve.
Before we get into the fine print, it’s worth noting the lawsuit represents more than 100 participants — including the children and spouses of victims killed by the gunman (all families except that of RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson), as well as people injured by the gunman (such as Clinton Ellison who discovered his brother’s body and hid in the woods) and those who experienced damage to their property. The civil action also includes members of the Onslow-Belmont volunteer fire brigade and an EMO official who narrowly missed being shot during the manhunt the following day.
Once a judge has heard the motion and decides if there is enough evidence to go to trial the defendants — the RCMP and the province (technically the employer in providing police services to counties and municipalities)— have 45 days to file statements of defence.
Will evidence entered at the Mass Casualty Commission be admissible as part of the lawsuit? Maybe.
“The Public Inquiries Act allows for that, but we don’t know yet what rules this commission will put in place,” said Pineo in an interview. “It is possible they could preclude us from using documents and statements from witnesses, but we aren’t that far into the process. We, of course, would object to that, but it’s not our decision”.
Grounds for the lawsuit
The lawsuit claims
- the RCMP breached their duty to protect the lives of those who died or were injured at the hands of the gunman over a 13-hour period.
- the RCMP failed to use the Alert Ready or Emergency Alert system to warn the public an armed and dangerous person was on the run, an omission that may have resulted in the loss of half a dozen additional lives.
- the RCMP failed to properly investigate previous complaints alleging the gunman possessed illegal weapons, was physically abusive to women, and wished to harm a police officer.
- the RCMP sent too few members to Portapique to adequately respond to the crimes being committed there.
- the Emergency Response Team that did arrive on the scene was ineffective in locating and containing the killer because members lacked proper instruction.
The confusion and lack of clear policy over when the RCMP or provincial EMO should have issued a warning to the public has been well documented. Subsequent changes appear to have been made. For instance, an emergency alert came across cellphones last week advising of a public health risk associated with contaminated water in Grand Lake. Since Portapique, the emergency alert has been used to notify the public about escaped prisoners (Thorburn) and a shooting incident in a suburban neighbourhood (Hammonds Plains), which proved to be a false alarm.
The claim that the RCMP sent too few officers to the initial crime scene at Portapique has received much less attention. Questions have also been asked about why it took several hours for police to move in to rescue four children hiding from the gunman after their parents were killed.
The Municipality of the District of Colchester covers 3,800 square kilometres from Bass River in the west to Tatamagouche in the north and Stewiacke to the south. It is policed by an RCMP detachment based in Bible Hill, the village across the river from the town of Truro.
Truro has its own municipal police force and in January 2020, was asked by the Municipality of Colchester (what used to be known as the County) to submit a proposal detailing how much the town police would charge to patrol the county and replace the Mounties. Although the Halifax Examiner was told that proposal came in below the cost of hiring the RCMP, it was not accepted because Colchester was waiting for a competing offer from the RCMP.
That offer was delayed due to several factors. The first was the prospect of a significantly higher price tag once the RCMP negotiated its first collective agreement, which still hasn’t happened.
Secondly, Colchester was awaiting the results of a Department of Justice study it requested to compare policing options. Justice Minister Mark Furey, a career RCMP officer before he entered politics, widened the scope of that study and told reporters last summer one objective was to compare the cost to all municipalities of hiring the RCMP or some alternate — but never clearly defined — model of policing.
More than a year after the murders, that municipal policing analysis by the Department of Justice is still a work-in-progress. The Municipality of Colchester has yet to see it. The Federation of Municipalities is unaware a study is even underway.
“In late 2020, Minister Furey asked the Department of Justice staff to initiate a preliminary analysis with respect to police service delivery across Nova Scotia, looking at both RCMP contract policing jurisdictions as well as those served by municipal police,” Justice Department spokesperson Heather Fairbairn told the Examiner. “Routine analysis of policing services helps to ensure we achieve our mandate — keeping communities and citizens safe and using resources effectively.”
In rural municipalities, Ottawa pays 30% of the RCMP policing bill and the province pays 70%, which it bills back to the municipalities. The current contract doesn’t expire until 2032, although municipalities can opt out with appropriate notice.
One of things the study was supposed to make clear to Colchester was whether it was getting value for money when it came to its police budget. For example, this year the municipality will spend $5.3 million to pay for 33 RCMP officers based at the Bible Hill detachment. The number or allocation of police officers hasn’t changed for the past three years. What’s unknown is how many officers are on active duty — once you account for vacant positions, transfers, and stress leaves — to be the “boots on the ground” carrying out policing duties. That’s as important a question today as it was on the night of April 18, 2020, when the 911 calls began coming in from Portapique.
“I am not aware of any vacant positions at this time,” said Colchester Mayor Christine Blair. Blair said she is also not aware of any vacant RCMP positions in April 2020 and that an annual work force update filed in September 2020 by the RCMP makes no mention of staff shortages.
That said, Blair admitted she doesn’t know how many officers were available to work the weekend of April 18, 2020 and that “you will have to get that information from the RCMP.” But the RCMP isn’t answering any questions that relate in any way to the mass murders so the trail goes cold there.
The lack of transparency involving the RCMP and the province has been an ongoing source of frustration for Colchester councillor Wade Parker, the chair of the Colchester Police Board.
“Our constituents deserve to know whether we have proper policing in place for our municipality,” Parker told reporter Paul Palango in a story published in the Examiner on May 28 of last year:
We need to know whether we should stick with the RCMP or if there is a better model. If there is, so be it.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done on council – the most frustrating three years of my life. It’s so hard to get information. This process needs to be resolved once and for all. Right now, I don’t feel we have the safest policing because of that.
How many cops?
How many officers were on active duty at the Colchester RCMP detachment in Bible Hill — or across northern Nova Scotia — on the Saturday night and Sunday morning in April 2020 when the massacre took place? That number remains a secret.
Would more officers arriving sooner have led to the interception of the gunman and/or a swifter rescue of children hiding in terror? Given the challenges posed by the pitch dark, numerous property fires, and the overall magnitude of the crimes, that’s not certain. But it’s a question Pineo plans to ask should the lawsuit proceed.
“About five years ago, long before this happened, I learned from a retired RCMP member that the RCMP in Nova Scotia has about one seventh of the personnel it needs to properly carry out the tasks they are given,” Pineo said. “But to date, I have not been able to corroborate that anecdote with actual evidence”.
More unanswered questions
Pineo said the victims’ families he represents still have many unanswered questions they hope the public inquiry and the lawsuit may finally answer.
For example, what possible motive did the gunman have for spending nearly three hours at the home of a couple in Wentworth early Sunday morning after killing both them and their dogs? Both Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins worked for Corrections Canada. And why did the killer target this couple whom his spouse Lisa Banfield told police GW seemed to like and with whom they sometimes socialized and “had drinks”?
“McLeod’s two daughters are still bewildered by that,” said Pineo. “We do know the killer had a couple of pieces of uniform and handcuffs in one of the vehicles he discarded. So we don’t know if he went to Hunter Road looking for supplies — perhaps another uniform to evade capture, or looking for ammunition. One of the girls said her father was an avid hunter but this is just speculation, we don’t have any formal explanation.”
Sean McLeod spent 25 years working in corrections at the prison in Springhill and Alanna Jenkins was a manager at the Nova Institution for Women. McLeod’s older daughter Taylor Andrews told Global News another theory suggested by the RCMP was that the gunman may have targeted the Hunter Road couple because he “envied” their lives that (unlike his) were surrounded by friends and family.
Another issue Pineo plans to raise at the public inquiry is how the RCMP communicated with families of the victims in the aftermath of the tragedy. “Most of what the families and the law firm has learned has come through the media,” he said. “A lot of times they learn key details about their family members’ death on the evening news — the same as everyone else. That has been a huge source of frustration.”
Pineo said the recent publication in Frank Magazine of recorded conversations during the night of the shooting between 911 operators and the Blair and McCully children hiding from the gunman “has landed particularly heavily” on the Blair family. The two youngest boys go to public school and Pineo said Tyler Blair, the 28-year-old son of Greg Blair who is a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, has chosen to withdraw from all public comment at this time.
If a judge accepts Pineo’s motion to allow the class action against the RCMP to proceed, the lawyer acknowledges it will likely be several years before families receive any financial compensation.
“That depends on court scheduling and how much of a fight we have over disclosure, which is probably the biggest stumbling block — whether the defendants give up their evidence easily or if we are in court fighting constantly to obtain the documents,” said Pineo. “So far we have had no indication one way or the other.”
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The choice to not send out the emergency alert text message still remains the most baffling and infuriating decision that was made that day, in my opinion. My folks live in rural Nova Scotia; they don’t use Twitter. Had GW been heading their way they would have potentially been in grave danger and had no idea.