1. Two years
Two years ago this morning, a killer was in the midst of a 13-hour murder spree that began Saturday night April 18, 2020. By noon the next day, 22 people were dead, three people were physically injured, untold numbers of people were mentally scarred, and an entire province was traumatized.
These terrible crimes happened in the early days of the pandemic. People were already unsettled, scared, uncertain of what would happen or how to respond. And in the hours and days after the murders, we came to understand the multiple mishaps and failures of the police response to the murders, and that there were all sorts of red flags over the years before that were ignored by those who knew the killer, and by police. The pandemic, the murders, and the cascading ineptitudes pulled the rug out from any sense of safety, order, or sense.
It’s been two years, and we still don’t have answers.
The provincial government initially said that there would be no public inquiry into the murders, and it took victims’ families marching in protest on an RCMP detachment to reverse that decision. Even then, the RCMP and federal and provincial crown lawyers worked in concert to delay reporters’ access to court documents related to the police investigation, and the bureaucratic machinery moved so slowly that the public proceedings of the inquiry didn’t start until very recently
The delays and — yes — RCMP lies over those two years caused the information gap being filled with conspiracy theories, misogynistic mischaracterizations, and worse. Police, the crowns, and governments have only themselves to blame.
Victims’ families were and are understandably distrustful of the inquiry, which seems designed to deflect scrutiny of police. The Mass Casualty Commission’s (MCC) terms of reference require it to be “trauma informed,” which in practice appears to mean that no tough or pointed questions will be asked directly to those involved in the police response.
Consider: RCMP lawyers and lawyers representing the police union argued that police officers should not testify before the inquiry at all, and even the MCC’s lawyers said many of those officers shouldn’t be brought to testify until much later in the process. Thankfully, the commissioners ruled that at least some of the officers would be required to testify sooner rather than later. But even then, one of the first police officers on the scene says she should be allowed to submit an affidavit instead of testifying in person, because showing up in person would be “traumatic.” (The commissioners have yet to rule on that request.)
And what of cross examination? The commissioners have allowed the victims’ families’ lawyers to ask some questions of those testifying, but for other witnesses, those lawyers’ questions had to be filtered through the MCC’s own lawyers, an awkward process that didn’t allow for a critical examination of the witness’s testimony.
The commission is mandated to release a preliminary report by May 1, long before most police officers or Lisa Banfield, the killer’s common-law spouse, testify. I too am skeptical this will be a meaningful document.
Still, the MCC has been releasing a trove of documents detailing what happened during the murder spree. The problem is there are so many documents coming so quickly that even those of us who are paid and (perhaps) have the skills to find meaning in them are overwhelmed; it is beyond doubt that family members and the public generally can make no sense out of the documents before the next batch is released; the result is that the narratives of events are for the most part determined by commission staff. The families say those narratives leave out many pertinent details and don’t acknowledge the complexities and potential counter-narratives. (I intend to write about one example of counter-narratives in coming days.)
• • •
Reflecting back on the past two years, I wonder if we’ve properly mourned. Given the pandemic lockdown, there was no opportunity for a collective commemoration of those lost, and therefore no way to process our own complicated emotions about the murders.
I wonder if some sort of artistic response to the events of two years ago is in order. I’m always struck by the understated and therefore profound memorial to the Swissair 111 tragedy; perhaps a simple nature preserve or minimalist sculpture could become a focal point for commemorating the tragedy of 2020. But I’ll leave it to people with deeper understandings of such things to explore how best to proceed.
However, since there’s been no public mourning, I think that by default the inquiry itself is becoming the platform for public mourning. And so we are collectively healed a bit when people who suffered directly publicly relate their personal losses.
I was tremendously moved when volunteer fire chief Greg Muise and deputy chief Darrell Currie spoke of their psychological struggles during and after the mistaken shoot-up of the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall by two RCMP officers. How could I not?
Under questioning by MCC lawyer Jamie VanWart, Muise and Currie spoke of the terror they experienced at the fire hall.
“I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to die?’” said Currie. “Just, ‘Am I going to bleed out on the floor of this comfort centre?’ ‘Am I going to see this person?’ ‘Are they going to shoot through the wall?’ It was pretty horrific.”
Muise and Currie also spoke of their difficult journeys through counselling and attempting to heal. Currie detailed how he wasn’t able to get counselling for nearly a year because he didn’t have a family doctor who could refer him to counselling. You can watch their testimony here.
As moving as that testimony was, though, I worry that we’re doing Muise and Currie a disservice if we’re relying on the two men to help heal us. People grieve differently, on their own terms, in their own ways. Muise and Currie are wounded; perhaps they will benefit from exposing their souls in this fashion, but are we pushing them into a passion play of our own direction? And if so, is that the best thing for them? I don’t know the answer to that question.
After the emotional testimony from Muise and Currie, VanWart tried to elicit similar testimony from Richard Ellison. Ellison’s son Corrie was murdered in Portapique, and his other son Clinton hid in the woods much of the night, thinking he was the next to be murdered; Richard Ellison was evacuated to the fire hall in the morning, only to be present when the hall was shot up.
“I know this is an entirely unfair question,” said VanWart to Ellison. “You went through a lot of tragedy on April 18th and 19th. But how did your experience in the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall — how did that affect you on April 19th?”
We all expected Ellison to talk about his feelings, his existential fear, the trauma he experienced while hiding for an hour behind upturned tables and chairs in the fire hall while waiting to be killed by a murderous gunman who had already killed his son.
But Ellison demurred.
“Well, it affected me in a way that at least there’s some humanity out there as the way I was welcomed there,” responded Ellison, referring not to his own emotional state through the ordeal but rather to the kindness of Muise and Currie. “And I want to thank these gentlemen for the service that they provide for their communities. They’re the front lines when it comes to health, you know, answering of health, distress, heart attacks and things like that. There’s a lot of older citizens out there.”
“But my experience with this whole thing is I lost my son,” continued Ellison. The room became expectant.
“But you have to expect these things to happen because it says right in here” — Ellison tapped on the Bible he had sworn to earlier, which was still sitting on the table in front of him — “that these things will happen in the times that we’re living in right now. Critical times, hard to deal with. And I just take it one day at a time.”
VanWart tried again: “And who did you go to for help, Mr. Ellison?”
“I went to the mental — or whatever you want to call it up in the Colchester Hospital,” responded Ellison. “There’s a psychiatric unit upstairs on the second floor and I went up there for three counselling sessions, but then I found it really wasn’t helping me any. It just wasn’t doing the job. Like, I didn’t need that type of thing.”
“I — you know because I — like I say, I rely,” stumbled Ellison before finding his words: “I am a Jehovah’s Witness. I rely on Him,” Ellison nodded towards the Bible. “And He’s helped me through this big time. He will give you the strength to endure these hardships, and yeah.”
“I don’t have a family doctor,” he added. “But as long as I don’t get sick, I’ll be all right, eh?”
This didn’t fit the script at all.
I’m an atheist, but I would never fault Ellison for finding solace in his faith, any more than I would fault Muise and Currie for their public soul-bearing. As I say, we all mourn on our own terms.
Still, I perceive that there’s an expectation that the inquiry will provide the avenue for public grieving and mourning, and this unsettles me.
• • •
Richard Ellison knew the killer, who the Examiner refers to as GW. Nine or 10 years before the murders, Ellison and GW regularly drank together, and the GW showed his illegal weapons to Ellison. “He showed me a rifle that he had, there was a Ruger Mini-14, same kind of rifle that Marc Lépine used up in Montreal,” Ellison told MCC investigators, referring to the murder of 14 women at École Polytechnique in 1989.
GW also showed Ellison an illegal handgun, which Ellison referred to as a “combat weapon.”
Ellison didn’t notify police about the illegal weapons, but it’s not clear that if he had any official action would have been taken — former neighbour Brenda Forbes was so alarmed by the behaviour of GW that she told the RCMP about his illegal weapons and the physical abuse of Lisa Banfield, but no police investigation was initiated.
As well, Ellison also witnessed GW physically attack his uncle, Glynn Wortman, after GW suspected Glynn was interested sexually in Lisa Banfield.
Ellison was so alarmed about the behaviour of the killer and neighbour Greg Blair that he sold his house moved out of Portapique completely in 2013, only to return a few years later, buying another house down the road, a little more removed from the pair. Sometime during that period, Ellison found religion and avoided the partying life completely.
When fire erupted up the road from Ellison’s house the night of April 18, Ellison urged his visiting son Corrie not to investigate. “Don’t go up there, there’s a bad — bad cat up there,” said Ellison. “He’s got guns and if he’s been drinking, anything can happen.”
• • •
It’s still unclear how many of the victims in Portapique were targeted specifically, and how many were randomly targeted.
GW certainly knew in more than passing fashion Greg and Jamie Blair, Lisa McCully, and Aaron Tuck. GW had designs on Tuck’s property, but Tuck rejected the offer; Tuck’s wife Jolene Oliver and daughter Emily were killed that night as well. Andrew MacDonald knew GW, but their encounter that night was by happenstance — MacDonald happened to be driving by GW’s fake police car when he was shot. Corrie Ellison may have met GW as a teenager, but his murder that night was a murder of opportunity, not design.
I don’t what kind of relationship, if any, GW had with Dawn and Frank Gulenchyn, Joy and Peter Bond, and John and Elizabeth Zahl. It’s odd, though, that GW seems to have bypassed other houses in the area to gun down the three couples in their homes.
There is no doubt that Alanna Jenkins and Sean McLeod were deliberately targeted the next morning at their house on Hunter Road, some 50 kilometres away from Portapique, and that neighbour Tom Bagley, who came to investigate a fire at the home, had no previous relationship with GW before he was killed.
Lilian Campbell, Kristen Beaton, and Heather O’Brien were simply gunned down in cold blood, with not even a happenstance relationship with GW.
The shooting of Cst. Chad Morrison and the murders of Cst. Heidi Stevenson and Joey Webber soon after came after chance encounters with GW, but then he appears to have reverted back to specifically targeting his next and last victim, Gina Goulet.
When GW was killed in Enfield, he was evidently heading to the urban area. He had the night before made a threat against Banfield’s sister (who lived in Cole Harbour), but by that time her sister was being protected by police. Perhaps he was heading to his downtown Dartmouth property.
Wherever he was heading, he was still heavily armed and willing to kill both at random and by targeting those he knew.
• • •
We now know that on at least four occasions through the murder spree, GW passed within metres of police but managed to elude capture.
The first was on Saturday night, when GPS data from their police cruiser indicates that Cpl. Natasha Jamieson and Cst. Chris Grund “likely passed” GW’s fake police car on two-lane Highway 2 while Jamieson and Grund were speeding towards Portapique and GW was speeding away from the community.
“In an interview with the Mass Casualty Commission, Cst. Grund stated that he did not see the perpetrator’s vehicle, if indeed they had passed each other,” notes the MCC foundational document First Responder Actions in Portapique. “Cpl. Jamieson reported to the Commission that she was aware of reports that the perpetrator was driving what looked like a police car or an old police car and she did not see anything as she drove towards the scene.”
The language is telling — it was still simply inconceivable that the killer was driving a fully marked police car.
“When we were going [towards Portapique] initially, there was information that the suspect had potentially three vehicles similar to that of police,” Jamieson later told investigators. “I think in my mind I’m saying decommissioned cars but [he] had three vehicles similar to police cars potentially registered to him.”
At that time, police had checked for vehicles registered in GW’s name, and there were three Ford Tauruses. But at some time later in the night, and definitely by 8am the next morning, they had discovered that a fourth car, a 2017 white Ford Taurus, had been purchased by Berkshire Broman, “possibly his [GW’s] business”; this was the fully marked police car. Banfield described that vehicle as “brand new,” and the photo of the car appears to show a dealer’s sticker on the passenger side window; the car was never licensed to drive on public roads.
Additionally, “It appears plausible that a third RCMP member, Cst. Paul Cheeseman, passed the perpetrator while approaching Portapique via Station Road, north of Great Village,” continues the document. “As with Cst. Grund and Cpl. Jamieson, Cst. Cheeseman did not reporting seeing the perpetrator or his replica RCMP cruiser. (Cheeseman’s interview with investigators has not yet been made publicly available.)
The second close encounter between RCMP and GW was when Cpl. Rodney Peterson passed the fake police car on Highway 4 at 9:47am on Sunday. Thanks to a series of miscommunications and technical problems, Peterson had not been able to view a photo of the car, and drove right past the killer before he realized who he was; by the time Peterson turned around to pursue, GW had eluded capture by pulling into the Fishers’ property.
The third close encounter was at 10:07am, when the fake police car drove right past Cst. Dave Gagnon, who was at that moment standing in the parking lot of the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall speaking with Dave Westlake and Richard Ellison. Gagnon knew about the fake police car and had seen photos of it, but because no public notice had been issued about it, Westlake did not. Westlake saw the fake car, but made no special notice of it beyond that it had a black push bar on the front, and as there were so many police cars on the road, this particular one did not otherwise stand out; Westlake did not mention it to Gagnon.
The fourth close encounter was at 11:16am at the Elmsdale PetroCan, when GW pulled up to Pump 7 to get fuel in Gina Goulet’s Mazda3 at almost the exact moment that Cst. Andrew Ryan, Cst. Jay Barnhill, and Cst. Brent Kelly pulled up at Pump 8 to fuel their Emergency Response Team vehicle. At that time, the officers were looking for a killer wearing a police uniform and reflective vest and driving a silver SUV, but GW had changed his clothes and vehicle. The gas pump weren’t operating (the clerk had disabled the pumps due to the police response), so both vehicles drove off without fuelling up.
2. COVID and “elected government”
For the duration of the pandemic, we’ve been assured that government COVID policies were made in close consultation with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang. At every point, Premiers Stephen McNeil, then Iain Rankin, then Tim Houston assured us they had followed Strang’s advice.
But after the Houston government lifted the state of emergency and did away with nearly all public health measures, many have wondered if government policies and Strang’s views aligned.
Last Thursday, Strang seemed to suggest that government was acting against his advice.
Twice during a video conference with reporters, Strang used the term “elected government” — a phrase I don’t recall him using previously — seemingly to distance himself from Houston’s policies.
The first time Strang used the term was in response to a question from Canadian Press reporter Lyndsay Armstrong, who was asking about pressures on the hospital system due to employee absences because of COVID. “At what point does public health policy adjust to what’s happening in our health system?” asked Armstrong.
“You know, elected government has made a number of decisions based on the public health measures that we have used in the past,” said Strang. “If it’s really felt that we need to go back to looking at those, then it’s really important that my colleagues in the health care system are at the table requesting those types of measures.”
The second time Strang used the term was in a response to a question from me. Here’s our exchange:
Bousquet: In terms of the mask mandate, you’ve been pretty forthright about — people should protect themselves. Vulnerable people can not go to bars, restaurants, and so forth, but they really don’t have much of a choice in terms of going to the grocery store or taking the bus. If you’re a cancer survivor or whatever and you have to take the bus and half the people on the bus are not wearing masks, it doesn’t seem like you can do much to protect yourself. Why not leave the mask mandate in place for those essential indoor places?
Strang: I strongly recommend that people continue to wear masks. It’s elected government, not myself as a public health official, that makes those kind of policy decisions.
I don’t know how to understand that as anything other than “hey, don’t blame me, it’s Tim Houston who makes the rules.”
There seems to be a notion that COVID precautions are either all or nothing, but as I see it, there’s a comfortable middle spot: life can return to pre-pandemic “normal,” with no restrictions on restaurants, bars, concerts, gyms, what have you, no gathering limits, no distancing, no masking required, with the exception that when we’re indoors in places where vulnerable people by necessity have to go, we’re required to mask up. Is that really such an imposition?
At 1:37am Saturday, 18-year-old Simon Joseph Morrison was shot dead on Brunswick Street.
This comes soon after a pair of other killings: on March 18, 25-year-old Treyvhon Alrick Bradshaw was shot and killed outside The Den nightclub on Gottingen Street, and on March 26, 20-year-old Keezondre Kentrez Smith was shot and killed on Hollis Street.
As I write this at 9:40 Tuesday morning, the police “guns and gangs” unit is executing a search warrant on a residence on Joseph Young Street in North Dartmouth. I don’t know if it is related to the recent spate of killings, but it’s unusual for police to announce such searches when they’re in progress.
“Officials in a Georgia county are moving ahead with plans to build a launch pad for commercial rockets barely a month after residents voted to halt the project by a margin of nearly 3-to-1,” reports Russ Bynum for the Associated Press:
Critics, including the National Park Service, say rockets exploding soon after launch could rain fiery debris onto Little Cumberland Island, which has about 40 private homes, and neighboring Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness visited by about 60,000 tourists each year.
The article is about the local government ignoring the plebiscite, as the politicians said the voter turnout was so small as to not be binding. I have no interest in getting into the weeds of rural Georgian politics, but the spaceport proposal drew my attention.
It’s interesting how Spaceport Camden sells itself:
- Launches over the Atlantic Ocean and a large, undeveloped buffer zone mitigate any danger to major population centers and provide a nearly unrestricted launch range to a wide range of orbits.
- Southern latitude gives spacecraft a boost from Earth’s rotation, adding velocity to the rocket, reducing the fuel needed, and enabling more payload to reach orbit.
- Orbital inclinations between 31° and 58° can be reached without the addition of costly propulsive maneuvers to change the orbital plane.
- Temperate weather permits launches year round.
- As a commercial property, Camden Spaceport eliminates the need for commercial space companies to sequence alongside governmental payloads or be saddled with the federal government regulation that exists at other launch sites.
- Rail and Interstate highway located within 13 miles.
- Barge access to the Atlantic with convenient shipping to other East Coast spaceports.
- 838 aerospace companies in Georgia, employing 85,000 aerospace workers.
- Georgia Institute of Technology a state asset, has the largest aerospace engineering program in the U.S.A.
- Georgia is a right-to-work state with a pro-business atmosphere. A competitive state tax rate, mandates for a balanced state budget and legislation designed to support business growth and success are just a few reasons Georgia’s business environment is thriving.
A couple of these selling points — adjacent to the Atlantic, being a commercial operation not tied to military launches — are shared with the spaceport proposed for Canso by Maritime Launch Services (MLS).
Both companies are trying to cut costs — Camden by relying on “right to work” (i.e., union-busting) laws, MLS by (presumably) getting subsidies from a provincial government promising jobs! and taking advantage of the low exchange rate for the Canadian dollar — so I’ll call that a wash.
However — and I don’t know how meaningful this is — the rest are clearly advantage Camden: southern latitude lowering allowing lower launch speeds and wider orbital inclinations; nice weather; rail and four-lane divided highways nearby; barging distance to Cape Canaveral and Wallops Island; an extensive nearby aerospace industry and university programs that support it.
Spaceport Camden proposes to use “liquid-fueled, small launch vehicles… similar in design and performance to a RocketLab Electron launch vehicle.” (RocketLab launches from New Zealand, and is planning to soon launch from Wallops Island as well.) For the purposes of the environmental impact statement, the “representative vehicle” is a two-stage rocket with 18,500 pounds of thrust at lift-off carrying a small — 100- to 300-pound — payload to low earth orbit. The fuel is RP-1, which is refined form of kerosene.
In its EIS, Camden hedges about launch failures: “Information regarding the failure rates for the representative Electron is limited,” although the company concedes that “launch failure will eventually occur.” In fact, however, there is exacting information about the Electron — since May 2017, there have been 24 launches, including three failures. That’s a failure rate of 12.5%, albeit none of the failures resulted in explosions on the launch pad or in flight.
In contrast, MLS proposes to use a two-stage Cyclone 4M rocket, built by the Ukrainian company Yuzhmash. The Cyclone 4M is a sort of cheap knock off of the three-stage Tsyklon-4, which was going to be used at a Brazilian spaceport before the Brazilian government aborted the project. Nether the Tsyklon-4 nor the Cyclone 4M has ever been launched before, so we have no idea what the failure rate will be, should it ever launch. And the fuel for the Cyclone 4M is 1.1-dimethylhydrazine, also known as Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine or UDMH; it is, well, problematic.
At this point, this discussion is widely speculative and academic. That’s because the Russian military appears to be setting its sites on Dnipro, Ukraine, where the Yuzhmash factory is. The city has already suffered “heavy bombardment” from Russian forces, its airport has been destroyed. Obviously, the terrible loss of human life is far more important than discussions about the merits, or lack thereof, of the Yuzhmash rockets.
Still, if Ukraine somehow gets out of the war intact, I predict that MLS will argue that we must approve the Canso spaceport and use the Cyclone 4M rocket as an exercise in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and anyone who raises the environmental risks of the project is obviously a fascist.
Halifax and West Community Council (Tuesday, 6pm) — virtual meeting
Audit and Finance Standing Committee (Wednesday, 10am) — virtual meeting
Harbour East Marine Drive Community Council (Wednesday, 6pm, HEMDCC Meeting Space, Alderney Gate) — agenda
Public Information Meeting – Case 23724 (Wednesday, 6:30pm, Tallahassee Community Centre, Eastern Passage) — application by Happy City Lab Inc. for a rezoning and development agreement to allow a 87-unit residential development on the lands at 1818 Shore Road, Eastern Passage
Law Amendments (Tuesday, 9am, Province House) — three bills: Bill 149 – Financial Measures (2022) Act; Bill 154 – Tourist Accommodations Registration Act; Bill 155 – Public Prosecutions Act
Legislature sits (Tuesday, 1pm, Province House)
Public Accounts (Wednesday, 9am, Province House) — Virtual Care Nova Scotia; with representatives from Department of Health and Wellness, Doctors Nova Scotia, and NSHA
Legislature sits (Wednesday, 1pm, Province House)
PhD defence, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (Tuesday, 2pm) — online; Aaron Woblistin will defend “The Role of NPC2 in Cholesterol Transport and the Endocytic System in Neuroblastoma Cells”
Kinase-independent synthesis of 3-phosphorylated phosphoinositides by a phosphotransferase: Implications for Salmonella infection and gallbladder cancer (Wednesday, 4pm, Theatre A, Tupper Building) — Gregory Fairn will talk
The Art of Global Encounters in the Early Modern Period (until April 29) — virtual exhibition
centered upon selected works of art that are products of cross-cultural exchange and aesthetic hybridity. Each submission raises important questions about the visual cultures of colonialization, marginalization, and cultural appropriation, fetishization and the exotic, ambassadorial missions and the role of the court as a site of exchange, and the reception of Western science in the East.
In the harbour
08:30: Lagrafoss, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for Portland, Maine
9:00: NYK Nebula, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Antwerp, Belgium
13:00: IT Integrity, supply vessel, sails from Pier 9 for sea
14:00: CSL Kajika, bulker, sails from anchorage for sea
21:30: NYK Nebula sails for Port Everglades, Florida
05:00: Front Samara, oil tanker, sails from Point Tupper for sea
06:00: Front Cruiser, oil tanker, arrives at Point Tupper from Odudu Terminal, Nigeria
16:00: Josco Guangzhou, bulker, sails from Inhabitants Bay anchorage for sea
Rain today, they say.