Memorial at the Portapique church hall. Photo: Joan Baxter

The public wanted answers. We wanted to know how a crazed gunman could murder 13 of his neighbours and burn down their homes in the idyllic community of Portapique and then roam across the province in a look-alike police car willy nilly murdering nine more people — friends and strangers, a hapless woman walking, a pair of nurses, a cop, two good samaritans — without anyone stopping him during the 13-hour mayhem.

We wanted to know why the police response was inadequate, why different police agencies couldn’t seem to communicate with each other, why the provincial emergency alert system wasn’t activated, and why two cops mistakenly shot up a volunteer fire hall full of people.

We wanted to know why red flags about the killer’s past domestic violence were ignored.

We wanted to know how the man could assemble an arsenal of illegally imported weapons, build three different fake police cruisers, and obtain RCMP uniforms.

We wanted to know why and how this terrible tragedy played out.

Instead, we got a condescending and offensive panel telling us that the murder spree may cause us some mental anguish.

That, anyway, was the bulk of the first day of proceedings of the Mass Casualty Commission.

“We are absolutely committed to answering the questions about what happened and why, and delivering recommendations to make communities safer,” Commission chair Michael MacDonald assured us in his opening remarks.

The inquiry is framed in words like “restorative justice” and “trauma reduction,” but as the day progressed, I had this nagging feeling that this approach was actually causing more trauma, not less.

MacDonald mentioned that after the victims’ families, there is a second tier of people who have various connections to events surrounding the murders who have been traumatized — police investigators, tow truck drivers, crime scene clean-up people, and so forth. Point taken.

But what of the public generally?

The public, too, has been traumatized. And that’s in large part because no answers have been provided, and there’s been delay after delay in getting those answers. Recall that the victims’ families marched in the streets outside an RCMP detachment in protest against the governments’ initial refusal to call an inquiry into the murders. And it’s taken us two long years to get even to this point, and still the families are angry that they’re being given no clear ability to cross-examine witnesses.

The RCMP and an entire team of crown prosecutors have worked for these two years to withhold court documents from the public and to keep those documents sealed and redacted for as long as possible, causing cash-strapped media organizations to collectively spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees in a mostly fruitless bid to make those documents public.

Does the Mass Casualty Commission think that the repeated official lies, obfuscations, delays, and ass-coverings might cause the public to be a bit traumatized? Apparently not.

The first real official business of the commission was to hear from a “Panel on Human Impact—Broad Reach and Effects on Wellness,” consisting of seven mental health experts. You can watch it here.

The panel discussion started with Cheryl Myers, the chair of the Along the Shore health board, explaining the tremendous loss suffered by the families and communities who lost loved ones, and especially the trauma experienced by children, including the students of Lisa McCully, a teacher who was murdered.

I wanted to hear more about this. What are the challenges in providing mental health services to these people? Are they under-resourced? Can government funding be increased or better directed to provide the help the communities need? The commission, after all, is about making recommendations to improve the state of affairs. Myers, however, didn’t speak of institutional supports, but rather spoke of the importance of people delivering casseroles to their neighbours.

It went downhill from there.

Robin Cann, a therapist in Cumberland County, spoke of the damage done to “tight-knit” rural communities and “the sense of being safe” among your neighbours. “People are locking their doors day and night, when previously that was an unheard of experience,” said Cann.

What? Has Michael Moore been roaming around Cumberland County wiggling doorknobs?

Immediately after the mass murders, a friend told me that “every small town has some monster living down the road,” and complete strangers started emailing me about the long-held fears they’ve had living in their rural communities.

A lot of decent people live in the country because they enjoy the rural setting. But some people live in the country because they’re social misfits and assholes and the rural setting provides them cover. I heard about child molesters, wife beaters, drunken gunfire in the woods, heavily armed people guarding their illegal grow-ops, and worse.

People in small towns have been scared of their neighbours long before Portapique.

Moving on, Crystal John, a social worker with Adsum House, told us that the mental health of homeless people living in wooded areas has been upset by the murders. She said that about a third of the about 500 homeless people in Nova Scotia live in the woods, mostly in HRM.

“They may have felt safe in the woods,” she said, “and now all of a sudden that safety has been shifted, so they’re vulnerable and unsure of where they can feel safe in Nova Scotia, because they already feel a little out of place because they are without homes.”

Asked who else’s mental health might have been affected by the murders, John replied, “the African Nova Scotian community. And the reason is because we’ve always had strained relationships with law enforcement, and it’s been seeped in racism throughout our history. And the false narrative of creating the mass casualty has a way of further damaging and confusing the idea of safety for African Nova Scotians because we already have a very precarious relationship with law enforcement, and now this false narrative gives us a sense of ‘who can we trust?’”

Oh boy.

People living in the woods probably have greater concerns than that they’ll be murdered by a guy driving around in a fake RCMP car. But even if they have some mental distress around the extreme unlikelihood that that once-in-a-lifetime event will repeat itself, isn’t the solution to get these people into proper housing? The solution is political, not a bunch of touchy-feely mental health platitudes.

Likewise, African Nova Scotians have distrust of police for very good reason: for hundreds of years and right to this moment, cops harass Black people, improperly stop them, falsely arrest them, and sometimes kill them. The first solution to this very real problem isn’t to connect Black people to mental health services (which wasn’t discussed in any event) but rather is to stop the cops from fucking with Black people in the first place.

Maybe John can be forgiven for plugging her organization’s issues, but what happened next was inexcusably condescending.

Keith Dobson, a Psychology prof at the University of Calgary, gave us advice for how to deal with the issues the inquiry will examine. “Pay attention to your own self,” said Dobson. “Do the things that are healthy for you. So this would include things like trying to sleep regularly, eat well, exercise… we need to get out of ourselves and make contact with other people.”

“If you find yourself distressed, do some deliberate actions to try to address some of those things,” said Susan Henderson, Executive Director of CMHA Colchester. “Be sure you’re spending an hour outside on a walk. Make sure you reach out to someone on the day you watch these proceedings…. Make some time for yourself, do things that are creative activities… whether that’s a craft or some knitting or planting some seeds, just something that’s different from your everyday lives.”

This discussion of sleeping regularly and knitting was happening in front of victims’ family members who have been waiting two long years for answers about the murders of their loved ones.

For myself, the pop psychology and reduction of collective political problems to individual mental health diagnoses was angering, and I left in a huff, looking for a drink.

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Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Sadly, Day 1 is exactly what I expected out of this sham of a proceeding. How can they have the audacity to talk down to so many groups of people? I gave up after the second hour as it was so disappointing it was infuriating.

    Credit to the Premier for at least making the public statement he did about this “inquiry”. I may not agree with his politics but I respect the fact he’s willing to speak out about this disrespectful gong show they are trying to call in “inquiry”. I can’t even imagine what the victims families were thinking and feeling yesterfday.

  2. Worth highlighting :

    “we got a condescending and offensive panel telling us that the murder spree may cause us some mental anguish”. . .

    Condescending and offensive – this is how they do it – it’s the status quo – paternal platitudes – unconscious of the actual mental anguish sitting in the front row.

  3. Hopefully day 2 and every day after that will be better. The families really need to get something good out of this and to a lesser degree the rest of us do too.

    Thanks, Tim for you excellent reporting.

  4. Thanks for this reporting Tim, treating your readers as intelligent people and calling people out when appropriate. Hearing that the panel is so disconnected from what needs to be done is disheartening. The Adsum House person’s estimate that a third of the about 500 homeless people in Nova Scotia live in the woods sounds completely loony. Where on earth did that number come from?

  5. Your analysis has merit.Watched for about an hour and had similar thoughts to yours.Also wondered how you and other journalists manage to stay sharp during a session like yesterday’s. Hang in there;many rely on your perseverance.

  6. A powerful piece of writing, Tim. I just can’t even process the condescending bullpuckies that were tossed yesterday. I hope you found that drink.