HALIFAX: The independent commissioners investigating April 2020’s mass shooting rampage ended last week’s public hearings with a moment of silence to remember the 22 people killed and offered assurances the probe is far from finished.
The Mass Casualty Commission’s chair, retired Nova Scotia judge Michael MacDonald, acknowledged that the process and “sheer scale” of the effort may be frustrating at times.
He said the purpose of the presentations during the hearings isn’t to cover every detail, but to help the public navigate the immense amount of material the commission has uncovered to date.
“Sorting through the information and organizing it in a way that’s easy to understand and can help answer the questions about what happened has been a challenge,” he added. “Sometimes it might seem like there’s too much information and not enough time to review it all, while other times it might seem like the process is not providing answers quickly enough in a way that may have been expected.”
Lawyers representing survivors and families of the victims have been asking for more witnesses to take the stand to provide an opportunity to ask follow-up questions and clarify important details.
Patricia MacPhee, a lawyer representing the federal Justice Department in the proceedings, said not every question can be answered, nor do they need to be for the commission to fulfill its mandate.
“In order to get to important issues that lie ahead regarding the “whys” and “how to prevent,” we can’t get bogged down calling witnesses to repeat evidence that’s already on the record and undisputed or immaterial,” she told the commissioners during Thursday’s public hearing. “We know the “what happened.” It’s time to move on to the bigger questions, the why certain decisions were made, why actions were taken or not taken.”
Nasha Nijhawan, a lawyer with the RCMP union, also argued that the commission’s mandate isn’t to answer every question.
“The commission, participants and the public must accept that some inconsistencies, gaps or apparent errors will never be resolved,” she said. “This is especially true when the body of available evidence includes hundreds of eyewitness perspectives based on memory created in traumatic circumstances and recalled months and years after events.”
The hearings at the Halifax Convention Centre are pausing this week to honour the second anniversary of the April 18 and 19 massacre.
The commission is halfway through its mandate to investigate what happened leading up to and during the killings. It will issue a final report in the fall with a list of recommendations to guard against a similar tragedy.
Over the past several weeks, documents and testimony have provided a timeline for the 13-hour rampage that started in the tiny community of Portapique and ended with the shooter being shot to death by two officers in a chance encounter as they stopped to refuel at the Big Stop gas station in Enfield.
The hearings are shifting to a new phase over the coming weeks to look at how and why the tragedy happened.
MacDonald noted that the commission is precluded from finding individual criminal or civil liability. Instead, its mandate is broader than a trial, with a goal of determining responsibility for public safety to avoid a similar massacre down the road.
MacDonald said the commission needs “a broader lens” to serve the public interest. “Getting to the facts of how and why this happened will ensure meaningful recommendations,” he said. “We are doing our very best to keep making progress and fulfil our mandate as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
The hearings will resume on April 25 with presentations on the shooter’s RCMP paraphernalia and mock police cruisier.
On May 1, as required under its mandate, the commission will provide an interim report is to share its progress to date and next steps. The report won’t include recommendations.
Nova Scotia is introducing legislation this fall to establish April 18 and 19 as provincial days of remembrance. The province plans to consult with the victims’ families to ensure their loved ones are remembered appropriately.