Last week’s seemingly out-of-sync release of an internal RCMP report into the shooting at the Onslow Firehall during April 2020’s mass shooting raises troubling questions.
Some are more easily and satisfactorily answered than others.
Let’s start with what happened on April 19, 2020, shortly after 10:20 a.m. outside the firehall located about 35 kilometres from the initial shootings in Portapique. The hall was designated as a comfort centre for people affected by the 13 murders the night before.
There are now various versions.
On May 5, 2022, Const. Dave Melanson and his partner Const. Terry Brown, the two RCMP officers, told their version when they testified before the Mass Casualty Commission.
Brown said that, at around 7 a.m., he’d interviewed Lisa Banfield, the killer’s common-law spouse, in the back of an ambulance in Great Village, and he specifically remembered her describing the killer wearing an orange vest.
A few hours later, after reports there had been more murders that morning and after another RCMP officer radioed in that he had passed the killer on the highway driving a replica RCMP cruiser and wearing a “reflective vest,” Brown and Melanson realized the killer must be on the move and set off in pursuit in their unmarked vehicle.
“I was prepared to expect to be shot at,” Melanson told the commission. “I figured it would be a given if we encountered him.”
Shortly after that, they spotted a man in a vest beside an RCMP cruiser outside the fire hall about 10 km. from the killer’s last known location. They quickly pulled to a stop in the middle of the road, got out and took cover behind their vehicle. Melanson testified he frantically tried to communicate on his portable radio but couldn’t get through. The inquiry determined he’d made eight different attempts.
Brown told the commission he then shouted out his identification to the person in the vest and ordered him to show his hands.
The person ducked down instead. “All I could see was that person in the orange reflective vest standing by the police car,” Brown testified. “So, while I’m yelling commands, he ducks down, and at that point I don’t know if he’s coming up again with a gun or what his intentions are. Then he ran from the back of the car towards the building and that’s when we discharged our firearms.”
It turned out that the man in the vest was David Westlake, a civilian emergency management coordinator who had come to the hall to help those seeking shelter after the violence in Portapique.
Brown fired off four rounds, Melanson one.
They didn’t hit anyone, but Westlake, who took cover in the hall with two firefighters, had no idea who was shooting at them or why. Westlake, in fact, insists the officers never identified themselves, never said, “’Show your hands.’ I heard, ‘Get down,’” he told commission investigators in an interview. “I am adamant to this day this is what I heard.”
The shooting only finally stopped when the real Mountie inside the police car — Melanson and Brown hadn’t realized he was in the car — got out and shouted across the parking lot at them through his radio.
Brown and Melanson said they did check to make sure no one was injured, then drove off in their continuing search for the killer. “I knew there would be time for explanation but that wasn’t the time,” Melanson testified.
“I’m very sorry for the people that were in the building, the firemen that were in there. [I] had no idea they were in there,” Brown told the commission, but then added: “At the end of the day, it wouldn’t have changed my reaction. I believed that person was going inside the building to kill people.”
On March 2, 2021, nearly a year after the shooting incident, Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), which investigates incidents involving police, issued a report exonerating Brown and Melanson.
As they were approaching the Onslow Fire Hall, they saw a marked RCMP vehicle parked in front of the fire hall facing the road and a male wearing a yellow and orange reflective vest, standing by the driver’s side door of the marked RCMP vehicle. He was dressed in a fashion similar to other accounts of how the killer was dressed. The officers could not tell if the driver’s side door was open or if anyone was in the car because they were facing the passenger side of that vehicle.
When the officer yelled “police” and “show your hands”, the male did not show his hands but rather ducked behind the marked police car then popped up and ran toward the fire hall entrance. The officers discharged their firearms. Neither the male who ran into the fire hall nor the RCMP member who, unbeknownst to the officers, was sitting in the police vehicle were struck by the shots.
The investigation found that based on everything the officers had seen and heard since coming on duty and what they had observed at the time, they had reasonable grounds to believe that the male was the killer and someone who would continue his killing rampage. They discharged their weapons in order to prevent further deaths or serious injuries.
Accordingly, no criminal offence was committed, and no charges are warranted against either officer.
Included in the information “reviewed and considered in the preparation of this report,” SIRT noted, without comment, was a “Use of Force Expert Report.”
That 50-page had been prepared by Joel Johnston, a former Vancouver police officer turned consultant, and it essentially accepted the officers’ version of events at face value.
While the then-SIRT director, retired judge Felix Cacchione, told the Mass Casualty Commission in an interview that he had “real concerns” with Johnstone’s “one-sided” report, and SIRT wouldn’t be using his services again, the reality is that SIRT’s report and Johnston’s “expert” report reached the same conclusion.
The document released last week by the commission was a January 2021 internal RCMP report prepared by its Hazardous Occurrence Investigation Team (HOIT) in response —and opposition — to Johnston’s report. It was forwarded to SIRT.
Its five-page review identified “inaccuracies and omissions within the [Johnston] report which the HOIT believe bear relevance on the investigation of this incident.” Among other issues, the review notes that…
- Johnston claimed to have reviewed a forensic identification report and photos, but they aren’t referenced in his report.
- He only noted information from one single witness, claiming the other dozen witness statements “offered little assistance with the file review.” But HOIT notes one ignored witness reported his direct observations of the officers and provided additional information not in the officers’ statements.
- Melanson claimed he tried to send a message over police radio before they opened fire. Johnston supports his claim; the review says there’s no evidence to support it.
- Shell casings showed the officers were a long way — close to 90 metres — from Westlake when they began shooting.
- Video indicates Westlake never ducked down as Brown claimed.
- Johnston also doesn’t include a timeline of events. HOIT uses CCTV footage and a statement from the real Mountie in the police cruiser to estimate that Brown and Melanson began firing their weapons 10–15 seconds after they arrived on the scene at 10:21 a.m. — hardly long enough to determine who they were shooting at. “The reader” of Johnston’s report, notes the review, “is left with the impression Cst. Melanson and Cst. Brown were on scene for an extended period of time. CCTV from the firehall showed the unmarked police vehicle leaving east bound at 10:25 hours, four minutes after arriving at scene.”
“The HOIT believe the information as referred to above is critical to understanding the events that transpired at the Onslow Firehall,” Staff/Sgt. Bobby Haynes, the team commander, wrote. “The HOIT wish to draw this information to the attention of SIRT to ensure the Use of Force expert has taken these factors into account during the drafting his report.”
The release of the HOIT review, of course, has only reignited longstanding doubts about SIRT’s version of events.
There’s no accountability whatsoever,” says Darrell Currie, one of the firefighters inside the hall when the Mounties opened fire. “They just open fire on a civilian and drive away.” Currie says the HOIT review makes clear that SIRT needs to reopen its investigation.
It does, but perhaps more broadly points to the need for an independent review of how SIRT itself operates.
When I first read about the release last week of this internal RCMP document — more than six months after the Mounties involved had testified before the commission — I’ll admit I was curious. And skeptical.
Was this another example — like the stuttering, self-interested release of damning RCMP documents, like the transcripts and recordings of the meeting between local Mountie brass and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki — of an RCMP coverup of information it would rather keep to itself?
So, I asked the Mass Casualty Commission for the timeline of events leading up to the release of the document. Emily Hill, senior commission counsel, replied:
The internal memo from the Nova Scotia RCMP’s Hazardous Occurrence Investigation Team (HOIT) was provided to the Commission in October 2021 and disclosed to Participants on November 5, 2021. It was therefore available to Participants when Cst. Terry Brown and Cst. Dave Melanson testified in public proceedings on May 5, 2022.
The memo was entered as an exhibit during proceedings on September 23, 2022 after it was identified by the Commission as a document it wished to have in its public record. It was made available on the Commission website once it was entered as an exhibit.
That, at least, is encouraging. The Mounties did provide the mass casualty commission with an internal report that cast doubt on the official — SIRT — version of events and raised questions about their own colleagues’ behaviour.
But it doesn’t explain why SIRT so often sees the world through the myopic pro-policing lens it does.
Or perhaps it does. In addition to its civilian director, SIRT’s team includes two so-called “civilian” investigators, “each with over 33 years of criminal investigation experience with the RCMP,” and two full-time seconded police officers, one each from the Halifax Regional Police and from the RCMP.
Independent civilian oversight? Not really.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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