Nick Beaton has every right to be angry, but the rest of us need to let the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission do its job

Despite many early missteps, the commission is now doing what it needs to do — methodically assembling facts and evidence about what happened during Canada’s worst mass shooting and exploring the many larger issues the tragedy requires us as a society to confront.

Three men being questioned
RCMP Constables Adam Merchant, Aaron Patton and Stuart Beselt, left to right, the first officers on the scene in Portapique, are questioned by commission counsel Roger Burrill at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Halifax on Monday, March 28, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

It is impossible not to sympathize with the frustrations of Nick Beaton. His pregnant wife, Kristen, was among the 22 victims of the senseless April 2020 shooting rampage during which a killer — dressed as a Mountie and driving a down-to-the-decals perfect replica police car — wandered, seemingly at will, along Nova Scotia’s highways and byways, murdering erstwhile friends, neighbours, associates, acquaintances, even total strangers like Kristen.

At around 10 o’clock on the morning of April 19, 2020, Kristen — a VON continuing care assistant on her way to meet clients in Masstown and Debert — happened to stop at a gravel pullout on Plains Road near the Debert business park.

A few minutes later, that replica RCMP cruiser drove up beside Kristen’s Honda CR-V. The killer, dressed like a policeman, got out of his vehicle “and proceeded to fatally shoot Ms. Beaton through her driver’s-side window.”

Both Kristen and her husband already knew what had happened the night before in Portapique, less than half an hour’s drive away.

Multiple murders, fires, a suspect still on the loose…

Kristen and a clearly worried Nick exchanged phone calls and text messages throughout that Sunday morning. Including this series of text messages that began at 8:53 a.m. and ended close to 9:01:

Kristen Beaton: Apparently 9 ppl were shot and 4 houses were lit on fire. Crazzzy.
Nick Beaton: Buddies driving a crown vic…  Still on the loose
KB: Oh wow really. That’s scary … Know what colour?
NB: No … But not many crown vic on the road….lol … And it was 4 different places
KB: Wow. That’s insane. … Ya true I’m headed to masstown and debert for the next few visits
NB: If u see someone walking don’t stop
KB: Ok … They released who buddy is
NB: They try to get in ur rig ram them or run them over and we will deal with it later … No not yet
KB: Rcmp sitting at debert exit … They just did release [the name of the shooter] … 51 year old

A little over half an hour later, at 9:37, Nick sent Kristen a Facebook screenshot photo of the now-identified killer along with the official statement from the RCMP:

51-year-old [GW] is the suspect in our active shooter investigation in #Portapique. There are several victims. He is considered armed & dangerous. If you see him, call 911. DO NOT approach. He’s described as a white man, bald, 6’2-6’3 with green eyes.

What the RCMP did not say — even though they’d been aware of the facts from multiple sources since soon after the murders began the night before — was that the murderer was dressed as a Mountie and driving a vehicle tricked out as an official RCMP cruiser.

Twenty minutes later, Kristen Beaton was dead, murdered by a man she would have unknowingly assumed was a real Mountie.

A man speaks to microphones
Nick Beaton speaks to reporters in July 2020.

Nick Beaton is convinced that if the RCMP had disclosed that critical information earlier, his wife would still be alive. And they would be raising the child she was carrying at the time of her death.

No wonder he is frustrated and angry.

Although clearly not alone among family members of the victims, Nick Beaton has been among the most vocal and persistent critics of the federal-provincial Mass Casualty Commission, which was set up in October 2020 to establish what happened, explore related issues and produce a final report by November 1, 2022, complete with findings, lessons and recommendations.

On Thursday, after attending the commission’s public hearings for the first time — the day commission counsel laid out the inquiry’s “Foundational Document, Plains Road, Debert,” which zeroed in on the events that day leading to the deaths of Beaton and a second woman, Heather O’Brien — Beaton told reporters, “I don’t feel they’re digging into it enough, I really don’t.”

He pointed out that the 61-page document and discussion of it left out too many details, including the fact that Kristen’s brother had been told by police at the murder scene that day that “a young female left with chest injuries. Kristen’s brother called me right then and said, ‘Kristen might still be alive.’ It gave us hope.”

Hope that would be dashed eight hours later when the RCMP finally officially informed Beaton his wife was dead.

The commission, he said, wasn’t probing deeply enough into the RCMP’s actions and inactions that day.

“Right from April 19, 2020, (it’s been) smoke and mirrors,” he said after the hearing Thursday.

We’re just like mushrooms, kept in the dark … There was lots missing today…  We pray that changes are going to be made, but at this point I don’t see that they’re digging enough or caring enough to do it.  Me and the other family members looked at each other today and said, ‘Is that it?’ We haven’t learned anything we didn’t already know.

It is hard not to feel for Beaton’s anger and his frustration.

But is his criticism of the commission fair?

The public inquiry into the tragedy did not get off to an auspicious start. Even before the commission was finally announced, there was wrangling over whether it should even exist, then what form it should take, followed by an embarrassing shuffling of commissioners.

The commission was awkwardly order-in-counciled into existence by seemingly reluctant governments in Nova Scotia and Ottawa five months after the tragedy — and given an almost impossible deadline to do all it had to do and publish its final report by November of this year.

Six months from now!

But there were delays in getting started, followed by a series of open houses in the fall of 2021 to “to share information about our work, answer questions and to gather feedback from community members,” which satisfied no one.

Public proceedings that were supposed to start in late October 2021 were delayed until the end of January 2022, and then postponed again for another month.

Even after the public proceedings began on February 22, there were lingering procedural disputes to be resolved: about whether RCMP officers would be required to testify in person, about the role the murderer’s common-law spouse would — or would not — play in the inquiry, about who would be called to testify, about whether lawyers for the family members would be allowed to question or perhaps cross-examine witnesses …

Some of those questions have still not been finally answered.

To make matters worse — at least in the eyes of many, including some family members — the commission began its public proceedings with a day-long “feel-good” expert panel …

to help normalize and validate emotions people have felt or are feeling, and to help people prepare for the information to come from the Commission’s work.

All of that acknowledged, it is difficult to spend anytime exploring the Mass Casualty Commission website and not come away with an appreciation for the gargantuan task the commissioners have taken on and the methodical way they are approaching it.

There were, it’s worth remembering, 17 different crime scenes over the killer’s 13-hour murder spree. There are 61 designated participants — victims’ relatives, injured survivors, first responders, police officers and the federal and provincial governments — taking part in the inquiry.

The commission’s investigators and lawyers have interviewed hundreds of witnesses — from RCMP and first responders to family members to witnesses to passersby — sifted through 40,000 pages of documents, including video surveillance, cell phone records, text messages, etc., trying to piece together the factual underpinning for understanding what happened, and what may have gone wrong to allow what happened to happen.

The result is a virtual library shelf full of what are referred to as Foundational Documents, along with often-multiple source materials in order to lay out the details of what happened in a complete and cross-referenced but dry legal, investigative bureaucratese. (Thank god for journalists like the Examiner’s Tim Bousquet and others who have used these documents, along with their own independent reporting, to create compelling, digestible narratives for the rest of us.)

So far, the commission has only released eight of these foundational documents. The commission is deliberately — and probably quite reasonably — making them public at the same time its counsel walks us through each of them.

There will be, in fact, close to 30 location-based and topic-based foundational documents released during what the commission calls Phase 1.

One of those still-unreleased documents — “Next of Kin Death Notification to Families of Victims” — may provide some of the details Nick Beaton is looking for when it comes to the RCMP’s treatment of him and his family in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s murder.

During Phase 2, the commission will release another eight foundational documents on various related topics, including the killer’s violence toward his common-law spouse and others, the violence in his own family and his financial “misdealings.” It will also publish more foundational documents revisiting the issue of notifications to next of kin, including victim support.

In addition, the inquiry has commissioned its own technical reports to provide “factual information such as the structure of policing in Nova Scotia,” and expert reports to “gather and analyse public policy, academic research and lessons learned from previous mass casualties.” There will be nearly 20 of those — from “critical incident decision-making” to a “legal history of the police duty to warn the public” to “supporting survivors and families in the wake of a mass casualty event” — and more may be commissioned in Phase 3 when the commissioners draft its recommendations “to help make communities safer.”

I certainly understand the anger and frustration Nick Beaton and some other family members. They have already been waiting for two years for answers to their legitimate questions.

Given the work the commission still has to complete, I suspect they — and we — will be waiting well beyond November 1 for answers.

That said, I have less sympathy for Premier Tim Houston’s apparent attempt to play on their anguish by accusing the commissioners, even before the first public hearing, of being “disrespectful” to the families.

Interestingly, Houston also claimed to want an inquiry that is “honest, comprehensive, detailed and most importantly, designed to answer questions.”

If the commission fails to “answer questions,” there will be plenty of opportunity to criticize. For now, Houston — and the rest of us — need to acknowledge the real work being done by the commission and its staff and allow it to unfold.

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Addendum:
When this column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner on April 4, 2022, some people on social media were critical, particularly with the “But…” in the original headline: “Nick Beaton has every right to be angry, but…”
I have changed that headline slightly to make clear, I hope, that I did not in any way mean to suggest I believe Mr. Beaton doesn’t have every right to be angry.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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