With less than six months to go before the inquiry is supposed to file its final report, it’s worth asking if it needs an extension to what was never a realistic timetable.
Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Inquiry commissioners (MCC)
(d) direct the Commissioners to submit, in both official languages, an interim report on their preliminary findings, lessons learned and recommendations no later than May 1, 2022, and a final report on their findings, lessons learned and recommendations no later than November 1, 2022…
The clock is ticking.
There are just 116 weekdays between now and the day that the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission is required — by the orders in council that created it — to report back to the rest of us on…
- the facts it has uncovered concerning G.W.’s murderous, 17-crime scene rampage across rural Nova Scotia on the night of April 18 and the morning of April 19, 2020, that “took the lives of 22 innocent victims and forever changed the lives of countless others;”
- the lessons the commissioners have learned from turning over and examining the many rocks beneath those bald facts; and
- the recommendations they’ve come up with as a result of all of that to “help prevent and respond to similar incidents in the future.”
It’s worth reminding ourselves just how extensive — and daunting — the tasks are that the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia set for this commission.
From the order in council again:
(a) direct the Commissioners to inquire into and make findings on matters related to the tragedy in Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19, 2020, including
- the causes, context and circumstances giving rise to the tragedy,
- the responses of police, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and municipal police forces, and
- the steps taken to inform, support and engage victims,
- police policies, procedures and training in respect of active shooter incidents,
- policies with respect to the disposal of police vehicles and any associated equipment, kit and clothing,
- policies with respect to police response to reports of the possession of prohibited firearms, including
- communications between law enforcement agencies, and
- information and support provided to the families of victims, affected citizens, police personnel and the community.
(b) direct the Commissioners to set out lessons learned as well as recommendations that could help prevent and respond to similar incidents in the future.
If you break down just the three items in just that first instruction — causes, context, and circumstances — there is already more than a public inquiry mandate’s worth of work to do.
But there are a few other caveats we should keep in mind as we consider that.
From the day of its appointment on October 21, 2020, this commission has been operating under COVID-19 lockdowns, restrictions, mandates and recommendations that have inevitably slowed down and complicated its work.
And then there is this, which should also never be forgotten — or forgiven.
Neither the federal nor provincial government wanted this public inquiry to happen at all. They did their best to avoid it. They preferred a quiet “review” that could be contained and controlled, filed and forgotten.
If not for the angry protests by the families of those who lost their loved ones, this inquiry wouldn’t be happening at all.
Given all of that — and I realize I may be in a minority here — I think the commission has done a good job so far of constructing a compelling, deeper narrative of what happened and why, thanks to the presentations during its limited public sessions, its 18 (so far) foundational documents and its more than 1,400 supporting source materials.
With the cards it has been dealt.
My question is, do those cards need to be reshuffled?
I know the families — and their lawyers — have not always been happy with the pace of the inquiry, or the reliance on so-called “foundational documents” and roundtable discussions, or the lack of live testimony by witnesses and what some have claimed are the limitations on questions by the families’ lawyers.
Those are reasonable concerns that have smacked up against the commission’s artificial deadline.
On the other hand, I haven’t seen any evidence that the commission — as some critics have suggested — is attempting to cover up for the systemic failures of the RCMP or the actions of its officers.
On the contrary. It seems that every day’s proceedings bring damning new revelations and disclosures of Mountie failures and cockups in the years leading up to G.W.’s killing spree, in the 13 hours during which it unfolded and in the continuing attempts to cover up those failures ever since.
One of the concerns, for the families and their lawyers, has been that while commission staff and investigators have interviewed more than 200 witnesses, so far only 26 have testified in public.
More — including most importantly, senior RCMP officers responsible for decision-making before, during and after the tragedy — are expected to take the stand in the coming weeks. On the agenda this week: key players Bruce Briers, the RCMP’s risk manager, and Al Carroll, its district commander for Colchester County.
But we know the National Police Federation and the Attorney General of Canada have asked the commission not to put several senior RCMP officers on the stand —including some key decision-makers — but to allow them to testify by videotape instead. One RCMP officer has apparently even asked to testify in a closed room with only the commissioners and commission counsel present.
Although the inquiry’s “trauma-informed” rules do give the commissioners discretion to allow that, I would be surprised — and disappointed — if they say yes. [I was, it turns out wrong about this. The commission did allow for accommodation. I will address that in my next column.]
This is still a public inquiry, with a requirement to be public, transparent and accountable.
So far as I can tell, the lawyers for official participants in the inquiry have not been — despite earlier concerns by some — prevented from putting their own questions to witnesses.
According to senior commission counsel Emily Hill, 23 of the 26 witnesses so far have “answered questions asked by participants’ counsel” as well as the commission’s lawyers. “The only exception has been the witness panel held April 11, when participants’ counsel chose not to ask questions but instead agreed that Commission counsel should ask additional questions.”
But, even if one accepts that the commissioners are doing their best to get to the truth — and I do — the reality, as Tara Miller, a lawyer representing a relative of victim Kristen Beaton, who was gunned down while sitting in her car, is that “We have a daunting calendar with a very tight timeline.”
The next phases of the inquiry will be critical. It shouldn’t be rushed to fit an arbitrary deadline. All questions need to be asked and answered.
That means the commissioners need more time to do their work. And we need more time to see them do it.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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