The Mass Casualty Commission report meets the ‘somewhat surprised’

three people sitting at a long table
The Mass Casualty Commission, with (left to right) commissioners Leanne Fitch, Michael MacDonald, and Kim Stanton, in February 2022. Pool photo by Andrew Vaughan/ Canadian Press

I was not surprised by the numbers of people who pronounced themselves “somewhat surprised” by the sweeping and consequential content of last week’s report of the Mass Casualty Commission. Many of those same people had spent much of the past three years dismissing, marginalizing and otherwise declaring the whole exercise a waste of time at best, a cover-up at worst. I was — but wasn’t really — surprised so many of those same people now retreated into the weasel-word qualifier “somewhat” to provide fig-leaf cover for their shocked tracks.

I am not speaking here of the families who lost loved ones in April 2020’s mass shooting. I can’t begin to fathom the pain they still endure. Their anger at the RCMP’s failures during G.W.’s murderous 13-hour spree and its seeming indifference to their suffering in the aftermath was — and is — righteous and right. So too their understandable human frustration with the pace and procedures and processes of a mass casualty commission whose trauma-informed approach, whatever its merits, often seemed only to intensify the trauma they experienced.

But there were too many others who played into — and with — their suffering for their own reasons, and often for no reason at all.

I am not suggesting we should not be skeptical about official responses to tragedies such as the mass casualty commission. We know that neither the federal nor provincial governments wanted an independent public inquiry. That one was appointed at all is a tribute to the families.  

We were also right to question its impossibly broad mandate, its impossibly tight timeline, and how its trauma-informed process might interfere with its ability to get to the bottom of what happened in rural Nova Scotia on the night of April 18 and the morning of April 19, 2020.

But for too many, that skepticism careened too easily into cynicism and a willingness to accept as fact even the most outrageous conspiracy theories — without ever applying the same skepticism to them.

In the era of social media, of course, there will never be a shortage of faux investigative journalists and breathless bloggers eager to amplify the next big “scoop” — “that the killer was procuring sex slaves for the cops, that the killer was a paid RCMP informant, that the cops were somehow indebted to the killer. There’s no evidence at all for any of these claims,” as my colleague, Tim Bousquet, drily noted last week in his reporting on the day before the report’s release. Neither is there a shred of evidence that the killer’s common-law partner was ever a willing or even unwilling accomplice in his rampage.

But that hasn’t stopped such claims from continuing to circulate on the internet, or feeding into the narrative that the mass casualty commission was really the mass conspiracy cover-up commission.

Over-the-top attacks by some family members’ lawyers on the commission’s trauma-informed mandate and the supposed limitations it imposed on their ability to cross-examine witnesses didn’t help.

Certainly, there are legitimate questions to be asked about what trauma-informed should mean and to whom it should apply.

But some of the lawyers took those questions and transformed them into an almost Biblical, brook-no-dissent claim that vigorous, unfettered cross-examination is the only legitimate way to test the truth of evidence.

Anyone who has spent any time in a courtroom knows that truth-seeking is rarely the only — or even primary — purpose of cross-examination. It is more often about sowing doubt, whether through fact or fiction, about the credibility of a witness for the other side, and about scoring points for their own client. (Some of those lawyers who touted the purist, purely fictional high school civics course version of the virtues of cross-examination should be sentenced to re-read some of their own courtroom cross-examinations.)

The mass casualty commission, of course, was never intended as a criminal proceeding. Its role was to inquire into “the causes, context and circumstances giving rise to the tragedy,” and to set out “lessons learned as well as recommendations that could help prevent and respond to similar incidents in the future.”

Did the fact lawyers weren’t given free rein to cross-examine every witness about every detail mean we couldn’t learn what we needed to know about the causes, context and circumstances of what happened?

I’d argue that the commission’s 3,000-page report is the best evidence to the contrary.

Thanks largely to the exhaustive, exhausting work of their investigators and researchers, the commissioners were able to pinpoint in their final report not only the minute-by-minute failures of the Mounties during their initial responses on the ground to unfolding events but also the ass-covering actions of their chain of command in the days, weeks and months after.

Having established those findings, the commissioners were then able to offer concrete recommendations for change.

Again, thanks largely to the commission’s much-maligned penchant for panels and roundtables featuring researchers and subject matter experts, its final report was also able to extrapolate from the specifics to come up with broad-based recommendations on everything from policing to gender-based violence.

Last May, I wrote a column arguing that the commission was, in fact, doing a reasonable job and suggesting its deadline should be extended…

I think the commission has done a good job so far of constructing a compelling narrative of what happened and why with its limited public sessions, its 18 (so far) foundational documents and its more than 1,400 supporting source materials… 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 hours during which it unfolded and in the continuing attempts to cover up those failures ever since.

I was surprised at the response to the column — and not simply because so many people disagreed with my point of view. That comes with the territory; sparking debate is what column writing is supposed to be all about.

In this case, however, those disagreements came with assumptions from some that I too must be part of The Coverup Conspiracy.

One long-time former journalist-turned-PR-consultant of my acquaintance, in fact, even called to make that argument baldly. He and his buddies had been talking, he said, and they wanted me to confirm I was in the employ of the mass casualty commission.

We seemed to have reached a point where we couldn’t simply disagree; the fact I didn’t see it as a conspiracy meant I must be, ipso facto, part of the conspiracy too.

And so it has gone.

Now that the commission’s report is finally public and its actual findings and recommendations are out there for all of us to consider and debate, it is time to focus on next steps.

Based on previous reports into policing that have ended up gathering dust on government and RCMP commissioners’ shelves — Mayerthorpe, Moncton, etc. — we are right to be skeptical.

Based on the new interim RCMP commissioner’s failure to read even the report’s executive summary before its official release and his continuing defensiveness about his members’ actions despite the report’s scathing indictment of them — we also have every reason to question whether the RCMP, as constituted, should even be part of the next conversation.

That said, one of the most important recommendations in the mass casualty commission report is its call for the creation of an accountability body, including representatives from “those most affected and key community groups.” Its role will be “creating an implementation plan and providing regular updates to government and to the public” on what’s been accomplished and what hasn’t.

Yes, we have lots of reasons to be skeptical, but we also have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to make sure governments and others respond seriously to the report’s recommendations. That is now on us.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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  1. You are spot on with this column as you were right all along about giving the Commission a chance to do its work. The former chief justice was never going to engage in a cover up and cross examination is a search for advantage not the truth. The truth is at best a by-product of the adversarial process and there are many other ways to get to it that are more nuanced. That the Commission took “too long” is in the nature of public inquiries. Those who demanded one instead of the review originally planned, can hardly complain. For my part, i think the review was a good idea that was too quickly dismissed but I know I am alone in that.
    The only quibble I have is your bit about the acting commissioner not having read the executive summary. He ought to have because the question is probably the first “hard hitting journalists” learn to ask. But it’s facile. He ought to have been ready for the question. He wasn’t. He sounded terrible. But reading or not reading the executive summary is a sign of poor media relations not a poor attitude to reform. That’s a small flaw in an otherwise excellent post. Thanks for it.


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