Blue Line

Ontario watchdog to review new information from Nova Scotia mass shooting inquiry

November 25, 2023  By The Canadian Press

Nov. 25, 2023, Halifax, N.S. – Ontario’s police watchdog has been called in by its Nova Scotia counterpart to review new information unearthed by the inquiry into the 2020 mass shooting in the Maritime province.

Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) confirmed Friday that Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit recently determined the inquiry, which released its final report in March, had yielded new information about two RCMP officers who shot at a firehall as they were searching for the killer, who was disguised as a Mountie.

The Nova Scotia team issued a statement saying the Ontario agency has agreed to conduct another independent review to determine if the new information would have had any impact on SIRT’s decision in March 2021 to clear the officers of wrongdoing.

The statement says nothing about the nature of that information.

The federal-provincial inquiry heard that the suspect, who killed 22 people and was later shot dead by other officers, was not at the Onslow, N.S., firehall on April 19, 2020, when the two Mounties shot at a civilian who they mistook for the killer because he was wearing a reflective vest.

In its six-page report on the incident, the Serious Incident Response Team said the “totality of the evidence” prompted the officers to believe it was the killer they saw from a distance of 88 metres that morning.

SIRT decided that the two officers discharged their weapons “to prevent further deaths or serious injuries,” saying they had reasonable grounds to believe the person in their rifle sights was the mass murderer.

The inquiry’s final report, however, had harsh words for the RCMP’s performance that morning.

“The RCMP command group did not recognize the gravity of the Onslow firehall shooting,” says one of the report’s main findings. “They failed to take the necessary steps to evaluate the circumstances of the shooting, secure the scene, or evaluate the involved members’ capacity to continue with the critical incident response.”

As well, the inquiry found that after the shooting, “the RCMP failed to adhere to its policies and the Serious Incident Response Team regulations with respect to the procedures that must be followed after a serious incident that attracts SIRT jurisdiction.”

The inquiry’s commissioners said they heard from several witnesses directly affected by the Onslow firehall shooting, all of whom said the “SIRT report did not instil confidence in the investigation of that incident.”

Before their arrival at the firehall, the two officers in question knew the shooter had killed a number of people the night before in the village of Portapique, N.S., and they were aware the killer had resumed shooting people that morning.

As they approached the firehall, which had been designated as a rest area, they saw a marked RCMP car parked in front and a man wearing a yellow and orange reflective vest standing next to the driver’s door, the SIRT report says.

According to the report, the two officers didn’t realize a uniformed RCMP officer was sitting in the vehicle. The report says the two officers repeatedly tried to advise other RCMP officers by radio of what they were seeing but couldn’t get through because the radios were jammed by too many transmissions.

Both officers got out of their vehicle with their rifles and the report says they yelled, “Police!” and “Show your hands!” At that point, the man in the vest ducked behind the car and ran toward the firehall. That’s when the Mounties opened fire, with one officer firing four shots and the other a single shot, the SIRT report says.

The watchdog concluded the officers had a “lawful excuse” to fire their guns.

“Based on everything (the officers) had seen and heard since coming on duty and what they had just observed, they had reasonable grounds to believe that the (civilian in the vest) was the killer and someone who would continue his killing rampage,” says the report.

No one at the firehall was hit by the gunfire, but firefighters inside the building were left traumatized by the close call. And they have repeatedly called on SIRT to reopen its investigation.

The inquiry heard that firefighter Darrell Currie was in the building with fire Chief Greg Muise and local resident Richard Ellison at 10:17 a.m. when they heard gunfire outside. Seconds later emergency management co-ordinator David Westlake – the man the two Mounties had tried to shoot – ran inside yelling, “Shots fired! Shots fired! Get down!”

Westlake told inquiry investigators that at no time did he hear anyone yelling at him to show his hands, as one of the officers had testified. As well, of the eight people living near the firehall who spoke to inquiry investigators, none reported hearing anyone say, “Show your hands!”

The National Police Federation, the union that represents 20,000 RCMP members across Canada, issued a statement questioning the need for a further review.

Union president Brian Sauve said he believes the move was “politically motivated.” He said Onslow residents’ dissatisfaction with the outcome of the SIRT report and the inquiry “does not justify this abuse of the SIRT mandate and the public inquiry process.”

“Our members have been through enough,” Sauve’s statement says, referring to the “trauma of responding to the mass casualty event.”

Sauve said the new information cited by the Ontario agency can’t be used for another review “because it is unfair, undermines the purpose of a public inquiry, and offends” the principles of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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