Most families of people killed in N.S. mass shooting boycott public hearings

Lawyers representing more than half of the people killed in the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia say they are boycotting four days of public inquiry proceedings in response to a ruling that they will not be able to directly question two key Mounties. 

Rob Pineo, a lawyer with Patterson Law, said that his clients asked their legal team not to attend Mass Casualty Commission hearings for the rest of this week and the two days of hearings scheduled for next week. His firm represents families of 14 people that were killed and several other individuals who have been deeply affected by the shooting rampage that left 22 people dead in April of 2020.

In a statement he said clients are “disheartened and further traumatized by the commissioners’ decision” to allow Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill and Sgt. Andy O’Brien to only be questioned by commission counsel because they are “amongst the most crucial RCMP ‘in command’ members.”

Pineo went on to say the group wants to send a “clear message that they will not be associated with this restricted fact-finding process for such critical evidence.”

Tara Miller, who represents relatives of Aaron Tuck and Kristen Beaton, who was pregnant when she was killed, told CBC News her clients are “deeply disappointed” and she will also be boycotting the proceedings. 

Families “have been waiting for a very long time to hear questions in their own words, or their counsel’s words, answered by these key decision makers,” said Miller. 

2 Mounties coordinated early response 

Rehill was the risk manager working out of the RCMP’s Operational Communications Centre when the first 911 calls came in from Portapique, N.S. In addition to monitoring those calls and overseeing the dispatchers, he made the very first decisions on setting up containment and where the first responding officers should go.

O’Brien was the operations non-commissioned officer for Colchester County at the time, meaning he was in charge of the daily operations of the Bible Hill RCMP detachment. On April 18, he helped co-ordinate the early response from home and communicated with officers on the ground.

The National Police Federation (NPF) and Canada’s attorney general had requested that O’Brien and Rehill provide their evidence by sworn affidavit, and that Staff Sgt. Al Carroll testify in person but only have commission counsel ask questions.

Carroll, who was the district commander in April 2020, was part of the team of commanding officers and worked out of the Great Village fire hall overnight. 

Commission granted accommodations

The Mass Casualty Commission leading the inquiry released its response to the accomodation requests on Tuesday, ruling that Rehill and O’Brien will testify via pre-recorded video interviews on May 30 and 31.

Only lawyers for the commission, or the commissioners themselves, will ask the officers direct questions. Lawyers for the victims’ families can submit questions.

Miller said she doesn’t oppose all accommodations, but said it is inappropriate for the commission’s lawyers to ask both the initial questions and then follow ups, which would normally be asked by other lawyers through cross examination. 

The commissioners, lawyers for the commission and for participants, as well as members of the media, can attend the testimony. The sessions will be recorded and later shared with the public. 

Commission counsel Roger Burrill, left, questions Jeff West and Kevin Surette, right, retired RCMP staff sergeants who were critical incident commanders, as they provide testimony dealing with command post, operational communications centre and command decisions on May 18. Other Mounties requested not to testify live in person. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Carroll will testify live on Thursday via Zoom, and can be questioned by all lawyers.

The commission’s decision said it took into account the officers’ health information, which is private, and “settled on what we believe is the appropriate balance that allows the public to hear and understand this evidence in a meaningful way while minimizing potential harm to the witnesses.”

It said the NPF and the Department of Justice provided the commission with some of the witnesses’ health information, which was then shared confidentially with lawyers for families participating in the inquiry. But since it’s considered sensitive personal information, the commission did not release the details. 

Commissioners decide on accommodations

Chief commissioner Michael MacDonald did not acknowledge the boycott in his opening remarks at the hearings Wednesday morning, but he said the purpose of accommodations is to allow the commission to hear from people with “wellness concerns or privacy issues.”

He said the pre-recorded testimony will allow the inquiry “to get the best evidence while giving us the flexibility to provide ample breaks and the availability of supports.”

The inquiry’s rules state that anyone who is subpoenaed as a witness may submit a request for things such as additional breaks, having a support person with them or submitting an affidavit instead of live testimony.

Michael MacDonald, chair, flanked by fellow commissioners Leanne Fitch, left, and Kim Stanton, at inquiry proceedings on March 9, 2022. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

MacDonald said it’s up to the commissioners to decide whether to grant a request and to what extent. 

“Accommodations are designed to help the commission in the public interest gather and hear critical information. Accommodations are not designed to get in the way of that,” he said, adding that lawyers for participants will still be able to ask witnesses questions, unless there is “a compelling reason to take a different approach.” 

Hearings in Truro for first time

Three other witnesses also requested accommodations. The commissioners denied one of the requests and decided to allow two witnesses to testify on a panel. The decision did not disclose the names of these witnesses. 

Another Mountie, Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers, who was risk manager at RCMP dispatch centre morning of April 19, is testifying in person in Truro, the first day hearings are being held in Colchester County. 

Miller said many families had planned to attend the proceedings in Truro in person, not only because of the location but because of the roles Rehill and O’Brien played in the early hours of the police response.

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