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How Portapique residents past and present are dealing with reminders of the 2020 mass shooting

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The eve of the release of the final report from the inquiry into Nova Scotia’s 2020 mass shooting is a reminder for residents of Portapique of their small community’s traumatic past.

It was in the rural, wooded neighborhood on and around Portapique Beach Road where gunman Gabriel Wortman began his murderous rampage, killing 13 people on the evening of April 18, 2020.

But as the killer’s former property, now owned by the province, becomes overgrown into obscurity with brush, community members who remain are working to rebuild their future down the road on Portapique Loop.

“We know if you Google ‘Portapique’ you're going to see all sorts of negative media stories,” says resident Andrew MacDonald, “and our goal is to change that so when you Google ‘Portapique,’ you see stories like this.”

MacDonald is one of a handful of Nova Scotians who survived their encounter with Wortman that weekend. MacDonald was shot by the gunman the first night of the killings, after Wortman pulled alongside MacDonald’s vehicle with his replica RCMP cruiser.

But instead of talking about that, MacDonald is focusing on his latest project – the construction of a new community hall.

The hall, expected to be completed this fall, is right next to the playground MacDonald also helped build for the community and its residents, with help from partners such as the Rotary Club of Truro.

“Our initial goal was to provide the opportunity for the community to come together and roll up their sleeves and begin to rebuild their community both literally and figuratively,” says Club member Alana Hirtle.

For Hirtle and MacDonald, the hall project means creating a place for people to make new memories, and work towards long-term healing.

“It takes a few community leaders and it takes a few key people that we have in this community to be strong and see how we can push through these things,” says MacDonald.

But not everyone who was in Portapique the night of the tragedy have been able to stay. Some residents put their properties up for sale and moved out as their way of trying to move forward.

“The decision came easy for me,” says Mallory Colpitts, “that relocating was best.”

But it wasn’t easy.

Colpitts’ residence in Portapique overlooks a picturesque beach, a secluded spot at the end of a long dirt road.

But that idyllic spot became a nightmare on April 19, 2020, when Colpitts awoke that morning and learned what had happened in her community, and that the killer was still at large.

After hiding in her house with little assistance or information from police, Colpitts has been left suffering the emotional effects.

It was emotionally difficult, she says, to pack up her house and sell it, without any access to funds raised after the tragedy from the Red Cross.

“All of the funds that the community and province and the nation donated… as a survivor of that direct community who made it through the night, I didn’t see any of it.”

But she felt she just couldn’t stay.

“I no longer felt safe to live in a rural community,” says Colpitts, who still harbours a lingering distrust for the RCMP as a police force.

Colpitts wasn’t the only resident to leave.

“I just personally didn't want to risk triggering memories on the regular,” she says, “I just didn't want to contemplate doing that to myself.”

But Hirtle and MacDonald insist more people have moved in, than out,

“Young families are moving in. We've got kids playing in the playground,” says Hirtle. “It’s so heartwarming to drive down the road and see children laughing and giggling.”

“Certainly without the project, it would have been a lot harder for a lot of people,” says MacDonald.

And while MacDonald says he doesn’t really know those who left, he’s making a concerted effort to get to know those who remain.

“When the shooting happened, I didn't know a lot of my neighbours that had passed and I regretted that,” he says. “This has given me a chance to not have those same regrets in the future.”

This week, the province of Nova Scotia announced the community hall project would receive $150,000 towards its completion as part of the province’s 2023-24 budget. Hirtle says organizers are hoping to raise another $103,000 to cover the project’s total budget of $887,000.

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