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N.S. mass shooting inquiry report must deliver 'clear commentary': family lawyer

Nick Beaton, whose wife Kristen Beaton was killed in the April mass shooting, attends a march organized by families of victims demanding an inquiry into the crimes in Nova Scotia that killed 22 people, in Bible Hill, N.S. on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan Nick Beaton, whose wife Kristen Beaton was killed in the April mass shooting, attends a march organized by families of victims demanding an inquiry into the crimes in Nova Scotia that killed 22 people, in Bible Hill, N.S. on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
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HALIFAX -

On July 22, 2020, about three months after a gunman murdered 22 people in Nova Scotia, a procession of grieving relatives marched to the local RCMP detachment, demanding an independent and open inquiry into the rampage.

Nick Beaton, who lost his pregnant wife Kristen Beaton in the April 18-19, 2020, killings, wore a sign with a photo of his young son kissing Kristen. "I miss my Mommy," it read. "We deserve answers and the truth."

On Thursday, Beaton and others who pressed for answers will see the result of their demands as a federal-provincial inquiry -- which was announced a week after the 2020 demonstration in Bible Hill, N.S. -- delivers its final report.

Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer who represents 14 of the victims' families, said in an interview Tuesday they are hoping "for clear commentary on what things went wrong and what things ought to have been done better or differently."

The mass shooting began in the tranquil community of Portapique when a 51-year-old Halifax denturist assaulted his spouse, loaded his illegal firearms into in a replica RCMP vehicle and began shooting his neighbours. Thirteen people died that night, as houses set on fire by the killer created a nightmarish glow over the wooded area.

The killer managed to escape, and on April 19, nine more people were gunned down, including RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson -- whose car was struck by the mass killer's vehicle as she responded to a call for help from a fellow officer.

The gunman was killed by two members of the Mounties' emergency response team at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., about 13 hours after the first deaths.

The public inquiry had a broad mandate, but some observers say the issues of policing and gender-based violence are at the heart of the probe.

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said it's important to note that while the commission of inquiry is focused on finding facts and making recommendations, it cannot lay blame or determine criminal or civil liability. Still, he said the final report could prompt big changes, particularly for the RCMP.

Among other things, MacKay said the inquiry is sure to urge the national police force to be more transparent when communicating with the public.

"From the very first news conference, there was either misinformation or under-information from the RCMP, which continued throughout the whole process," he said. "And they should have got the word out earlier that a man was driving a police car and shooting people."

On another front, MacKay said the inquiry will likely recommend that the RCMP do something about its lack of co-operation with municipal police forces.

"The RCMP, in what might appear to be almost an act of arrogance, was repeatedly saying, 'No, we have this under control,"' MacKay said. "There seems to be a kind of superiority in terms of how they deal with other police forces."

As well, the commission of inquiry is expected to have plenty to say about how the RCMP handles complaints of intimate partner violence.

The inquiry heard that Gabriel Wortman began the killings after attacking his spouse, Lisa Banfield. Witnesses told inquiry lawyers that Wortman's history of violence against women spanned decades, and a former neighbour in Portapique told the inquiry she informed police in 2013 that he possessed illegal weapons when she filed a complaint about an alleged incident of domestic violence.

MacKay said the inquiry has the option of calling for an overhaul of the RCMP that would end its role as the main police force in most parts of rural Canada.

Since the tragedy, the RCMP has addressed shortfalls in gear and procedures, but its full response to the report will only be rolled out after its release, senior officers have said.

The commission has said its report will contain seven volumes and span as many as 3,000 pages. But Ed Ratushny, a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa's law school, said the key will be whether it offers a clear account of what occurred and practical recommendations on how to prevent similar occurrences.

"A public inquiry has to be user-friendly to the public," he said.

During the hearings, Ratushny criticized restrictions placed on cross-examination of some witnesses, particularly of police officers, as part of the inquiry's mandate to not amplify the trauma experienced during the shootings.

"I wonder whether the credibility of the report might be put in jeopardy, in some respects, because of not having more ordinary, predictable cross-examination," he said during an interview Monday.

McCulloch said some of her clients have developed a "tentative" approach to the inquiry, and they hope "the commission doesn't shy away from saying things that need to be said" in the final report.

"We're not going to make any positive change if they can't clearly speak to what went wrong and what must be fixed going forward," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2023.

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