Participants in Nova Scotia mass shootings inquiry question its approach

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

Posted Sunday, February 20, 2022 7:43 a.m. EST

HALIFAX — A public inquiry into the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history is set to begin this week in Nova Scotia.

And as proceedings open in Halifax on Tuesday, the three presiding commissioners will face skeptical participants, lawyers and experts who have come forward in recent weeks to criticize the inquiry as too secretive and unclear about how it will work. .

“The public and those most affected by the (killings) have been seeking answers for nearly two years, but have been either kept in the dark or misled by the RCMP and governments,” the lawyer said. Nova Scotian Adam Rodgers, who offered analysis of the survey via an online blog.

“They fought hard for an investigation that would provide those answers, but so far that investigation has only involved delays and secret meetings.”

For the past 15 months, the Federal-Provincial Board of Inquiry has conducted an independent investigation into the shooting, which began on the night of April 18, 2020 when a lone gunman disguised as a Mountie killed 13 people and burned down several homes. and vehicles in rural Portapique, NS.

The next day, the shooter, driving a replica RCMP cruiser, killed nine other people, including a pregnant woman and a constable. After leading the police on a chase of more than 100 kilometres, he was shot dead by police at a gas station north of Halifax.

The commission received its mandate from the federal and Nova Scotia cabinets in October 2020 after a series of public outcry forced both levels of government to order a fully independent inquiry rather than a less rigorous internal review.

Since then, the commission has gone through more than 40,000 pages of documents and interviewed more than 100 witnesses. Her investigation resulted in the production of what she calls “fundamental documents,” which will serve to guide the investigation.

Spokespersons for the inquest noted that these documents were created with input from those most affected by the killings, including survivors of the shootings, relatives of the victims, first responders, RCMP officers and d others affected by the tragedy. In all, there will be 61 recognized survey participants, including both levels of government.

“The process is designed to work with the participants,” said Emily Hill, the investigation’s lead attorney, in an interview last week. “Indeed, we trusted them very much throughout this process, asking for their feedback and inviting their input… We did this with the aim of being as transparent and accountable to the public as possible. “

The hope is that these documents will help the investigation process a huge volume of information without having to rely on witness testimony to account for every twist. The commissioners have until November 1 to complete their work.

But those key documents could prove problematic, said Ed Ratushy, professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa and author of the 2009 book, “The Conduct of Public Inquiries.”

“Getting things done is one thing,” he said in a recent interview. “Doing the right thing is another.”

Ratushy said the foundational documents could exert undue influence on the investigation’s work. “Once they have written their own report, it will be very difficult for them, if different information comes to light, to change what they seem to want to be the facts,” he said.

That’s why the information must be tested in court hearings, which usually happens when witnesses are cross-examined by the participants’ lawyers, he said.

Last week, however, a Nova Scotia law firm representing 23 participating families and individuals said it was unclear who would be called to testify, how they would be asked to testify and whether lawyers would be allowed. to interrogate them or to test the evidence in the founding documents.

“Our customers continue to watch for signs that the public inquiry will proceed as it should, but feel very disappointed … there is no guarantee that it will be anything other than the scrutiny our customers have been demonstrating to. to oppose summer 2020,” said a statement issued by Patterson Law, based in Truro, Nova Scotia.

Asked if the inquiry might be dealing with a loss of public confidence, the inquiry’s director of investigations, Barbara McLean, said she could only speak to the work of the commission.

“Much of it will be released next week,” she said in an interview. “I think once they start to see what we have, I think there will be a more informed opinion of the work we’ve done. And if there are gaps, I invite people to come and help us in our work.

On another front, critics noted that the investigation rules state that lawyers for participants will not be allowed to cross-examine witnesses unless the three commissioners grant their approval.

Ratushy said that’s not what usually happens in public inquiries, but he also noted that these bodies have a lot of flexibility when it comes to interpreting their mandate.

“I’ve never seen it done the way they do,” he said. “It’s basically an experiment to see if this way of doing this kind of so-called investigation will work.”

Rodgers, who has been involved in a high-profile Nova Scotia death inquest over the past two years, said the inquest appears to have some unusual — and possibly innovative — features.

“But they will need to build credibility for these features through their actions over the next few weeks,” he said. “Over time, they can be praised for their approach, but they can’t assume it will be seen as legitimate until the public sees how it works.”

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