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In their final word, families of N.S. shooting rampage victims call commission ‘rudderless’

Would have. Could have. Should have.

The final written submissions for the Mass Casualty Commission are replete with suggestions, demands and recriminations over how the events of April 18 and 19, 2020, and their aftermath, could have been handled differently.

The shooting rampage in rural Nova Scotia left 22 people dead as well as the gunman, who was eventually killed by police. The public hearings into the mass shooting, which began in February and ran until September, has already heard many of the assertions raised in the written submissions. 

Lawyers representing families of 21 of the victims used their final words to the commission to repeat their concerns about issues like communication regarding the police response.

There are two recurring themes on that topic: that the RCMP did a poor job of warning the public as the gunman, Gabriel Wortman, went on his rampage, and that there wasn’t enough information provided to the victims’ families or other members of the public in the immediate aftermath about whether their loved ones had survived.

in their final word families of n s shooting rampage victims call commission rudderless
An RCMP car is seen near a memorial display in Portapique following the mass shooting in April 2020. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Lawyers for the family of Gina Goulet, the gunman’s last victim, went so far to say that had police done a better job of warning the public, she might have survived.

The families, through their lawyers, also voiced skepticism about whether any recommendations the commission makes for improving the performance of the RCMP will be implemented. They cite the failure to act on recommendations stemming from past mass-casualty events in Mayerthorpe, Alta., and Moncton, N.B. In both of those cases, all the victims were Mounties.

‘Rudderless’ commission

Lawyers from Patterson Law, the firm that has represented most of the families, were critical of the commission itself. They said it sometimes appeared “rudderless,” delving into subjects that were not directly related to the April 2020 rampage. They pointed out that the commission came about in large part because of intense lobbying by the families, who were later felt marginalized by some of the proceedings.

“It is important to note that the victims and survivors of crime must not be infantilized by the police or protected from information in the guise of being ‘trauma informed,'” Patterson Law wrote.

Their submission says the families questioned why some witnesses — particularly Wortman’s spouse, Lisa Banfield, and senior Mounties including Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill and Cpl. Rodney Peterson — were accorded special treatment when they testified, which precluded more effective questioning, the lawyers say.

By denying them the opportunity to question Banfield directly, some of the conspiracy theories surrounding her role that weekend got more traction, the lawyers say.

in their final word families of n s shooting rampage victims call commission rudderless 1
RCMP Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill testifies before the Mass Casualty Commission via a pre-taped interview with commission lawyers on May 30, 2022. (CBC)

The families also feel the trauma-informed lens was not applied equally, the submission says.

And in dissecting the Mounties’ perceived shortcomings that weekend, Patterson Law noted: “It cannot be forgotten that the perpetrator was ultimately thwarted by an empty gas tank and coincidence, not by master strategy.”

Other groups weigh in

The special interest groups that were granted standing at the commission used their final submissions to advance their causes one last time.

For example, the Canadian Firearms Association reiterated its view that stricter gun control laws would have had no impact on the outcome of that weekend, because Wortman obtained his weapons illegally and never had the necessary paperwork. By contrast, the Canadian Coalition for Gun Control wrote that, in their view, arming people for their own protection does not reduce violent crime.

Meanwhile the Atlantic Police Association, which represents municipal police forces across the province, argued that the RCMP shouldn’t even be in the business of rural policing.

“Complex national and international investigations require a national police force that is focused on these challenging and difficult public safety issues,” the police association wrote in its brief, “not handing out speeding tickets in rural Nova Scotia.”

The association also said failing to enlist the help of their members that weekend was a serious miscalculation. 

The Mounties had said they were worried people would mistake their cruisers for the replica vehicle Wortman was driving. The association notes that cars driven by any of the municipal police forces would not have been mistaken for an RCMP cruiser.

Complaints against gunman

A coalition made up of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, Wellness Within and the Women’s Legal and Education and Action Fund also questioned the credibility of some witnesses who testified, specifically Const. Troy Maxwell and Const. Greg Wiley.

Maxwell was tasked with investigating a complaint made against Wortman in 2013 by his then-neighbour, Brenda Forbes. She told the panel she reported Wortman for assaulting Banfield and possessing a stash of illegal weapons. Maxwell disputed that, saying he had been called for a driving complaint.

Both Maxwell and Forbes appeared somewhat shaky in their testimony, the coalition wrote in its submission, but Forbes came across as more credible, while Maxwell had appeared to put expedience over safety as he dealt with a hearsay complaint of assault.

As for Wiley, he visited Wortman approximately 16 times and says he never saw anything untoward.

But the lawyers for the coalition say that because he had developed a friendly relationship with Wortman, he was the wrong person to investigate an officer safety complaint or a complaint that Wortman had threatened to kill his father. Wiley took Wortman at his word that all he possessed was a pellet rifle and an inoperable musket.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the East Coast Prison Justice Society also used their final submission to address what they see as credibility issues with Wiley, saying that he “could not explain why he remembered precise details of his interactions with the perpetrator but could not recall receiving a request to investigate him.”

“He ended his testimony with a lengthy rant about transcription accuracy, press freedoms, and creating a ‘timeout corner for media,'” the association wrote.

The association’s lawyers also wrote that, as a wealthy white man, police deferred to Wortman in investigating complaints against him.

While these are the final submissions from participants, the final word will come from the three commissioners when they release their report in March.


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