Work begins on inquiry into N.S. mass shooting, victims’ families shaken by long delay


The work on a public inquiry into the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia has finally begun — but after months of waiting, some victims’ family members say they have lost faith in the politicians setting up the panel.

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced Thursday that the commissioners have begun their work, and their mandate was also released.

Nick Beaton’s wife Kristen was pregnant when she was killed during the shooting rampage.

“I’m happy it’s moving along, but at the same time it pisses me off it took six months. You know, like that’s my wife and unborn baby. You know, I’ll never get to hold her again,” Beaton said Thursday.

The inquiry was set up by the federal and Nova Scotia governments in July to determine what happened and to make recommendations to prevent similar events in the future.

Shortly after the inquiry was announced, former federal justice minister Anne McLellan stepped down from her role as commissioner because she couldn’t commit to the new timeframe.

Beaton said the delay has made him feel “worthless” and he holds Blair, Nova Scotia’s justice minister Mark Furey, Premier Stephen McNeil and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responsible.

“They’re just sitting on their hands,” Beaton said. 

“The biggest thing that every family member wants out of this is it to not happen again.”

The July announcement only came after days of criticism and pressure from family members, like Beaton, who said the “independent review” initially planned by the federal and provincial governments wouldn’t have the appropriate powers to conduct a full investigation.

Beaton said he is now hoping the commissioners can look into why a review was chosen as the first option rather than an inquiry, and who made that call.

“We’re trying to make it easier for other people, because there’s nothing that’s going to bring back any of our loved ones,” he said. “But … we want the people at fault to answer to it.”

The commissioners are now in the process of setting up a secretariat in Nova Scotia, hiring support staff, establishing a budget and creating a work plan, Blair told MPs during question period in the House of Commons.

Blair was responding to Conservative critic for public safety Shannon Stubbs, who asked about the progress of the inquiry six months after the shooting.

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says a public inquiry into the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia has officially begun. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The third commissioner — lawyer Kim Stanton — was appointed after one of the previous commissioners withdrew from the inquiry. Stanton, who practices Aboriginal and constitutional law at Goldblatt Partners LLP in Toronto, will join former Nova Scotia Chief Justice J. Michael MacDonald and former Fredericton police chief Leanne Fitch as inquiry commissioners.

Twenty-two people died in the April 18-19 shootings, which began in the small community of Portapique, N.S., and ended about 13 hours later at a gas station in Enfield, N.S. The shooter — Gabriel Wortman — also set fire to several homes and eluded arrest by impersonating an RCMP officer before being shot dead by police.

Krista Hughes climbs over a guardrail while gathering flowers that had blown away from a makeshift memorial for RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, who was shot dead during a province-wide killing spree that claimed 22 victims. (Tim Krochak/Reuters)

The victims’ families are “relieved and happy” that the process is moving forward but are dismayed it took this long, said lawyer Robert Pineo. He and his team at Patterson Law in Truro, N.S., are representing most of the victims’ family members in the public inquiry and in two separate class-action lawsuits.

Like Beaton, Pineo said it should not have taken three months to replace the third commissioner. He said there must have been a longer short-list of people who were vetted and ready to take on the role. 

But Pineo said he is “quite thrilled” with Stanton herself, adding her work as a noted feminist writer and researcher on public inquiries makes her an excellent choice.

“I think that this provides great balance to the panel,” he said.

Inquiry mandate also released

Two orders-in-council have been released outlining the commissioners’ terms of reference.

They direct the commissioners to inquire and make findings on the causes, context and circumstances giving rise to the tragedy, the police response and the steps taken to inform, support and engage with victims, families and affected citizens.

The commissioners are tasked with looking at the “role of gender-based and intimate partner violence” and “access to
firearms.” The mandate also calls for examination of the gunman’s “interactions with police, including any specific relationship between the perpetrator and the RCMP and between the perpetrator and social services, including mental health services,” prior to the event.

The commissioners are to look at police actions, including operational tactics, response, decision-making and supervision, along with communications with the public during and after the event.

They’re also to consider communications between and within the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency, Criminal Intelligence Service Nova Scotia, the Canadian Firearms Program and the Alert Ready Program.

The terms of reference also call for an examination of police policies in terms of gender-based and intimate partner violence and police training in active shooter incidents.

The commission is to be “guided by restorative principles in order to do no further harm,” and a provision also notes it is to grant to the victims and families of the victims an opportunity for appropriate participation in the inquiry.

Final report due November 2022

Inquiry commissioners will have the authority to summon witness and require them to give evidence under oath. They also will be empowered to compel witnesses to produce documents or other items they deem relevant to their investigation.

They are expected to deliver two reports on their findings, lessons learned and recommendations — an interim report by May 1, 2022, and a final report by Nov. 1, 2022.

Minister Furey declined an interview on Thursday.

In a statement, Furey said that establishing the inquiry is “one important step” in helping families heal, and they as well as all Nova Scotians deserve answers.

“Thank you for your patience. I know waiting for us to complete our work has been difficult. That part of the journey is now over,” Furey said.