Painting by Karen Drover-Keddy /Between 2 Trees Designs, used with the artist's permission.
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This time last year, I was just coming home from a magical trip to Nova Scotia.
I stayed in a house that one of Palisades Hudson’s clients owns on the cliffs overlooking St. Mary’s Bay, and the views I woke up to every morning were breathtaking . Not only were the views absolutely magnificent, but the people I encountered in Nova Scotia were amazing too. I wrote in this space at the time about the kindness of Nova Scotians, to which this jaded American was unaccustomed.
So I was both shocked and saddened by the recent news that, in 13 horrifying hours, a gunman sullied Nova Scotia’s idyllic scenery and terrorized its people.
The massacre started on the night of April 18 in Portapique, a small town about 80 miles north of Halifax. For the reasons I explained in a blog post after a mass shooting in my home state of Colorado, I will not contribute to the shooter’s notoriety by naming him, although some of the articles I have linked do. The perpetrator reportedly assaulted his girlfriend, tied her up at his home, and then returned to a party the couple had attended earlier that evening. There he killed several people. By the time a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) fatally shot him, the gunman had killed 22 people in all, including 23-year veteran RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson. The terror he unleashed on the province took place at 16 different crime scenes spanning more than 50 miles.
The gunman’s approach also created mass confusion. The shooter idolized the RCMP and collected out-of-service police cars; a neighbor described his house as a “shrine” to the RCMP. So he had the resources to use police gear and a cruiser during his rampage. Some of those he killed may have thought he was a member of law enforcement before he gunned them down.
By the end of April 19, Nova Scotia had become the site of the worst shooting in Canadian history, surpassing the 1989 shooting at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, in which 14 women were killed. No one would have expected Nova Scotia, with a population of less than 1 million, to seize this dubious honor ahead of more populated provinces like Ontario, Quebec or British Columbia. And yet, even while the COVID-19 pandemic preoccupies the globe, no one will soon forget the hell a crazed gunman unleashed on the citizens of Nova Scotia.
While the shooter bears sole responsibility for his actions, the tragedy is more painful for some because they believe law enforcement failed to communicate the danger widely or clearly enough. Confusion and fractured communication, they claim, put more victims in harm’s way.
Reports of gunfire in Portapique arrived late on April 18. When the RCMP arrived at the scene after 10:30 p.m. Atlantic Daylight Time, they encountered several fatalities and at least three buildings on fire. Some of those who died, including 42-year-old Corrie Ellison, were killed when they left their homes to investigate the gunshots and to come to the victims’ aid. It was not only bystanders operating without full information, either. Reports indicate confusion amongst the first responders as they investigated the scene. One first responder asked at 11:21 p.m. if the assailant had been captured, according to the CBC. “No, not for sure,” responded a dispatcher. “They don’t know if they’ve caught him.”
Despite this confusion, some information was available, if not in a place all residents would think to look. The Twitter account for the Nova Scotia RCMP tweeted out its first information about a shooting at 11:32 p.m., saying there had been a “firearms complaint,” and asking residents to avoid the area and stay in their homes. The account’s next tweet, at 8:02 a.m. on April 19, warned of an active shooter situation in Portapique. The RCMP told residents to remain inside, lock their doors and call 911 if they saw anyone on their property.
By 10:04 a.m., the person running the RCMP Twitter account knew the shooter’s name. His identity, along with the fact he had access to a replica RCMP vehicle and uniform, were confirmed by the suspect’s girlfriend, who the police found earlier that morning. A tweet warned people to avoid Highway 4 at a location about 11 miles from Portapique. At 10:17 a.m., the account released a photo of the replica police vehicle the gunman was driving and pointed out the vehicle number on the rear passenger window. At 11:04 a.m., the account tweeted that the suspect was last seen traveling southbound on Highway 102 near Brookfield, about 24 miles from the last reported location. A tweet at 11:06 a.m. said the suspect was believed to have switched to a small silver Chevrolet SUV; another tweet confirmed this information at 11:24 a.m., stating the vehicle was seen in Milford, another 20 miles south of Brookfield. At 11:40 a.m., the RCMP tweeted that the suspect was in custody. As it turned out, less than 15 minutes earlier an RCMP officer had shot and killed the suspect at a gas station in Enfield, about 57 miles south of where the massacre began.
These tweets provided timely – and, as it turned out, reasonably accurate – information. Residents might have been able to use these warnings to avoid the shooter’s path, but only if they happened to be following that Twitter account. Critics have asked why the RCMP failed to provide a province-wide emergency update through Alert Ready, a system that pushes safety notifications through wireless devices, as well as issuing TV and radio updates. During a press conference on April 22, RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather stated that the “Nova Scotia emergency management officials contacted the RCMP to offer the use of the public emergency alerting system. We were in the process of preparing an alert when the gunman was shot and killed by the RCMP.”
Some of the loved ones of those who were shot have been critical of the RCMP’s response. Nick Beaton’s wife Kristen, one of those killed, was a front-line health care worker and in early stages of pregnancy. Nick Beaton later said that they had watched reports of the shooting on April 18, but by Sunday they assumed everything was over. He told the CBC, “I would have not let my wife leave … if I had that broadcast come across, that he was on the loose and driving an RCMP vehicle.” Beaton eventually learned that the shooter was in the area from a friend’s Facebook post, not from a province-wide alert; he texted his wife, telling her not to stop for hitchhikers or let anyone flag her down. The text came too late to save Kristen. An eyewitness said that someone who appeared to be an RCMP officer pulled her over in Debert and shot her.
In the time between the RCMP’s first tweet on the morning of April 19 and the suspect’s death, nine people died, including Constable Stevenson and Kristen Beaton.
RCMP Superintendent Darren Campbell stated in a press conference that police believed the suspect had been contained in the initial perimeter in Portapique on Saturday night. Campbell added that families “have every right to be angry … We are always looking to do better.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a follow-up investigation would, in part, look into the RCMP’s failure to issue an alert. He stated in a press conference: “I think there are many families grieving incredible losses right now who are asking themselves questions about how things could have been different, how they might have been able to be warned earlier. Those are extremely important questions that I know will be addressed through the investigation’s conclusions.”
Carol Off, the co-host of the CBC radio program “As It Happens,” interviewed RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki on April 24. Off asked Lucki why the RCMP did not use the emergency alert system and why the Nova Scotia RCMP instead relied on social media, especially Twitter, to inform residents of the shooter’s movements. Lucki noted that, after three Mounties were killed in Moncton, New Brunswick in 2014, communication through social media became standard operating procedure. When Off pressed Lucki to say whether the RCMP should have used the emergency alert system in addition to social media, especially to inform the public that the shooter was dressed as a police officer and driving a replica police vehicle, Lucki dodged the question several times. However, Lucki did say that the more ways people could be alerted, the better.
Off asked if Lucki thought the RCMP had lost Canadians’ trust. Lucki said, “I imagine we have … Whether it’s an incident, a tragedy like this, or in everyday interactions, we always have to work to keeping the trust that we have with people.”
The RCMP’s decision to delay the emergency alert response and to report the shooter’s whereabouts only on social media strikes me as peculiar. Many Nova Scotia residents live in rural areas where internet access is spotty. Even if their internet connections were strong, it is ridiculous to assume that all residents regularly check the Nova Scotia RCMP Twitter account. Many Nova Scotians doubtless had other priorities on one of the first nice spring Sundays of the year. Why not push an alert to everyone’s cellphone, similar to Amber Alerts sent over the Wireless Emergency Alert system here in the U.S.? Such a message could have instructed residents to stay in place until the danger had passed.
According to the RCMP’s account, it took more than three hours for the emergency alert system to be ready to send a message. In that time, nine people and the gunman died. Why did this take so long?
Despite these questions, and whatever the results of the upcoming inquest, I don’t see evidence that the Nova Scotia RCMP’s response was negligent. The shooter’s deadly path, encompassing more than 50 miles, would have been hard to keep up with even in an area with more experience in mass shootings. We can hope that the Canadian authorities will glean crucial information in their analysis of this tragedy, preparing them if and when they face a similar situation. As of April 24, residents had received an emergency alert about two separate reports of shots fired in a Halifax suburb. These turned out to be a false alarm.
For now, another nation mourns its dead from a mass shooting. This time the vigil will be virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Funerals for those who died will be confined to immediate family, and Constable Stevenson will not receive the customary regimental funeral. Nova Scotians will mourn in their homes; Tim Hortons will sell special donuts to raise money for those affected by the shooting; and #NovaScotiaStrong will trend on Twitter. The people of Nova Scotia will eventually heal, but none of them will soon forget the blood shed across the province.
We mourn those who died: RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, Lisa McCully, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins, Emily Tuck, Jolene Oliver, Aaron Tuck, Jamie Blair, Greg Blair, Corrie Ellison, Gina Goulet, Tom Bagley, Kristen Beaton (and her unborn child), Joey Webber, John Joseph Zahl, Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, Lillian Campbell Hyslop, Dawn Madsen, Frank Gulenchyn, Heather O’Brien, Joy Bond and Peter Bond.