HALIFAX — The first three Mounties to respond to the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting told a public inquiry last year they'd be willing to testify, though lawyers for the RCMP have recently resisted having them take the stand.
Const. Stuart Beselt was asked at the end of a 90-minute interview on July 22, 2021, with inquiry lawyer Roger Burrill if he would consider appearing, and he responded: "I'll testify."
Const. Aaron Patton, in an interview on Aug. 5, 2021, told Burrill, "I'm willing to participate in any way that's needed." A day later, Const. Adam Merchant responded, "I could," when asked if he'd testify at the hearings if subpoenaed. The transcripts of the interviews were among source documents released by the inquiry over the past week.
The issue of whether the front-line Mounties would be called to the witness stand was at the forefront Monday as public hearings continued into the April 18-19, 2020, killings of 22 people, including a pregnant woman.
Lawyers for the victims' families have asked the commission to let them question the officers to explain in greater detail what they saw and their decisions as they walked forward in the dark — carbines at the ready — towards burning houses and gunshots in Portapique, N.S. The commission has made public a summary saying they were following their training for immediate response to active shooters.
In arguing against having the officers testify, lawyers for the RCMP and its union have cited the inquiry's mandate not to re-traumatize witnesses and rules that allow transcripts and unsworn interviews to be used as evidence — unless gaps, conflicts or lack of context can be identified.
Meanwhile, the commission's lawyers said during public hearings last week that they've planned for Beselt, Patton and Merchant to participate in a witness panel later in the hearings to share their experiences as the first officers on the scene.
Emily Hill, a senior commission counsel, said in an interview Monday that while participants in panels provide sworn testimony, it would be different from typical testimony at a trial or inquiry. "They (witnesses) would be giving their evidence in a way of them having a conversation facilitated by (commission) counsel rather than them being questioned by counsel," she explained.
Commission chairman Michael MacDonald said Monday the requests to have the officers testify will be considered and a ruling will be issued as soon as possible.
In the July 22 commission interview, Burrill, also senior commission counsel, responded to Beselt's offer to testify by saying it's clear the officer has no problem "communicating with suits." However, the lawyer added the commission would take into consideration if Beselt had "a level of discomfort" with coming forward.
Beselt again made it clear he wanted to speak before the commission.
"No, if I can prevent other people from having to go through this process, then I would be more than happy," the officer said, suggesting that some of his RCMP colleagues who responded the first night probably wouldn't be so forthcoming. He noted that one of his colleagues was "still struggling" and two others had been off work for a long time.
"I just know that there's people that are struggling that don't want to live this again or live through it or recount it," he said.
Lawyers for the families want the opportunity to directly question Beselt and other first responders. Last week, Michael Scott, a lawyer for families of 14 of the 22 victims, emphasized the basic reason is "they were there," and "we need to know what those officers saw and heard and did."
Among the questions they're seeking clarity on is why Beselt and others chose to proceed straight down the main road into the heart of Portapique, rather than turning left and responding to the scene of the first, frantic 911 call.
The debate over direct testimony from the RCMP officers continued Monday, as Sandra McCulloch, another lawyer for the group of 14 families, cited the need to have five supervising officers testify to explain their decisions.
McCulloch said she wanted to ask one supervising officer, Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, about his comment that sending more officers into the enclave would have created the risk of Mounties shooting at each other.
As in earlier sessions, lawyers for the RCMP and the RCMP police union responded by urging commissioners to consider if the questions could be handled in written form or through interviews off the witness stand.
MacDonald said during his opening remarks Monday that the commission does "expect to hear from" the RCMP officers being sought as witnesses, but the timing and format has yet to be determined.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2022.
Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press