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Nova Scotia mass shooting inquiry identifies many RCMP failings, recommends overhaul

TRURO, N.S. — A public inquiry has found widespread failures in how the Mounties responded to Canada's worst mass shooting and recommends that Ottawa rethink the RCMP's central role in Canadian policing.
Friends, family, and supporters of the victims of the mass killings in rural Nova Scotia in 2020 react at the beginning of the final report of the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry in Truro, N.S. on Thursday, March 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

TRURO, N.S. — A public inquiry has found widespread failures in how the Mounties responded to Canada's worst mass shooting and recommends that Ottawa rethink the RCMP's central role in Canadian policing.  

"The RCMP must finally undergo the fundamental change that previous reports have called for," commissioner Leanne Fitch said in front of more than 200 people gathered Thursday to hear the findings in Truro, N.S.

In a seven-volume report spanning more than 3,000 pages, the Mass Casualty Commission also described red flags that police missed in the years leading up to the Nova Scotia rampage that resulted in 22 people being murdered on April 18-19, 2020, by a denture maker disguised as an RCMP officer and driving a replica police vehicle.

The murderer, Gabriel Wortman, was killed by two Mounties at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., 13 hours into his rampage. 

The final report delves deeply into the causes of the mass shooting. These include the killer's violence toward his spouse and the failure of police to act on it, and "implicit biases" that seemed to blind officers and community members to the danger posed by a white, male professional.

In response, the commissioners call for a future RCMP where the current 26-week model of training in Regina is scrapped — as it's no longer sufficient for the complex demands of policing. The academy would be replaced with a three-year, degree-based model of education, as exists in Finland.

More broadly, they want Ottawa to pass a law with the guiding principle of "a prevention-first approach to public safety," that sees police as "collaborative partners" with better-funded centres for rural mental health and front-line workers who combat intimate-partner violence. 

But the massive document begins with an account of the police errors in the years before the killings, and the events of April 18 and 19.  

The report's summary says that soon after the shooting started in Portapique, N.S., RCMP commanders disregarded witness accounts, and senior Mounties wrongly assumed residents were mistaken when they reported seeing the killer driving a fully marked RCMP cruiser.

"They were too quick to embrace an explanation that discounted the clear and consistent information that several eyewitnesses had provided independently of one another," the report says.

The inquiry heard that RCMP commanders and front-line officers failed to use "basic investigative steps" and erroneously concluded the shooter's vehicle was an old, decommissioned police car with no or very few markings. 

In addition, police failed to promptly send out alerts to the public with a description of the killer until it was too late for some of his victims.

Having laid out a litany of shortcomings, the inquiry calls for a fresh external review of the police force. It says the federal minister of public safety should then establish priorities for the RCMP, "retaining the tasks that are suitable to a federal policing agency, and identifying what responsibilities are better reassigned to other agencies."

Among other things, the commission says the national police force is badly disorganized. Its review of the RCMP's 5,000 pages of policies and procedures found the force's own members were unclear on proper responses to critical incidents and communication with the public.

The report takes aim at so-called contract policing, which involves the police services the RCMP provides to much of rural Canada. "There is a long history of efforts to reform the RCMP’s contract policing services model to be more responsive to the needs of … (the)  communities they represent," the report says. "These efforts have largely failed to resolve long-standing criticisms."

The RCMP's other main role is federal policing, an $890-million operation that involves 5,000 employees investigating organized crime, border integrity and cybercrime. By contrast, contract policing involves 18,000 employees and cost $3.2 billion in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

The report also draws links between the mass shootings and the killer's abuse of women, particularly his spouse Lisa Banfield. The report says the first step in preventing mass violence is recognizing the danger of escalation inherent in all forms of violence, including gender-based, intimate-partner and family violence.

“As commissioners, we believe this lesson to be the single most important one to be learned from this mass casualty. Let us not look away again," the report says.

The commission recommended these forms of violence be declared an “epidemic,” while noting many mass violence events begin with an attack on a specific woman.

The report details Wortman's history of domestic violence in his relationships with women. The report notes the experience of Brenda Forbes, a neighbour in Portapique who informed the RCMP of Wortman’s violence toward Banfield. He never faced any consequences, but Forbes dealt with years of stalking, harassment and threats from Wortman, prompting her to leave the province.

Banfield wasn't present for the report's release, but her lawyer Jessica Zita read a statement from her that said she hoped the report would be "a blueprint for fundamental changes in investigative practices and post-care for survivors."

Mike Duheme, the interim RCMP commissioner, told a news conference he hadn't yet read the recommendations, even though they were provided the day before to the police force. But Duheme said he'll ensure the force creates a task force to work on the recommendations and provides updates on its website.

"I know our RCMP employees worked to the best of their abilities and did everything they could with the training and equipment they were provided, but we must learn, and we are committed to doing just that," he told reporters.

The commissioners note that all five firearms in Wortman's possession when he died — two semi-automatic handguns, a police-style carbine, a semi-automatic rifle and an RCMP-issued pistol stolen from an officer he killed — were obtained illegally.   

He smuggled at least three weapons from the United States and obtained one from the estate of a longtime friend, and was believed to own several other firearms that were destroyed in fires.

The three commissioners recommend changing the Criminal Code and firearms legislation with the aim of tightening loopholes and strengthening prohibitions on ownership of some weapons, clarifying that gun ownership is a "conditional privilege."

It calls for a ban on all semi-automatic handguns and all semi-automatic rifles and shotguns that discharge centrefire ammunition and that are designed to accept detachable magazines, as well as changes to tighten laws around high-capacity magazines.

It also says there should be standardized definitions of prohibited firearms in the Criminal Code, something the federal Liberal government had tried to do last fall before backing away amid public outcry from gun owners.

The report says that by May 31, 2023, the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia should establish an "implementation and mutual accountability" body to follow through on its recommendations. However, the inquiry's mandate makes clear it cannot lay blame or determine criminal or civil liability, and governments are not bound to implement its 130 recommendations.

In his opening remarks, commission chair Michael MacDonald noted the presence of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston in the room, and urged them to take action.

"Our recommendations call for transformative change. They call for collaboration. They call for leadership. They call for you to champion these recommendations so that our communities in Nova Scotia and Canada will be safer."

After attending the release of the report, the prime minister said his government will review the recommendations and respond. "There's no doubt there needs to be changes and there will be, but we need to take the time to get those right," he said, declining to take questions.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.

— With files from Michael Tutton and Michael MacDonald in Halifax and Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press