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Team leader critical of RCMP mental health support after Nova Scotia mass shooting

HALIFAX — The RCMP's treatment of their tactical team in the days following the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia was characterized as “absolutely disgusting” Monday during testimony before the public inquiry examining the killings.
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Two RCMP officers observe a moment of silence to honour slain Const. Heidi Stevenson and the other 21 victims of the mass killings at a checkpoint on Portapique Road in Portapique, N.S. on Friday, April 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — The RCMP's treatment of their tactical team in the days following the April 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia was characterized as “absolutely disgusting” Monday during testimony before the public inquiry examining the killings.

Retired corporal Tim Mills, who headed the 13-member Emergency Response Team, told the inquiry that a lack of mental health support in the week after the rampage that claimed 22 lives is the main reason he left the force after a 29-year career.

“The RCMP as an organization wants to give this impression that they care about their members,” Mills testified. “The way that we were treated after this (Portapique) was disgusting, absolutely disgusting.”

Mills detailed his attempts to get more time for his eight part-time team members to “decompress” after the April 18-19, 2020, rampage instead of quickly returning to general duties at their detachments after the unit was stood down for three days.

He said it was agreed during a debriefing involving team members and three psychiatrists on April 24 that a request would be made for the part-timers to work at headquarters with the full-time team members for a period of two weeks.

“Their advice was to be around like-minded people, talk openly about it, stay busy,” Mills said.

But, he said the request appeared to go nowhere, and by April 29 he was told the part-time team members had to return to their home units.

“There are members off because of Portapique … that are still off today, that didn’t see what we saw. They forced our guys back to work a week and a half after.”

Mills said he pushed to find out who had made the decision, but it all became too much for him by November of 2020. “At that point I was like, 'I’m done working for a broken organization,'" he said. Mills retired from the RCMP in July 2021.

Meanwhile, Mills and the team’s second-in-command the night of the shootings, Cpl. Trent Milton, gave testimony Monday related to an inquiry document detailing the team's initial response to the shootings.

Mills said he was first notified of the ongoing situation around 10:45 p.m. on April 18, 2020. The first members of his team arrived outside Portapique just under two hours later.

Milton was the first one there and he said he decided to wait for Mills and the team’s tactical assault vehicle about 10 minutes behind.

“At that time, based on the information and facts that we had, it was what I’ll call a non-active threat, there was no active gunfire and the location of the perpetrator was unknown,” Milton testified, adding that other Mounties were already at the scene.

Soon after its arrival, the team was about to enter Portapique when it was sent to check out several suspicious sightings involving someone with a flashlight outside homes in the community of Five Houses, across a river and nearly three kilometres away.

But they did not have operational tracking and digital mapping devices in their vehicles, while technology that was on their phones and would have allowed team members to locate one another wasn’t working. As a result, they relied on verbal radio directions from commanders to navigate their way in the pitch dark.

At one point, the document notes that Mills had difficulty finding the location of the reported sightings using the instructions he was given over the radio, which also had too many members on it at the time. 

He soon asked Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, who was the risk manager at the RCMP's Operational Communications Centre in Truro, N.S., to call his cellphone to sort things out.

“If you listen to the radio comms at all, total confusion on that geographical area,” Mills testified. “It was totally pitch black that night, poorly marked roads, rural area. So trying to figure out where to go that night … was frustrating and tough to do.”

Mills also voiced frustration over the team's next assignment, which was to rescue Clinton Ellison, who had been hiding in a wooded area in Portapique following the killing of his brother Corrie Ellison by the gunman hours before. Mills told inquiry investigators that Ellison would have been found sooner had there been tracking technology or a helicopter overhead to detect a body heat signature.

He said the same may have applied to the gunman’s common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield, who spent the night hiding in the woods and was found by the tactical team the next morning after she sought refuge in the home of a Portapique resident.

The inquiry document confirms that RCMP knew for certain from talking to Banfield at around 6:45 a.m. that gunman Gabriel Wortman was heavily armed and on the loose in a fully marked RCMP cruiser complete with a light bar.

The tactical team was finally updated at 8:20 a.m. with further information that the marked car had a call sign on its side of 28-B11.

During its nearly nine hours in the Portapique area, the tactical team also came across several victims of the gunman and verified that they were dead. Those victims included Corrie Ellison, Lisa McCully and Greg and Jamie Blair.

The team was in the midst of conducting a house-to-house evacuation of the area with a Department of Natural Resources helicopter overhead when police received a 911 call around 9:35 a.m. about a shooting in Wentworth, along with a witness report of an RCMP vehicle leaving the scene.

Const. Trent Milton, another team member, told the commission: “We knew that ... was obviously our individual. We had an active threat again, and we were pushed into the threat to try to stop it.” The chase ended shortly after 11:25 a.m. on April 19 when Emergency Response Team officer Const. Ben MacLeod and another Mountie shot Wortman at a gas station north of Halifax.

Mills told commission investigators that he was satisfied with his team’s performance when confronted with a unique situation. “Put it this way," he said, "you would never dream up a scenario like this, you know, because there’s too much going on at once."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2022.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press