TRURO, N.S. — The relatives of victims of the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting have told their lawyers to boycott the public inquiry investigating the tragedy, after its commissioners decided to prevent cross-examination of key Mountie witnesses.
The law firm representing 14 of 22 families issued a statement saying it was instructed not to attend the hearings on Wednesday and the next three hearings on the schedule. Patterson Law said the families are "disheartened and further traumatized" by the commission's decision Monday to prevent the law firm's lawyers from directly questioning Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill and Sgt. Andy O’Brien.
Rehill was the RCMP's risk manager at its Operational Communications Centre in Truro, N.S., when the rampage that claimed 22 lives over two days began in nearby in Portapique, N.S., on April 18, 2020. When the centre received reports of an active shooter, Rehill assumed command while O'Brien assisted in overseeing the early response.
The federal-provincial commission of inquiry agreed Monday to provide special accommodations for three senior Mounties when they testify about command decisions they made as the tragedy unfolded.
Rehill and O'Brien will face questions from commission lawyers via Zoom calls that will be recorded and broadcast at a later date. Participants and lawyers who wish to observe their testimony must remain off screen with their microphones muted while each Mountie is speaking.
No reasons were given for the special arrangements. The commission has said this information is considered private because it deals with physical or psychological health needs.
Participating lawyers were told to submit questions for Rehill and O'Brien to commission lawyers in advance of the officers' testimony, which is expected to take place on Monday and Tuesday, beginning with Rehill.
Sandra McCulloch and Rob Pineo, the lawyers for the majority of the families, left their seats at the inquiry unoccupied on Wednesday and held a news conference outside the public library in Truro. Pineo said it's now unclear whether the family's representatives will return to the process, adding that he will keep consulting with them.
"This was supposed to be the process that would get the families information and get their questions answered and that is simply not happening," he said, recalling that they had to hold a public march in Truro and Halifax to pressure the federal and provincial governments to launch a public inquiry instead of the limited review that was originally planned.
Nick Beaton, whose pregnant wife, Kristen Beaton, was killed, said he's now referring to the mass casualty commission as "a review," adding that he believes the public inquiry has evolved into a "love triangle" between the commission, the RCMP and the government.
Lawyer Tara Miller said her clients have given her instructions not to attend this week and next week.
"In addition to being fundamentally offside, what this decision does is further erode the confidence of family members who are the most affected," she said in an interview Wednesday.
"These are individuals who put children to bed alone at night. These are the individuals who celebrate Mother's and Father's Days with memories."
Miller said it has been her clients' position all along that participating lawyers should be allowed to engage in unfettered but appropriate cross-examination of witnesses.
"That is a fundamental tenet of any kind of a litigation proceeding, and that includes public inquiries," Miller said.
Miller also said cross-examination of Rehill will be central to the inquiry's purpose.
"This was the individual who had command of the entire first response," she said. "The decisions that he made and why he made them, those are all questions that are highly relevant."
Lawyers for the families of victims Gina Goulet, Lillian Campbell, Aaron Tuck, Jolene Oliver and Emily Tuck said in interviews that they will continue to participate next week despite the restrictions on questioning.
Meanwhile, Staff Sgt. Al Carroll — former district commander for Colchester County — is expected to testify Thursday via a live Zoom call. He will be provided with breaks during his appearance, the commission said Tuesday. He could face direct cross-examination.
The National Police Federation and the federal Department of Justice had requested that O'Brien and Rehill be allowed to provide their information by sworn affidavit and that Carroll testify in person with questions asked only by commission counsel.
Commission chairman Michael MacDonald closed the hearing on Wednesday by describing the absence of the families' lawyers as "unfortunate." However, he said earlier in the day he didn’t expect that the accommodations would prevent the gathering of "necessary information" from the Mounties.
Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers took the witness stand Wednesday. He was the risk manager who oversaw the RCMP dispatch in Truro during the second day of the rampage on April 19, 2020. On cross-examination, Briers broke down in tears over not having heard, after he came on shift at 7 a.m., that the killer's replica police car had a distinctive, black push bar on the front.
He said he now realizes that two officers had mentioned the bar at different points in the morning, adding "I didn't hear either time. I wish I had; this is one of those regrets." The bar was also visible in a photo of the replica vehicle that was distributed among some senior officers at about 7:27 a.m.
He said he could have issued a broadcast on police radio about the push bar and it might have "made a big difference."
"I have to live with that."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.
— With files from Michael MacDonald in Halifax.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press