The public inquiry into the worst civilian mass shooting in Canadian history says in a report that a series of disastrous RCMP failures in the Nova Scotia attack three years ago has shown that Ottawa must overhaul the national force and its role in community policing or find alternatives to the Mounties in much of the country.
In its response to the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) report, the federal government did not commit to any such sweeping reorganization and the RCMP did not admit to any mistakes in responding to the rampage.
In a press conference Thursday, the police force said it hadn’t yet read the full report. Interim RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme apologized for the pain and suffering of victims’ families. But he stopped short of acknowledging that the force made errors during the attack, and said he needs more time to fully review the document.
“I am committed to go through all the recommendations,” he said. “An action plan will be tabled, and we will be reporting of progress on an outward facing website in which the population can see the progress that the RCMP is doing.”
The MCC report is calling for sweeping changes within the RCMP to improve accountability, oversight and training. It also says the future of the national force’s role in policing needs to be re-examined and reimagined.
The commission says an external review of the police force is necessary. The federal Minister of Public Safety should then establish RCMP priorities, it says, “retaining the tasks that are suitable to a federal policing agency, and identifying what responsibilities are better reassigned to other agencies.”
The report takes aim at contract policing, which involves the police services the RCMP provides to rural and urban Canada, outside of Ontario and Quebec. “There is a long history of efforts to reform the RCMP’s contract policing services model to be more responsive to the needs of … communities they represent,” the report says. “These efforts have largely failed to resolve long-standing criticisms.”
The RCMP and the provinces, the commission says, must fix the broken contract-policing model before current deals expire in 2032, adding that local governments must be given more say in how the federal force polices their communities. It is also calling for changes to the RCMP Act to improve the way public complaints are handled.
The RCMP’s other main role is federal policing that involves investigating organized crime, border integrity and cybercrime.
The MCC was charged with examining how a man dressed as a Mountie and driving a fake RMCP patrol car was able to methodically murder his neighbours in the rural community of Portapique, and continue his rampage further afield in the province, leaving 22 people dead, all while evading police for 13 hours in April, 2020.
The report, funded by the federal and Nova Scotia governments, is almost 3,000 pages long and was produced after nearly 2½ years of investigation and public hearings that wrapped up last September. It was released Thursday in Truro, N.S., not far from where the gunman was finally shot and killed at a gas station by officers who had simply stopped to fuel up their vehicle.
The commission had a broad mandate to examine a wide range of issues – from the killer’s access to firearms to what it called the “root causes” of his brutality, and societal failures to intervene in the gunman’s history of family and intimate partner violence. Those incidents, which led to complaints to police but never charges, should have served as warning signs, the commissioners said.
While other inquiries have called for police changes in the past, the commission went further, saying the RCMP requires a “fundamental change” to address deep-seated problems within its culture and processes. It said the force’s failures in Nova Scotia exposed in plain terms how unprepared the national police service is for attacks of that nature in rural communities.
The commission’s chair, former chief justice of Nova Scotia Michael MacDonald, addressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston and all premiers, saying they needed to find the political will to implement the changes needed to improve public safety in Canada.
“Those lives cannot have been taken in vain. That cannot happen,” he said. “Future acts of violence are preventable if we have the will to do what is necessary.”
The Prime Minister said his government will review the recommendations, but did not commit to any formal reconsideration of the RCMP’s role, as called for by the commission.
“We will never forget the 22 people, including a woman who was expecting a child, whose lives were cut short on one of the darkest days in Canadian history. I hope today’s report is one of the many steps toward ensuring a tragedy like this never happens again,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Houston promised to act on recommendations to make communities safer, though he stopped short of committing to any specific funding to help prevent gender-based violence, which the commission said is inadequate and contributed to endangering women’s lives.
“We need to get this right,” he said. “All Nova Scotians expect the provincial and federal governments and relevant agencies to learn from these devastating events and make changes so we can prevent something like this from happening again.”
While the inquiry was not created to find fault, but merely investigate the tragedy and produce recommendations to prevent similar events, it did not shy away from declaring “hard truths” about mistakes that were made, Mr. MacDonald said.
The report was critical of the RCMP’s operational tactics, decision-making and supervision and said the mass shooting demonstrates the need for faster responses to critical incidents, improved 911 communications, better air support during manhunts and a clear policy prohibiting alcohol consumption by officers responding to calls.
It calls for a transformation within the force, starting with recruiting and training – and says the current 26-week model of training at the RCMP Academy in Regina no longer meets the complex demands of policing.
“The existing culture of policing must change,” retired police chief Leanne Fitch, one of three commissioners, said. “The RCMP must finally undergo the fundamental change that many previous reports have called for.”
The RCMP has been widely criticized for its handling of the manhunt, including failing to properly alert the public that an armed killer was on the loose; its inability to intervene in the years leading up to the attack, despite multiple complaints against the gunman; and a disorganized, stumbling response after the first 911 calls began coming in.
The commission also says Ottawa must redesign the Alert Ready system, which has been widely examined in the wake of the shootings, and create a national framework for public alerting instead of relying on a private corporation to provide the service.
The inquiry says the national police force is badly disorganized. Marco Mendicino, the federal Minister of Public Safety, said the inquiry highlights the need for improved accountability from police.
“We have to embrace that, because there are lessons to be taken from Portapique,” he told reporters on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re going to do what is necessary to implement those lessons.”
Among the report’s recommendations is that the Public Safety Minister must be transparent and public about all direction given to the RCMP commissioner – which will require an amendment to the RCMP Act. The minister declined to say if he would be willing to amend the law to prevent ministerial interference with police investigations.
That recommendation gets to the heart of the political-interference allegations that exploded into a scandal last summer, when documents released through the inquiry suggested that former RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki tried to use the tragedy to help the federal government’s gun-control agenda. Ms. Lucki, who stepped down on March 17, has denied the allegations.
The commission also criticized the RCMP for not treating the gunman’s common-law spouse, Lisa Banfield, as a surviving victim of the mass shooting and as an important witness who required careful debriefing and support services.
Ms. Banfield was “clearly the first victim” in the attack, Mr. MacDonald said. Her lawyer, Jessica Zita, said Ms. Banfield lost everything short of her life in the mass shooting, and described the way she was treated afterward as a “disgrace.”
“It has been a long three years. I trust that there will be meaningful changes from the recommendations, especially with regards to links between intimate partner violence and mass casualties. I hope that this report is used as a blueprint for fundamental changes in investigative practices and post care for survivors,” Ms. Banfield said in a statement provided by Ms. Zita.
Scott McLeod, brother of victim Sean McLeod, said he was hopeful the inquiry would lead to real change within the RCMP that could prevent future tragedies.
“If this will help fix it and start building on a platform to move to a better way of dealing with the public, it will definitely be worth the time and money spent to work with everybody to avoid something like this happening again,” he said.
While the report highlights many institutional failings by the RCMP, Brian Sauve, president of the National Police Federation representing 20,000 Mounties across Canada said no one should overlook how the findings also highlight individual acts of valour by Mounties.
During the April, 2020 rampage responding RCMP officer Constable Heidi Stevenson was among the 22 victims killed by the gunman.
GREG MERCER, DAKSHANA BASCARAMURTY
AND LINDSAY JONES
The Globe and Mail, March 30, 2023