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RCMP seeking accommodations for officers testifying at N.S. mass shooting inquiry

HALIFAX — The RCMP say the commission of inquiry into the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia will be violating its own rules if Mounties who endured trauma are called to testify without some form of accommodation.
Jeff West, left, and Kevin Surette, retired RCMP staff sergeants who were critical incident commanders, provide testimony dealing with command post, operational communications centre and command decisions at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Dartmouth, N.S. on Wednesday, May 18, 2022. The RCMP say the commission of inquiry into the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia would be violating its own rules if Mounties who have endured trauma were called to testify without some form of accommodation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — The RCMP say the commission of inquiry into the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia will be violating its own rules if Mounties who endured trauma are called to testify without some form of accommodation.

The Nova Scotia RCMP issued a statement Thursday saying witnesses who have been interviewed by the commission during its ongoing investigation should not have to testify at public hearings and relive the events of April 18-19, 2020, unless their trauma is mitigated as much as possible.

The RCMP's statement does not say what kind of mitigation measures the Mounties are seeking.

"The RCMP respects the (commission's) desire to call witnesses to testify," the statement says. "We believe, however, that calling witnesses to testify when they have already provided fulsome information to the commission through interviews ... appears contrary to the commission's rules and procedures."

The inquiry's mandate calls for it to conduct its work through a trauma-informed lens.

Last week, CTV News reported the inquiry had been asked to allow several senior RCMP officers to testify via video. The inquiry's three commissioners followed up with a statement saying witnesses with "wellness issues" could request special arrangements, including testimony via closed-circuit TV or "from another room."

Participating lawyer Robert Pineo, whose firm represents the relatives of 14 victims, said if the inquiry is to make “proper findings of fact,” RCMP decision-makers must testify under oath and have their evidence tested under cross-examination.

Most of the evidence gathered by the inquiry so far has come in the form of transcripts of unsworn interviews with police and civilian witnesses. Lawyers for the families, however, have complained the interviews sometimes offer little insight because witnesses are rarely challenged about their assertions.

That's why in-person witness testimony is so important, Pineo said.

On April 27, the commissioner leading the inquiry, Michael MacDonald, issued a decision saying RCMP Const. Vicki Colford would not have to testify in person. Instead, she was given permission to provide a written affidavit.

MacDonald, the former chief justice of Nova Scotia, gave no indication why the request was granted. He said any personal information from potential witnesses is considered confidential.

On the night of April 18, 2020, Colford was one of the first officers on the scene in Portapique, N.S., where 13 people were shot to death and several homes and buildings were set on fire. The gunman, disguised as a Mountie and driving a car that looked exactly like an RCMP cruiser, killed another nine people the following day.

He was fatally shot by two Mounties on April 19, 2020, when he stopped at a gas station north of Halifax to refuel a stolen vehicle.

As the inquiry's public hearings were getting underway in early March, the union representing front-line RCMP officers argued that its members should not have to provide in-person, sworn testimony. The National Police Federation told the commission there was a risk the officers could be re-traumatized.

The commission did not offer a blanket exemption. Instead, MacDonald issued a decision March 9 that listed an initial round of 27 witnesses who would be compelled to testify under oath.

“A trauma-informed approach doesn't automatically excuse someone from testifying, but rather seeks to create conditions in which testifying will be less traumatic,” MacDonald said at the time.

“This is accomplished by giving clear direction about what is being asked, a respectful environment, the possibility of taking break, etc. It may also mean seeking accommodations such as … written questions, sworn affidavits, appearing by video.”

He said that the inquiry will hear from the top RCMP commissioned officers involved: Chief Supt. Chris Leather, Supt. Darren Campbell, Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman and Commissioner Brenda Lucki.

As well, he said the inquiry would hear from five of the RCMP staff sergeants who were making most of the decisions while the killer was at large for 13 hours.

This week, it heard from Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday, the senior decision-maker from 11:38 p.m. April 18, 2020, until 1:24 a.m. the next day, and from Staff Sgt. Jeff West, who took command after Halliday.

On Tuesday, Halliday provided important new information during cross-examination about how he ordered a public warning about the killer's replica police vehicle to be issued at around 8 a.m. on April 19, 2020. He said that he couldn’t explain why the alert wasn't sent for another two hours. During that time period, seven people were killed.

The commission has said it also plans to hear from Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill, who was the first officer to lead the response from the Operational Communications Centre in Truro, and another two key officers: Sgt. Andy O’Brien and Staff Sgt. Addie MacCallum.

 This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.

Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press