Nova Scotia RCMP could have protected their investigation by refusing to release information about the firearms used in the worst mass shooting in the country.
Or they could have left the public needlessly in the dark — part of a recurrent practice by the Canadian National Police to keep information close at hand, much to the frustration of critics and sometimes the public.
Which version of events you hear when it comes to what unfolded in the wake of the 2020 massacre on Canada’s east coast depends on who you ask.
The debate is one of many that has been rekindled by revelations about an internal RCMP dispute that has sparked outrage on Parliament Hill and calls for an emergency debate over whether government officials – including the Prime Minister’s Office – are intervened in the wake of police operations of a staggering tragedy to advance a political agenda.
Documents released this week as part of the Mass Casualty Commission revealed what happened behind the scenes for the RCMP as the country grappled with the actions of a gunman who killed 22 people in northern Nova Scotia.
Handwritten notes from senior RCMP personnel and a transcript of an interview with a Nova Scotia RCMP communications director indicate that Commissioner Brenda Lucki wanted information about the weapons used in the shooting, stressing it was “tied to” impending gun laws.
According to the documents, RCMP in Nova Scotia declined to release information about the firearms for fear it could harm the investigation.
The political controversy and potential outcry lies over whether Lucki did the bidding of liberal officials in pushing for information to be released — a claim she vehemently denied on Tuesday, as did former public security secretary Bill Blair.
“Our clients are understandably concerned by what they heard yesterday,” Michael Scott, one of three attorneys for Patterson Law, who represents the majority of the families of the NS victims, said in a statement to the Star.
“In the days following April 19, 2020, all efforts should have focused on supporting victims, their families and the active investigation being conducted by the local RCMP. Interfering with those efforts, to exploit a perceived political opportunity or otherwise, would have been unforgivable. We trust that the Mass Casualty Commission recognizes the importance of establishing the truth of these allegations and the need for an extensive cross-examination of the relevant witnesses.”
Regardless of any undue political pressure that was – or was not – applied, there are differing opinions about the police’s decision when it came to releasing information about firearms.
Christian Leuprecht is a police expert at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University.
Leuprecht said there are good reasons for police not disclosing information about weapons used in crimes, such as trying to trace the origin of a firearm or concern about disclosing how they obtained information. It can also involve other police work.
“They may have already had a separate ongoing study going on that they realized was related or they already knew it was related,” Leuprecht said. “They may have started one because they realized these weapons were being smuggled across the border and it’s very possible that that investigation is ongoing.”
He said the local RCMP could have simply held back the press, but he doubts that was the case.
It would later be revealed that the weapons had been obtained illegally, including some smuggled in from the United States and one taken from a police officer who shot and killed the gunman in the act.
The shooter’s common-law husband was eventually charged with illegally supplying ammunition and referred to restorative justice. She was unaware of the shooter’s plans, police said.
Tom Engel is less convinced of the RCMP’s motives.
Engel, an Edmonton attorney who chairs the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association’s Police Commission, said systematic concealment of information is a problem among police forces across Canada and undermines public trust.
“How exactly could that have jeopardized the investigation?” asked Angel.
He said, for example, that the police find it “love” to post photos of weapons seized during raids, so argue to keep the type of weapons seized from the gunman in Nova Scotia a secret because it is investigating the investigation. would be in danger, makes no sense.
Engel pointed out how police in the US are immediately releasing details of weapons used in shootings in hopes of furthering the investigation with help from the public.
The documents released Tuesday say the RCMP has withheld additional information, such as the names of the victims of the shooting, for longer than necessary.
The RCMP has been criticized in the past for not releasing information related to violent crimes in a timely manner. In the wake of the 2019 targeted shooting of four people in Penticton, BC, the Mounties declined to release the names of the victims.
The agency also declined to release details related to the BC murders and manhunt across the Prairies in the same year for two youths from Port Alberni.
“Police services are generally not transparent,” Engel said. “To me, it’s mind-boggling.”
With files from Steve McKinley, Halifax Bureau and The Canadian Press
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