Nova Scotia RCMP could have been safeguarding their investigation by refusing to release information about the firearms used in the country’s worst mass shooting.
Or, they could have needlessly been keeping public in the dark — part of a recurring practice by Canada’s national police force to hold information close to its chest, to the frustration of critics and, at times, 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 whom you ask.
The debate is one of many raised anew by revelations of an internal RCMP dispute that has led to a storm of indignation on Parliament Hill and calls for an emergency debate over whether government officials — including the Prime Minister’s Office — interfered with police operations in the aftermath of a staggering tragedy to advance a political agenda.
Documents released this week as part of the Mass Casualty Commission revealed what was happening 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 staff 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 released, stressing it was “tied to” impending gun-control laws.
RCMP in Nova Scotia did not want to release information about the firearms over concerns it could hurt the investigation, according to the documents.
The political controversy and potential outrage lie in whether Lucki was doing the bidding of Liberal officials in pushing for the release of information — an allegation she firmly denied Tuesday, as did former public safety minister Bill Blair.
“Our clients are understandably troubled by what they heard yesterday,” Michael Scott, one of three lawyers from Patterson Law, representing the majority of the N.S. shooting victims’ families, said in a statement to the Star.
“In the days following April 19, 2020, all efforts should have been focused on supporting victims, their families and the active investigation being carried out by local RCMP. Interfering in those efforts, to exploit a perceived political opportunity or otherwise, would have been inexcusable. We trust that the Mass Casualty Commission recognizes the importance of determining the truth of these allegations and the need for fulsome cross-examination of the relevant witnesses.”
Regardless of any improper political pressure that was — or wasn’t — exerted, there are differing opinions over the force’s decision when it came to divulging firearms information.
Christian Leuprecht is a policing expert with the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University.
Leuprecht said there are good reasons police don’t release information about weapons used in crimes, such as trying to track down a firearm’s origins or concern over revealing how they obtained information. It also could be concerns about other police work.
“They might have had a separate ongoing investigation already underway to which they either realized this was linked or they already knew this was linked,” Leuprecht said. “They might have started one as a result of realizing that these guns were smuggled across the border and it’s entirely possible that that investigation is ongoing.”
He said the local RCMP could also simply have been stonewalling the press, but that he doubts that was the case.
It would later be revealed the weapons were illegally obtained, including some that had been smuggled in from the United States and one that had been taken from a police officer the gunman shot and killed during his act.
The gunman’s common-law spouse was eventually charged with unlawfully providing him with ammunition and referred to restorative justice. Police have said she had no prior knowledge of the shooter’s plans.
Tom Engel is less convinced about the RCMP’s motives.
Engel, an Edmonton lawyer who is the chair of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association’s policing committee, said the systemic concealing of information is a problem in police forces across Canada and erodes public confidence.
“Exactly how could that have compromised the investigation?” Engel asked.
He said, for example, police “love” to post pictures of weapons seized during raids, so arguing to keep the kind of weapons seized from the gunman in Nova Scotia secret on the grounds it would compromise the investigation doesn’t make sense.
Engel pointed to how police departments in the U.S. immediately release details of weapons used in shootings in the hopes of furthering the investigation with help from the public.
The documents released Tuesday said the RCMP withheld additional information, such as the names of the victims of the shooting, longer than it needed to.
The RCMP has faced criticism in the past for not releasing information in a timely manner related to violent crimes. In the aftermath of the targeted shootings of four people in Penticton, B.C. in 2019, the Mounties refused to release the names of the victims.
The agency also refused to release details related to the B.C. murders and manhunt across the Prairies for two youths from Port Alberni the same year.
“Police services in general lack transparency,” Engel said. “To me it’s baffling.”
With files from Steve McKinley, Halifax Bureau, and The Canadian Press
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Systemic silence or dutiful investigation? Experts weigh N.S. RCMP decision amid raging commissioner controversy