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‘Lost confidence:’ Nova Scotia mass shooting inquiry resumes amid public backlash

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HALIFAX — The Mountie in charge of the RCMP’s initial response to the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia is expected to testify before an inquiry Monday, but the public will be barred from listening.

For unspecified health reasons, Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill has been granted permission to testify via a Zoom call, which will be recorded and released to the public at a later date.

Rehill has also been exempted from facing cross-examination by lawyers representing relatives of the 22 people killed on April 18-19, 2020. That decision last week prompted most of the families to boycott the proceedings,and some staged a protest outside the hearings in Truro, N.S.

The backlash is believed to be unprecedented for a public inquiry on this scale.

“I have never encountered a situation like this where the commissioners of a public inquiry appear to have lost the confidence and trust of key parties and potentially the general public,” said Ed Ratushny, professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa and author of the 2009 book, “The Conduct of Public Inquiries.”

“My opinion is that this commission must have lost sight of the fundamental, crucial role of a public inquiry. Instead of a full public process of fact-finding, it has … limited opportunities to challenge its investigation.”

As well, Ratushny said the commission of inquiry should adhere to the legal principle of “fairness,” which states that administrative tribunals must allow participants to “test the evidence … through vigorous questioning.”

A second senior Mountie, Sgt. Andy O’Brien, has been granted the same accommodations as Rehill. O’Brien is expected to testify behind closed doors on Tuesday.

In a statement Friday, the commission defended its approach. “Given the health information provided, allowing the witnesses to provide evidence this way will reduce the stress and time pressure that arises from giving oral evidence in live proceedings,” it said. “This format will facilitate the testimony and therefore provide clear evidence.”

Participating lawyers, including those representing victims’ families, were asked to provide questions for Rehill and O’Brien, but it will be up to the commission to decide what questions are put to the witnesses. Once the first round of questioning is done, participating lawyers will be asked if they have more questions.

The commission has said the reasons behind the special arrangements must remain confidential because its decision is based on private personal information, such as physical or psychological health needs.

In an earlier interview with commission lawyers, Rehill confirmed he had been off work for 16 months after the tragedy, saying he struggled with questions about the decisions he made.

For some of the victims’ relatives, the commission should never have offered the two Mounties an exemption from cross-examination.

“If the officers who were in charge … can’t get on the stand and defend the decisions that they made, then there’s something wrong with this whole process,” Charlene Bagley said Thursday during the Truro protest. Her father, Tom, was fatally shot by the gunman early on April 19, 2020, as he was out for a walk in West Wentworth, N.S.

Bagley said cross-examination is a must.

“It’s easy to sit there and tell the story you’ve been told to tell,” she said. “It’s a lot harder to face hard questions. The truth hurts, but we need it.”

Nova Scotia lawyer Adam Rodgers, who has been analyzing the inquiry’s progress on his blog, said that kind of anger is justified.

“Participants have been marginalized throughout the … proceedings, and the inability to effectively cross-examine witnesses is central to that marginalization,” Rodgers said in an email.

On May 19, the Nova Scotia RCMP issued a statement saying the inquiry would be violating its own rules if Mounties who endured trauma were called to testify without some form of accommodation. The inquiry’s mandate calls for it to adopt a trauma-informed approach.

Toronto-based lawyer John Mather, who has worked on inquiries as commission counsel, said the Mass Casualty Commission — as it is formally known — is facing a challenge because it can’t reveal why Rehill and O’Brien were granted special status.

“I believe they must have seen some real concern that … testimony under cross-examination could create a real risk of trauma for these two officers,” Mather said in a recent interview.

“At the same time, I empathize with the victims’ families because they really don’t know why that decision was made, and that question will probably never be answered.”

As for the assertion that the inquiry may be facing a loss of public trust, Mather said the impact of the special accommodations won’t be known until the commission submits its final report on Nov. 1.

“The importance of these officers’ testimony cannot be understated,” he said. “Will there be a gap because of the decision and the boycott? It’s hard to say …. The (final) report could be excellent, but it could still suffer from a lack of public confidence.”

On the night of April 18, 2020, Rehill was the RCMP’s risk manager at its Operational Communications Centre in Truro, N.S. When the centre received 911 calls confirming an active shooter was on the loose in Portapique, N.S., Rehill immediately assumed command.

Though O’Brien was off duty and had consumed four to five drinks of rum at home, he retrieved his portable radio from the detachment — with the help of his wife — and joined in offering direction to responding officers.

The inquiry has heard there was confusion over who was in charge that night. Commissioner Leanne Fitch, a former chief of police in Fredericton, said testimony had revealed “a considerable breakdown in communication.”

 

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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Memorial service held for RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, killed in N.S. mass shooting

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HALIFAX — An RCMP officer who was among 22 people killed in the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting was remembered Wednesday during a regimental service in Halifax for her “fierce” character and brave actions.

People lined a street leading to the service for Const. Heidi Stevenson, watching as Mounties and municipal police marched, bagpipers and drummers played, and a hearse brought the officer’s urn to the ceremony at the Cole Harbour hockey arena.

COVID-19 restrictions had delayed the official ceremony, though a family funeral took place five days after Stevenson was killed.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said during the service that Stevenson would be remembered for “her courage and strength of character.”

She said the force will remember Stevenson’s “heroism that day and the bravery she demonstrated and the actions she took to protect the community she cared so deeply about.”

A public inquiry into the mass shooting has indicated that the veteran officer was racing to support an injured colleague on April 19, 2020, when the fatal encounter occurred on a highway interchange about 60 kilometres north of Halifax.

The 48-year-old officer died in a gunfight with the killer, who had jumped a lane of traffic in his replica police vehicle in order to drive the wrong way down a ramp and slam into Stevenson’s cruiser.

Public inquiry documents say bullet fragments from Stevenson’s pistol “likely” struck the killer’s head, and — about 35 minutes later — blood on his forehead tipped off an officer who shot and killed the gunman at a gas station.

The inquiry has also noted that Stevenson had at 8:44 a.m. that morning called for the public to be notified about the killer driving a replica RCMP vehicle. Her request never received a response.

During the service, four friends noted her strong personality and sense of justice.

Her longtime friend Angela McKnight described Stevenson as a “fierce woman” who chose the RCMP over kinesiology and developed physical strength through playing rugby at university.

She said Stevenson had to undergo laser eye surgery and overcome a torn knee ligament in order to make it into the RCMP following her graduation.

“Heidi surrounded herself with strong women focused on supporting each other,” she said. “I know no better … no tougher, more determined woman than her.”

Childhood friend Nona Heinbecker recalled Stevenson’s sense of loyalty to her female friends, telling those gathered how the officer had happily found a spot to sleep on a hospital floor when Heinbecker was in labour.

People watching the procession to the service also described their admiration for Stevenson, who is survived by her husband and two children.

Randy Stevenson, a military veteran, and Jan Hill, whose husband had worked with the constable, were among those waiting on the sidewalk for the procession.

The veteran, who is not related to the fallen Mountie, described her as exemplifying “what the police and the military are about,” while Hill praised the officer’s deep involvement in her community of Dartmouth, N.S.

Heidi Stevenson grew up in Antigonish, N.S., and attended university in Nova Scotia. She was with the Mounties for 23 years, developing expertise in drug recognition, general duty policing and communications. She also spent time in Ottawa as part of the RCMP musical ride, even though she had no previous experience with horses.

In a statement provided to the inquiry, the Stevenson family said community support was helpful following her killing. “There were months of meals provided and seeing the Nova Scotia Strong stickers on everyone’s car meant so much. The phone call from the Prime Minister was very personal,” the family said in their statement.

Police estimated about 1,300 people attended the ceremony, which was broadcast live.

The Anglican minister presiding at the service noted Stevenson’s Christian faith, and quoted from a New Testament text emphasizing that hope, faith and love “abide,” and that love is the greatest of the three due to its eternal nature.

Rev. Katherine Bourbonniere said during her homily that even in death, “she (Stevenson) will constantly be trying to touch you in different ways.”

She recalled accompanying Stevenson when she drove to homes to notify next of kin of a death. “I saw her love in her job and in her position many a time. She would show compassion for every person she met, and it was … beautiful,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

 

Lyndsay Armstrong and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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Explosive devices found in a vehicle connected to B.C. bank robbers killed

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SAANICH, B.C. — Multiple explosive devices were found in a vehicle related to the two suspects who were gunned down outside a bank in Saanich, B.C.

Saanich Chief Const. Dean Duthie said Wednesday an RCMP explosive disposal unit was able to transfer the devices from the vehicle to a local landfill and destroy them.

Police had evacuated the area shortly after the shooting on Tuesday as the RCMP’s explosives disposal unit was called in.

Six officers were shot and two suspects were killed in the shootout with police on Tuesday.

Duthie said three of the officers remain in hospital, including one who is in intensive care, while another officer will require more surgeries.

He said he spoke with one of the officers in hospital and said the police department will be there to support him.

“We’re here for his family … to let him know that the policing community is behind him 100 per cent.”

The chief said police are still investigating the possibility of a third suspect, although they don’t believe there’s a risk to the public.

He said police were acting on vague information.

“Our goal was to keep the public safe,” he said of police ordering residents near the bank to stay inside on Tuesday.

Police said in a statement that they aren’t able to confirm identities, background or motive of the suspects.

Duthie said work is underway to try to confirm the suspects’ names.

Duthie has looked at much of the video footage of the incident and said it’s a miracle that no one else died.

“It’s astonishing that there was no other citizen or member of the public injured,” he said, crediting the quick actions of officers who responded.

“Both patrol officers and Greater Victoria emergency response officers (put) themselves in harm’s way to bring it to a successful and safe conclusion as quickly as possible.”

A woman trapped inside the bank during the robbery told CFAX radio she was in a meeting with the manager when she heard a loud explosion and then silence.

Shelli Fryer, 59, of Langford said she looked from the doorway and a few feet from her was “a man in full assault gear, holding an assault rifle.”

Fryer said the masked man was wearing all black, had an armoured vest over his jacket and was holding a black rifle that was shorter and stockier than what she was used to seeing in the media.

“The energy from them was completely calm,” she said.

She heard one gunman quietly say to the manager, “vault,” and the manager handed him the keys and they both walked out of the office, she said.

Fryer said the other suspect was pacing the floor, just walking back and forth past the office, “like he was going for a walk in the park, just pacing as if he was waiting for something.”

The robbers put all 22 people who were in the bank against a wall in a back hallway and they waited for what felt like an eternity, she said. “We heard nothing at all of what was transpiring outside, we couldn’t hear sirens.”

She heard in a loud voice, “Police!” and then a hail of gunfire, and everybody ran to hide.

Fryer said every one of the police officers involved in the “absolutely insane incident” handled themselves professionally, and then later treated those who were in the bank with kindness and concern.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

 

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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Montreal police announce second arrest in drive-by shooting that killed 15-year-old

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Montreal police announced Wednesday they have arrested a second person in the drive-by shooting death of a 15-year-old girl last year.

Cmdr. Paul Verreault, head of the Montreal police service’s major crimes division, said a 27-year-old man was arrested Wednesday morning in connection with the February 2021 killing of Meriem Boundaoui.

Police believe the suspect arrested Wednesday and Salim Touaibi, who was arrested Monday, were “directly involved” in the shooting, Verreault told reporters Wednesday.

“These two people were in the vehicle at the time of the event,” he said, but he declined to comment further on what role each of them is alleged to have played in the crime.

“We’re still very early in the investigation,” he said. “This is an investigation that is still ongoing.”

Touaibi, 26, faces one charge of first-degree murder and four charges of attempted murder.

Verreault said he couldn’t say when the man arrested Wednesday, whose name was not released, would appear in court. He said police arrested four other people Wednesday morning who are allegedly part of a criminal group linked to the two men.

He said the shooting came after the escalation of a conflict between that group and another criminal group, but he did not provide more details. The four other people arrested will face charges of drug trafficking, uttering threats and assault, he said.

Boundaoui was sitting in a car with another person when a second car drove up and someone opened fire. Boundaoui and a 21-year-old man who was on the sidewalk were hit by bullets. Boundaoui had no link to the conflict, Verreault said.

Montreal’s interim police chief, Sophie Roy, said she hopes the arrests will give Boundaoui’s family some comfort.

“Like the rest of the public, we were shocked by the murder of young Meriem and other young people,” she told reporters. “We may be police officers, but we’re also humans with families and children.”

Boundaoui was the first of several young people to die violently in the past year and a half in Montreal, prompting widespread concern and calls to do more to reduce gun violence in the city.

Montreal has had one of the lowest homicide rates of major cities in Canada. In 2020, the most recent year for which data was available, the homicide rate in Montreal was less than half the Canadian average, according to Statistics Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

 

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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