By Lyndsay Armstrong
A public inquiry has found widespread failures in how the Mounties responded to Canada’s worst mass shooting and recommends that Ottawa rethink the RCMP’s central role in Canadian policing.
“The RCMP must finally undergo the fundamental change that many previous reports have called for,” commissioner Leanne Fitch said in written remarks prepared for delivery Thursday.
In a seven-volume report spanning more than 3,000 pages, the Mass Casualty Commission also says police missed red flags in the years leading up to the Nova Scotia rampage that resulted in 22 people being murdered on April 18-19, 2020, by a denture maker disguised as an RCMP officer and driving a replica police vehicle.
The murderer, Gabriel Wortman, was killed by two Mounties at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., 13 hours into his rampage.
The final report delves deeply into the causes of the mass shooting. These include the killer’s violence toward his spouse and the failure of police to act on it, and “implicit biases” that seemed to blind officers and community members to the danger a white, male professional posed.
In response, the commissioners call for a future RCMP where the current 26-week model of training in Regina is scrapped – as it’s no longer sufficient for the complex demands of policing. The academy would be replaced with a three-year, degree-based model of education, as exists in Finland.
More broadly, they want Ottawa to pass a law with the guiding principle of “a prevention-first approach to public safety,” that sees police as “collaborative partners” with better funded centres for rural mental health and front-line workers who combat intimate-partner violence.
But the massive document begins with an account of the police errors in the years before the killings, and the events of April 18 and 19.
The report’s summary says that soon after the shooting started in Portapique, N.S., RCMP commanders disregarded witness accounts, and senior Mounties wrongly assumed residents were mistaken when they reported seeing the killer driving a fully marked RCMP cruiser.
“They were too quick to embrace an explanation that discounted the clear and consistent information that several eyewitnesses had provided independently of one another,” the report says.
“Important community sources of information were ignored,” it says.
The inquiry heard that RCMP commanders and front-line officers failed to use “basic investigative steps” and erroneously concluded the shooter’s vehicle was an old, decommissioned police car with no or very few markings.
In addition, police failed to promptly send out alerts to the public with a description of the killer until it was too late for some of his victims.
Having laid out a litany of shortcomings, the inquiry calls for a fresh external review of the police force. It says the federal minister of public safety should then establish priorities for the RCMP, “retaining the tasks that are suitable to a federal policing agency, and identifying what responsibilities are better reassigned to other agencies.”
“This may entail a reconfiguration of policing in Canada and a new approach to federal financial support for provincial and municipal policing services,” the report says.
Among other things, the commission says the national police force is badly disorganized. Its review of the RCMP’s 5,000 pages of policies and procedures found the force’s own members were unclear on proper responses to critical incidents and communication with the public.
“The volume of material and the disarray in RCMP’s guidance to its employees were reflected in the fact that many RCMP witnesses told us they were uncertain about which policies applied to their actions or whether relevant policies had been followed.”
In particular, the report takes aim at so-called contract policing, which involves the police services the RCMP provides to much of rural Canada.
“There is a long history of efforts to reform the RCMP’s contract policing services model to be more responsive to the needs of … (the) communities they represent,” the report says. “These efforts have largely failed to resolve long-standing criticisms.”
The RCMP’s other main role is federal policing, an $890-million operation that involves 5,000 employees investigating organized crime, border integrity and cybercrime. By contrast, contract policing involves 18,000 employees, an operation that cost $3.2 billion in the 2021-22 fiscal year.
The report also draws links between the mass shootings and the killer’s abuse of women, particularly his spouse Lisa Banfield. The report says the first step in preventing mass violence is recognizing the danger of escalation inherent in all forms of violence, including gender-based, intimate-partner and family violence.
“As commissioners, we believe this lesson to be the single most important one to be learned from this mass casualty. Let us not look away again,” the report says.
The commission recommends these forms of violence be declared an “epidemic,” while noting many mass violence events begin with an attack on a specific woman.
The report details Wortman’s history of domestic violence in his relationships with women, including Banfield. In particular, the report notes the experience of Brenda Forbes, a neighbour in Portapique who informed the RCMP of Wortman’s violence toward Banfield. He never faced any consequences, but she dealt with years of stalking, harassment and threats from Wortman, prompting her to leave the province.
The inquiry heard “conflicting evidence” about whether Forbes made the report, what she specifically reported to police, and what action was taken by RCMP – but it concludes “that Ms. Forbes reported intimate-partner violence and a firearms complaint that were never properly investigated.”
The commissioners note all five firearms in Wortman’s possession when he died – two semi-automatic handguns, a police-style carbine, a semi-automatic rifle and an RCMP-issued pistol stolen from an officer he killed – were obtained illegally.
He smuggled at least three weapons from the United States and obtained one from the estate of his longtime friend, Tom Evans, and was believed to own several other firearms that were destroyed in fires.
The three commissioners recommend changing the Criminal Code and firearms legislation with the aim of tightening loopholes and strengthening prohibitions on ownership of some weapons, clarifying that gun ownership is a “conditional privilege.”
It calls for a ban on all semi-automatic handguns and all semi-automatic rifles and shotguns that discharge centrefire ammunition and that are designed to accept detachable magazines, as well as changes to tighten laws around high-capacity magazines.
It also says there should be standardized definitions of prohibited firearms in the Criminal Code, something the federal Liberal government had tried to do last fall before backing away amid public outcry from gun owners.
The report recommends that by May 31, 2023, the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia should establish an “implementation and mutual accountability” body to ensure its recommendations are implemented.
However, the inquiry’s mandate makes clear it cannot lay blame or determine criminal or civil liability, and government’s are not bound to implement its 130 recommendations.
Michael MacDonald, the chair of the commission, said in written remarks provided before delivery on Thursday that he hopes governments resist “the default to simplistic answers” and turn the report’s findings into action.
“As a country, we need commitment to keep going … fix broken systems, and make violence prevention our guiding star,” he said.
With files from Michael Tutton and Michael MacDonald in Halifax and Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa.
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