Politics

How the Nova Scotia shooting victims' families won a public inquiry into the tragedy

Betrayed by politicians, the families forced an inquiry into the shooting. Here is how they convinced federal and provincial governments to stop dithering after months of inaction.

On July 27, Harry and Cory Bond were among the 22 people who lay down in front of the Bridgewater constituency office of Nova Scotia Attorney General Mark Furey to call for a public inquiry into the shooting rampage that killed 22 people in Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19, 2020.

A few days previous, on July 23, Furey and federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair had announced a review, not the public inquiry the families had requested.

The Bond brothers, whose father, Peter, and mother, Joy, were shot to death on the night of April 18, are rural, working-class Nova Scotians. They did not want to be lying on the street in front of Furey’s office, and they didn’t want to be doing TV interviews.

For the dozens of traumatized people who lost loved ones in the rampage, every day is a struggle with grief. They asked repeatedly, clearly, for a public inquiry with hearings and commissioners empowered to compel public testimony. The review ordered by Blair and Furey instead offered a three-member panel that would have done its business behind closed doors. Professors from the Dalhousie University law school warned the commissioners could face legal obstacles to getting at the truth and answers from the RCMP.

When the request by the victims’ families for an inquiry was denied, they reluctantly put themselves out in the public. “When I see media cameras, I always went the other way,” Harry said in an interview recently. “Being on television isn’t something I ever look forward to. It’s not something I want to do. And yes, they did push us to be on TV. If it wasn’t for them not giving us a public inquiry—we had to fight for it, so that puts us in the media.”

Bond and the other relatives of the rampage’s victims don’t understand why the provincial and federal government made them mourn in the public eye. “This whole thing, ever since it happened, was a fight,” says Bond. “It never should be. The public inquiry should have been announced right off the top.”

Laurie Scott, of nearby Lunenburg, organized the July 27 rally and was there banging on a Mi’kmaq drum that she has had since she became active in the Idle No More movement. Scott, a long-time activist, feels terrible that the Bonds had to protest at all. “Why are they being treated so badly? That is the question. Why did we have to organize a protest and put that poor . . . family in such PTSD, to march down the street with some crazy woman with a drum? That’s ridiculous.”

The families feel betrayed by the politicians who denied them an inquiry, only relenting when the public pressure formed a palpable electoral threat. But they have been buoyed throughout by the support of Nova Scotians, rural and urban, left wing and right wing, who rallied to their cause.

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Nick Beaton and Katie Devine walk past the Nova Scotia legislature on July 29, after an inquiry was announced (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Nick Beaton spends a lot of time at a roadside memorial in Debert, at the place where his wife—who he misses terribly—was gunned down on April 19. There are painted stones, flowers, Nova Scotia flags, several home-welded steel tributes to Kristen, and a bench that Nick often sits on, under a canvas awning.

While he was talking to a reporter there recently, two young women pulled up with treats. “They seen us here, turned around and went back to Tim Hortons, got us doughnuts and drinks, because people care,” he said after they left. Beaton is surrounded by people who care about him. “Everybody wants to do something for you and they find different ways to do it. Whether it be leaving a painted stone here to bringing you a coffee when they see you, and sending you the odd message: ‘Hey. You’re doing good. We’re proud of you. Kristen would be so proud of you.’ ”

There is a disconnect between the political response to the shooting and the public reaction in Nova Scotia, where support for a public inquiry was strong and near universal.

OUR EDITORIAL: Finally, Nova Scotia gets a public inquiry that can deliver justice to grieving families

The families want to know what happened on April 18 and 19, and they are mistrustful of the RCMP, which has released little information, fought media outlets in court to keep documents secret, and warned that any information could jeopardize the investigation into the source of the guns the killer used.

But the families want to know how it is that the killer managed to evade police for 12 hours, driving around killing people in a replica police cruiser. They want to know why the Mounties didn’t put up roadblocks, call in other police forces or put out an emergency alert. They want to know what police knew about the killer—whether they had a relationship with him, why they didn’t act on complaints about him.

And they had no faith in the review that Furey and Blair announced, which would have taken place behind closed doors. “We weren’t happy,” says Bond. “And we knew a review wouldn’t give the answers. How do you know if they’re answering the questions honestly? They’re going to tell you what they want to tell you. They’re going to answer the questions the way they want to, and they’re going to hide what they want to. With the public inquiry, it’s all out on the table.”

The two levels of government announced the review on July 23, three months after the rampage. The day before, the families had held a rally demanding an inquiry, marching in the heat through Bible Hill, N.S., to the RCMP detachment.

Furey called the families, who were exhausted from the march, the night before the July 23 announcement. Darcy Dobson, who lost her mother, Heather O’Brien, on April 19, was furious when he told them there would be no inquiry. “It’s quicker. That was his huge selling point. We never asked for quick. That’s what he kept saying that was so frustrating to all of us. ‘You guys asked for answers as quickly as possible.’ No, we didn’t. Nobody asked for answers as quickly as possible. We just asked for answers. You just want to shut us up and make us go away.”

Beaton was afraid a review would leave unanswered questions. “We’re trying to move on with our new miserable life, and stuff comes out in the wash. People start talking because they can’t take it anymore. Then we’re reliving all this s–t again, for how many years to come? With this, it gets the people to sit in front of a judge and tell them, after swearing on the book, what they may or may not know. And then it’s done. And when it’s done, it’s done.”

Although the day of the Bible Hill rally ended with bitter disappointment, it got the families together, and they started to organize. “I think that was the key to getting it started, get a fire under everybody’s ass,” says Dobson.

At the rally, Beaton had met David Parks, an education consultant who has worked around the world doing development work. Parks was reminded of an Argentine movement, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, women who held a silent weekly vigil for years to demand action on their disappeared loved ones.

Parks told Beaton the families might have to keep up the pressure, as the Argentine mothers had. “I simply told him I was exhausted and had too much on my plate,” says Beaton. “I said, ‘If you’re wanting to do it, I’d be very thankful.’ ” Parks set up a Facebook group and spent the next days moderating it with another volunteer, working around the clock.

Nova Scotians of all political backgrounds signed up by the thousands and started using it as a forum to organize. Parks would wake up every morning to find thousands more people had joined. “Any of us living on the path could have been killed that day on our daily routines, walking and driving along those secondary highways,” he says. “Dumb luck saved us, but we deserve to know why we weren’t protected. And all Nova Scotians and Canadians need to know that we won’t stand for our governments trying to bamboozle us with sham proceedings behind closed doors, while telling us it is for our own good.”

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While the families and volunteers started to build a protest machine, the politicians were taking note. Lenore Zann, the Liberal MP for Cumberland-Colchester, where most of the shooting victims perished, was under intense pressure. Zann, a former actor and NDP MLA, was in hot water with her Liberal colleagues for repeatedly calling upon Bill Blair to have a public inquiry.

Liberal sources in Nova Scotia say the Nova Scotia Liberal MPs were blindsided by the announcement of a review. At a caucus meeting on June 23, they had requested a meeting with Blair to express their concerns about the lack of action on an inquiry. They say he did not meet with them, and when he sent an email the night before the review was announced, asking for a conference call the next morning, some of them thought he was finally going to listen to their concerns. Instead, he told them there would be a review.

“The caucus had never been consulted, so when they were told the panel review was happening, that was the first they knew,” says one person familiar with the process.

Not all the MPs realized that the closed-door review would not be acceptable to the families. Caucus chairman Kody Blois, the rookie MP for Kings-Hants, circulated a letter supporting the process that went out July 23. Sources say Zann pushed back, demanding edits, but ultimately agreed to sign it.

The families, who have never had a meeting with her, were angry. “I am not university-educated but I am not a stupid woman,” says Dobson. “But I think that in her shoes, the very first thing I would have done is reach out to the members of the community. We voted her in. I rooted for her. I said, here is this woman who is going to make a difference. And then she signed that letter. She signed it. Her name was on it.”

Zann, who was stuck between the families and Blair, says the criticism is unfair. “It just feels odd that I am the only politician being thrown under the bus when I am the only politician who spoke up for a public inquiry with a feminist analysis included from day one.”

The letter was not well-received. The MPs seemed to be cheering on a government decision that the families felt was insulting. Katherine O’Halloran, who runs the Atlantic desk in the Prime Minister’s Office, had been “trying to ring the alarm bell,” according to one source, but had failed to convince Blair’s office or her bosses in the PMO.

The key political officials on the file—Jeremy Broadhurst, chief of staff to Chrystia Freeland; Marci Surkes, Justin Trudeau’s policy director; and Zita Astravas, chief of staff to Blair—are well-regarded, seasoned staffers, part of the small group who have the confidence of Trudeau and his chief of staff, Katie Telford. Other political insiders were surprised that they misread the situation.

Once the families were holding rallies, and the public was reacting with disgust and anger, O’Halloran is said to have found a more attentive audience in Ottawa. Over the weekend of July 25, Justin Trudeau became personally engaged. “On the Monday before we announced the inquiry, the Prime Minister had a couple of conversations with ministers, heard from caucus, of course,” said a senior government official, speaking on condition they not be named. “He heard that families, Nova Scotians and caucus were not happy with the decision. So he was apprised of all of that, and you will recall that the day after, we announced the inquiry, so it’s right to say that he was involved in these stages.”

A key moment was a call between Trudeau and Sean Fraser, the Liberal MP for Central Nova, parliamentary secretary to then-finance minister Bill Morneau. Sources say Fraser, upset to see his name on the letter welcoming the review, sent a note to Trudeau, who called him. Insiders believe Trudeau told him the government would back down.

The next morning, July 28, Fraser put out a statement complaining about how his name ended up on the letter and saying he was “deeply upset” that both governments had proceeded with a review rather than an inquiry. Several other Nova Scotia MPs followed up with similar letters. In the premier’s office in Halifax, the statements caused alarm, says a well-connected Nova Scotia Liberal official. “The province was like, ‘No, you guys aren’t doing that to us. You’re the guys who prevented an inquiry and now you’re going to be the champions?’ So they rushed to put something out, and I don’t blame them.”

Nobody will say exactly what happened between Trudeau and Blair, but people close to the process suspect the Prime Minister told the public safety minister to order an inquiry.

On Tuesday, July 28, six days after the two levels of government announced a review, they agreed to back down and give the families a process they could live with.

That morning, Blair called the Nova Scotia MPs to tell them there would be an inquiry after all. One person who heard the call said he didn’t sound happy about it.

Then Blair called Furey, who quickly—and cannily—lashed out in public. “[Blair] hung up from that phone call and three minutes later, Furey put out his message that he wanted a public inquiry and it’s up to the feds now,” says a Liberal who heard the call. “Stuff was flying around from the PMO, going, ‘Holy s–t. He just threw us under the bus.’ ”

Furey, of course, knew the feds had agreed to an inquiry—he had just been talking with Blair—but the federal government had not yet announced its decision. Furey’s statement got ahead of the news curve, blaming Ottawa for the decision to go with a review and promising that the province would support an inquiry that he already knew was coming: “If the federal MPs agree that their government should conduct a joint public inquiry rather than a review, they should take that up with the federal minister and their federal colleagues,” he said in his statement.

Senior officials in Ottawa and Halifax do not agree on how it is that both governments ended up pushing a process that would be unacceptable to the families. A senior provincial official is emphatic that Furey first asked for an inquiry, but the province needed Ottawa to agree to a joint process because, although the province has the constitutional authority to call a unilateral inquiry, in practical terms it would be difficult dealing with five federal agencies involved if they didn’t want to co-operate.

“It was the federal government who said review,” said the official. “This was a long discussion, it was a back and forth . . . and the discussion that occurred was that if we don’t agree with a review, we don’t get joint [federal-provincial involvement], and if we don’t get joint, the RCMP will not be held to account.” The provincial official says Blair proposed a review on April 24, just days after the rampage.

Federal officials disagree, saying Furey and Premier Stephen McNeil did not push for an inquiry, or if they did, they didn’t push very hard. They were fine with a review all along. “They didn’t push,” said one senior federal insider. “Bulls–t. Total 100 per cent bulls–t.”

Blair’s office did not respond to specific questions from Maclean’s about the decision and discussions with the Nova Scotia government. In a statement, Blair said, “From the very onset, our focus has been getting the answers the families of those impacted by this terrible tragedy deserve. Nova Scotians told us they needed this process to be independent, thorough and transparent, and we agree. We will do what is necessary to ensure an event such as this will never happen again. Families have always been at the centre of our deliberations on how to get those critical answers. We continue to work with the province of Nova Scotia, the families of those 22 individuals we tragically lost, advocates and local members of Parliament on the path forward. We have listened carefully, which is why we have made the decision to hold a full public inquiry.”

Nobody in either government can say how it is that they read the situation so badly, putting the families through an ordeal, pushing a process that would ultimately be abandoned. Ottawa only acted so insensitively because the rampage happened in Nova Scotia, said one senior insider. “If this was in Scarborough or Montreal, nobody would have thought twice about this. They would have called an inquiry within weeks.”

The fact that the lead ministers on the file—Blair and Furey—are both former senior police officers may be significant, because the RCMP can expect a public inquiry to be harrowing. Retired MP Bill Casey, who represented Cumberland-Colchester as a Progressive Conservative, Conservative, Independent and Liberal, says he was shocked when Blair and Furey announced a review, because it was obvious to him that only an inquiry would be able to get answers and be acceptable to the public. “Until they announced the review, I thought they were going to announce a public inquiry,” he said.

Political insiders who were involved in the behind-the-scenes struggle for an inquiry wonder about the relationship between Blair and the RCMP, because the fate of the Trudeau government may hinge on whether the Mounties launch an investigation into the WE Charity controversy, as the Conservatives have demanded. Previous RCMP investigations into Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper’s governments have posed enormous political difficulties. Casey said he worries about the relationship between the force and politicians. “In my experience, politicians are afraid of the RCMP. And that goes for 30 years.”

For the families, the announcement of the inquiry was the first happy moment in many months. Lawyer Robert Pineo, who is representing the families in a class-action lawsuit, was on the phone with Beaton when they got the news. “I was on the phone with Nick, and we both started getting incoming calls from media,” he said in an interview. “I said, I just had CTV and CBC calling me. And he said, so did I. And I said we better get off the phone and see what it is. In the meantime, Darcy texted us, before we could call anyone, and told us the decision would be reversed. The families were very happy.”

The next rally that had been planned—at Province House in Halifax on July 29—became a celebration. Nick Beaton told the people gathered outside the legislature that they, not the politicians, deserved credit for the decision. “This was because of the families . . . the Nova Scotians, the Bluenosers, all you guys that helped out.”

Dobson credits Nova Scotians for supporting the families. “Those are the people you have heart for, because those are the people who look at you like you’re human.” She is frustrated that politicians refused to deal with them as people. “I want all of them to take a step back and say, ‘These are people.’ We’re all in this little tiny town, trying to live our lives, do the best we can. I just want them to take themselves out of the politics of it and see us as human beings. We have mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and children.”

They never should have had to fight for an inquiry, she says.

“It’s incredibly sad that it was a fight. That’s the word. It’s sad.”


This article appears in print in the October 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The fight for what’s right.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.