Politics

N.S. shooting tragedy 'happened for absolutely nothing' if RCMP doesn't learn: commissioner

The commissioner of the RCMP says the police service he oversees is different from the one that was  denounced a year ago for failing to keep Nova Scotians safe during the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history.

Last year's report called for sweeping reforms to the RCMP in wake of worst mass shooting in Canadian history

Interim RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme, right, listens as Assistant Commissioner Dennis Daley, commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP, speaks to reporters following the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry's final report into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia in Truro, N.S. on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
Interim RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme, right, listens as Assistant Commissioner Dennis Daley, commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP, speaks to reporters following the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry's final report into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia in Truro, N.S. on Thursday, March 30, 2023. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The head of the RCMP is adamant the police service he oversees is different from the one that was denounced a year ago for failing to keep Nova Scotians safe during the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history.

"Judge us by the results we're going to have as we move forward," said Commissioner Mike Duheme from Millbrook, N.S., on Wednesday.

"We're not the same RCMP we were when the incident happened."

The commissioner was in the province to give an update following the public inquiry into the April 2020 tragedy, in which a gunman killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman, over the span of 13 hours.

A lawyer representing some of the families of the victims said her clients were "underwhelmed."

"There's a lot of vagueness and ambiguity," said Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer with Patterson Law 

Following outrage from the victims' families, an inquiry was struck to examine how a rampage of that magnitude could have unfolded. Almost exactly a year ago, the Mass Casualty Commission released its final report, which took aim at the RCMP's response to the crisis on almost every level. It called out a lack of preparation, a lack of communication and a lack of leadership and recommended Ottawa rethink how the RCMP operates.

"As an organization, if we don't learn from this, this tragic incident happened for absolutely nothing ... I don't want that to happen," Duheme told CBC News in an interview ahead of Wednesday's announcement. 

"We want to prove to people that we can change as an organization."

The Mass Casualty Commission found the RCMP was woefully unprepared to handle the events of April 18 and 19, 2020. The lack of preparedness caused chaos and confusion on the ground, with the responding officers unclear of the command structure, it found.

WATCH | RCMP commissioner hoping to 'rebuild trust' with N.S. families 

RCMP commissioner hoping to 'rebuild trust' with Nova Scotia families

2 months ago
Duration 0:50
In an interview with the CBC's Catharine Tunney, RCMP commissioner Mike Duheme said he hopes meeting families affected by the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia will provide him with a chance to 'rebuild trust.'
 

The report's harshest condemnation was saved for the RCMP's decision to withhold information from the public. That included that the gunman had left Portapique — the rural area where his rampage began — and that he was disguised as a police officer and driving across the province in a replica vehicle. 

Some victims' families, especially those who were killed on the morning of April 19, have been vocal that they believe their loved ones would still be alive if the RCMP had broadcast public warnings. 

"The RCMP's failure … deprived community members of the opportunity to evaluate risks to their safety and to take measures to better protect themselves," wrote the commissioners.

"Police work doesn't have a blueprint — we train our folks the best we can. But certain environments, or certain calls we go to, are so dynamic and fluid that members have to think on their feet, adjust according to a threat that's perceived, and then react accordingly. And that's sometimes what you can't capture in training," Duheme said.

"But for the most part, we are better off today than we were two years ago, or four years ago."

WATCH | RCMP asked how many Mass Casualty Commission recommendations have happened

RCMP asked how many Mass Casualty Commission recommendations have happened

2 months ago
Duration 1:59
Commanding officer of Nova Scotia's RCMP Dennis Daley and Commissioner Mike Duheme are asked during an update Wednesday how many of the Mass Casualty Commission's 130 recommendations have been implemented.

The federal-provincial public inquiry made 130 recommendations, more than half involved policing in Canada. 

The RCMP said it is focused on the 33 under its direct control. The force said it's already changed its overall approach to managing crises, including alerting the public, and has deployed software to track the locations of its officers out in the field. 

The police service said other recommendations are still a work in progress.

McCulloch said she wanted to hear more details Wednesday. 

"There's a lot of overtures to being responsible or taking responsibility for recommendations and change," she said.

"Specific, hard changes that really respond to mistakes or omissions — I think that there's disappointment we're not hearing more about that."

Duheme argued changes take time.

"I would love to have them all in place by tomorrow," he said.

 "Change of this nature will take time. We want to make sure that we get this right. We want to rebuild the trust and confidence of Canadians." 

Promises of change in the past 

Canadians have heard promises of change from the RCMP before.

The RCMP has an uneven record when it comes to implementing recommendations and guidelines following tragedies. For example, a review of the 2014 shooting spree in Moncton, N.B., that left three members of the Codiac RCMP detachment dead and two others wounded, made recommendations around scene containment and crisis management. But Mounties testifying before the Nova Scotia inquiry said they weren't aware if those recommendations had actually been implemented.

Duheme believes that won't happen again. 

Flowers stuffed animals and homemade signs are seen along a Nova Scotia highway.
A memorial remembering Lillian Hyslop is seen along the road in Wentworth, N.S. on Friday, April 24, 2020. 22 people are dead after a man went on a murderous rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities. (Liam Hennessey/Canadian Press)

Since he took over the top job 10 days before the Mass Casualty Commission report came out, he's set up a Reform, Accountability and Culture unit within headquarters, which includes a team dedicated to addressing the MCC and other external reviews. 

"We're heading in a different direction," he said. 

Some of the Mass Casualty Commission's recommendations involve direction from Ottawa, including calling an independent review of the RCMP's model and phasing out the police service's training academy in Regina, known as Depot, and implementing a degree-based system instead.

WATCH | Brother of N.S. mass shooting victim reacts to RCMP promises 

Brother of N.S. mass shooting victim reacts to RCMP promises

2 months ago
Duration 6:21
Scott McLeod's brother, Sean, was killed in the April 2020 attacks. He and other family members of those who were killed in the tragedy were briefed on Tuesday night by RCMP about implementing recommendations of the mass casualty commission. McLeod says he's pleased with some of the progress police are making, but others want changes to come faster.

The commissioners felt the depot model "is inadequate to prepare RCMP members for the complex demands of contemporary policing."

It's unclear yet how the federal government will respond to the Mass Casualty Commission's report. 

WATCH | What a public inquiry revealed about the Nova Scotia mass shooting 

What a public inquiry revealed about the Nova Scotia mass shooting

1 year ago
Duration 13:42
A look at what unfolded behind the scenes on the day of and days following the 2020 tragedy in Portapique, N.S., where a lone gunman masqueraded as a police officer and killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman, in five rural communities over a period of 13 hours. CBC Halifax's Angela MacIvor reports.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca