There were three important happenings today relating to the Mass Casualty Commission, in what was a pivotal day of proceedings. Two of the three took place within the Commission proceedings, while the third occurred across the harbour in the Dartmouth Provincial Court.
In Dartmouth this morning, Crown Prosecutors advised the Court that they were referring Lisa Banfield’s criminal charges to restorative justice. She had been scheduled to go to trial later this month on charges of supplying ammunition to her spouse, Gabriel Wortman. That trial will now not take place.
Instead, Ms. Banfield will need to complete some kind of restorative justice process, following which the Crown will withdraw the charges. Restorative justice is typically used for situations where the charges are not particularly serious, and where the individual has no prior criminal record. The restorative justice process can involve such things as donations to charity, apology letters, community service, or counseling. In order to qualify for restorative justice, the accused individual needs to admit to, and accept responsibility for, their actions.
Early in the MCC proceedings, one of Ms. Banfield’s lawyers noted to the Commissioners that she would be prepared to cooperate “fully” when she no longer had any legal jeopardy relating to these charges. We will now see if that still holds, and how full that cooperation might be.
Timing is still a potential issue. While this referral to restorative justice makes the withdrawal of charges a near-certain outcome, charges do not get officially withdrawn until the restorative justice process is complete, and the matter returns to court. Ms. Banfield has a return date of May 3, 2022, and so her lawyers may take the position that she will not testify or cooperate with the MCC until that time. (It may be noted that this is, in fact, a later time than the date originally set for trial completion, which was April 5, 2022.)
In the Commission proceedings itself, the day started off with a presentation from Commission Counsel, Roger Burrill, addressing the Commission’s findings on the perpetrator’s movements overnight, when he left Portapique and drove to Debert.
Video surveillance from businesses along the route show that Wortman drove north into Debert, took a right down Ventura Boulevard, then drove into the Debert Business Park. It was there where he parked behind Brian MacDonald’s welding shop for nearly six hours. The next video evidence is of him driving west on Ventura Boulevard at 5:42 AM.
There were also three witnesses to his presence in the Business Park. Two friends, who were 13 and 15-years-old, were out late, listening to music close by, and saw the mock police car. One of the boys’ stepfather, who happens to be a former private investigator, also saw the mock police car around 1 AM, after the boys returned home. Though unusual enough to be noticed, none of the three had any reason to sense that this might not be a real police car. Certainly, had there been a public alert issued when the killer was known to be an active shooter in Portapique, it is fair to presume that one of these three witnesses would have called the authorities.
It is unknown exactly what the killer was doing in Debert. Based on the items located where the killer had parked, it seems most likely he simply wanted a quiet place to hide or sleep. He knew the location, having previously had welding work done by Mr. MacDonald, but there has been no evidence discovered that would suggest he had attempted to break in use any equipment, or anything else specific to the location.
It is difficult to imagine what the killer’s mindset may have been at that time. He may have been exhausted. Evidence we have heard so far suggests that on the evening of the 18th he had been drinking, and did not have any dinner. He may also have been looking for a quiet place to work the rest of his plan. In doing all of this, he may also have been listening to police radio communications, and thereby been tracking their efforts, though it is not yet been confirmed whether he had the capability of doing so.
The final matter of significance, perhaps the most significant part the proceedings today, was a decision by the Commissioners with respect to witnesses who will be called to testify. To their credit, the Commissioners not only returned with a decision in a timely fashion (giving it now, rather than when the proceedings come back on at the end of March) but they also approved nearly every witness that was requested by the parties. That means that Lisa Banfield, each of the first responding officers, all of the involved Staff Sergeants and other supervisors, as well as the commanding officers for the Province and the head of the RCMP will all be subpoenaed to testify.
This was the first clear indication from the Commissioners of what ‘trauma-informed’ means in the context of this inquiry. There will be witnesses, and they will be subjected to cross examination. This is a key moment not only for the families, but also for the public confidence in the MCC.
The first witnesses will be called on March 28th, and they will be the three officers who were the first ones in Portapique after the initial 911 calls. Cst. Stuart Beselt, Cst. Adam Merchant, and Cst. Aaron Patton will testify together as a panel, and there will be other witnesses that week. The supervisors are expected to testify in late May, when the MCC takes a closer look at the command decisions that were made during the mass casualty.