May 12, 2022

MCC Day 22 – Public Alert Roundtables + Big Stop Video Disclosure Application

Continuing the focus of the week on emergency alert systems, the mass casualty commission proceedings today included two roundtable discussion panels on how best to communicate emergency alerts to the public. We also learned today that the Commission is still refusing to disclose the videos from the scene at the Enfield Big Stop when the killing spree was brought to an end, with the police shooting of Gabriel Wortman. Thanks to Coltfoots Publishing’s efforts, the Commission is at least now prepared to hear an application regarding their use and disclosure.

The morning session today was occupied by panel on emergency alert system communications. It was moderated by Krista Smith from the MCC, and included Jennifer Jesty from Eskasoni, Cheryl McNeil from Landsdowne Consulting (who have provided a report to the Commission), Paul Mason from the Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office, retired Alberta EMO professional Tim Trytten, and public alerting consultant Michael Hallowes, who testified yesterday.

The roundtable format worked fairly well in this context, allowing the participants to compare their experiences in different jurisdictions, with different systems. Some of the discussion was fairly technical in nature in terms of identifying the capacity of various systems, all of which are evolving with time. Ms. Jesty discussed how the system used in Eskasoni is an opt-in system which (among other things) allows elders to receive emergency alerts in their own language. Technologies developing in some places to allow two-way communications and for an analysis of how many people have received the emergency alert to be done.

Criminal activities in Toronto, amber alerts, the Fort McMurray fires, and the December 7, 2005 terrorist attacks in London were all among the emergency alert examples raised. Some common themes emerged in the discussion on proper communications. Decentralized decision-making is seen as a good feature, though it can increase the likelihood of errors. When errors are made, it is important to correct them publicly in order to maintain confidence in the system. Mr. Trytten said that you can always apologize after the fact for things not being as bad as you thought, but not for not alerting people.

Each of the witnesses agreed that the fear of a panicked response from the public to the emergency alert is not something that should be anticipated or feared. Certainly, having a message that is simple, clear, concise, and complete is important, but the participants all agreed that the public is able to handle difficult information in a responsible manner, without panicking.

While there was considerable discussion on the design and technical capabilities of the various systems with which the participants were familiar, Mr. Trytten made the important point that the slowest part of any system is the human part. For that, it is important to have proper training for those people responsible for the system, and to properly educate the public in terms of knowing what to expect when an emergency alert is issued.

The second panel of the day was focused on inclusiveness and equality when it comes to emergency communications. These issues, such as language rights, racial sensitivity in the drafting and delivery of alerts, differentiation of systems in indigenous communities, are all valid in their own rights, but not particularly relevant for an active shooter emergency. We spent the morning hearing about how speed is vitally important, and then the afternoon hearing about things that would mostly slow down messaging.

It was really an opportunity for important issues to be raised on the MCC platform. Certainly, in an active shooter situation, one would not want to sacrifice speed for undue sensitivity, but if there were ways of embedding such considerations in the system, then that would be helpful.

It was encouraging to see that so many people involved in emergency planning. There will be some clear recommendations emerging from this week’s evidence. Notably, while we seem to have learned a great deal about emergency alerts, it is still the case that we have not heard very much evidence of what took place on the RCMP side of the equation.

An important development in the factual narrative was publicized this morning, dealing with the surveillance videos from the Big Stop, where the gunman was finally shot and killed. To date, the Commission has only provided still photos taken from these videos and witness testimony from the two officers who shot Wortman. That is the case, despite six surveillance video feeds being available from the location.

On April 28, 2022, lawyer David Hutt of the law firm Burchells (not to be confused with Burchell MacDougall, which represents some of the participants) on behalf of Coltsfoot Publishing, the publisher of Frank Magazine, wrote to the Commission asking for standing to make submissions on the use and disclosure of these videos.

It appears from the letter that informal discussions had already taken place between Mr. Hutt and Commission lawyers about this issue (which would almost always be the case before a formal application is made), but that the Commission lawyers rejected both the disclosure request and the request for standing. The Commission itself has now scheduled a time for the request to be heard, setting aside three hours on Monday, June 13, 2022. Mr. Hutt will have half an hour to speak, there will be time for other participants, and then 45 minutes for Commission counsel.

This hearing should be broadcast publicly when it happens. It is incredible that the disclosure and use of the best possible evidence of key moments in the mass shooting needs to be requested in this manner. This is an example of the “trauma informed” mandate being stretched beyond recognition. In fact, Commission lawyers should be supportive of the application. It will be very enlightening to hear their stated position.

In the interim report, the Commissioners identified that Commission counsel are to be “objective and impartial”, that they must “ensure that all matters which bear on the public interest are brought to the attention of the Commissioners”, and that they shall “act impartially and thoroughly with the goal of assisting the commissioners in arriving at the truth by ensuring that all issues, all evidence, and all significant theories are brought forward”.

Any reasonable reading of these guidelines would confirm that the disclosure and use of a video showing the dramatic final moments of the killer’s life should be supported by Commission lawyers. In his letter, Mr. Hutt suggests that the videos may “raise questions about whether the RCMP knew who they were intercepting when they arrived”, which would contrast with the version that was published in the Foundational Document on the subject. Rather than dissuading Commission counsel, such a suggestion should make it all the more pressing that the video be disclosed and broadcast for the public to see.

It is unfair that Coltsfoot Publishing is being forced to spend money to fight this battle. It is also somewhat concerning that none of the other participants have publicly raised the issue. If the Commission lawyers are not representing the public interest, and the participants will not or cannot do so, then there is an open question as to whether the public interest is being adequately represented and served by anyone.