May 18, 2022

MCC Day 25 – Critical Incident Commanders Testify

We are learning more about the RCMP command structure as the Mass Casualty Commission proceedings continue. Today, two further recently retired staff sergeants testified. Staff Sgts. Jeff West and Kevin Surette testified together as a panel. They were working together in command of the mass casualty response for the bulk of the 13 hours over which it took place. Staff Sgt. West was in charge, with Staff Sgt. Surette in support.

No reason was offered by Commission lawyer Roger Burrill in the introduction as to why these two witnesses should testify together, and certainly no compelling reason was obvious. Command decisions and structures within the RCMP are certainly a major focus of the Commission, and so it would have seemed sensible to me that these witnesses would have been examined separately. As it stood, there was a great deal of mutual support offered by each for the answers of the other witness, and this can have the effect of giving artificial credibility to answers that might otherwise leave the listener in doubt.

Staff Sgt. West retired in July, 2021, and Staff Sgt. Surette retired in August, 2021. They are the latest in a growing line of RCMP supervisors who have retired since the mass casualty events. Such a mass exodus in the upper ranks of the force certainly fosters suspicion about the felt quality of decisions made at the time, though also may clear the ground, in a sense, for new leadership to take over.

The staff sergeants today spoke about getting called into the situation, information they received, setting up the command posts at the Great Village Fire Hall, and then coordinating the response and deployment of resources. Though they are both retired, neither staff sergeant was seemingly prepared to acknowledge any errors made, or recognize the potential for meaningful improvement.

The early moments of setting up the command post brought to mind the opening scene of Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life”, where two doctors prepared to deliver a baby, but first need to bring in every expensive machine the hospital has in its possession in order to impress the hospital administrator, with the expectant mother being relegated to secondary status.

Here, Critical Incident Commanders were brought in from Halifax and Yarmouth (a four-hour drive away), a command center was established (in a rural fire hall with poor cell coverage) several hours after first officers were on the scene, the Emergency Response Team was called in from Halifax, and half a dozen other staff sergeants were pulled into brief one another and RCMP Inspectors, and to assign and delegate tasks.

One of the results of this, arguably top-heavy, approach was that the Critical Incident Commanders did not receive critical information that was known by front-line officers on the ground, as it was not effectively transmitted up the chain of command to the staff sergeants who were making decisions. For example, Staff Sgt. West stated he spoke with Cpl. Mills, who was leading the Emergency Response Team, but not Cst. Beselt, was first on the scene and had much of the key information.

This led to a situation where the commanders making decisions were not aware of either the true nature of the vehicle being driven by Wortman, nor of the fact that there was an alternate exit from Portapique through the blueberry field.

In terms of messaging to the public, there also seems to have been a very bureaucratic structure in place. Lia Scanlan was the communications officer. She spoke to staff Sgt. West, who passed on the responsibility to staff Sgt. Halliday, who passed on the responsibility to staff Sgt. McCallum. Superintendent Leather was also consulted. The result of all of this was there was very little information provided to the public.

Staff Sgt. West, and very effective cross-examination by Josh Bryson, refused to admit the obvious point that the information provided in a tweet that was issued at 11:32 PM on the night of April 18, 2020 was incomplete at best, and that as it was not updated throughout the night, possible that the public may have been misled by the lack of updated information. The staff sergeants also refused to agree that the RCMP helicopter would have made a difference to the operation.

Under questioning from Tara Miller, the officers indicated that they read “parts” of the MacNeil Report, which arose out of the Moncton police shootings (which sounds like an answer a student would give who did not do their homework). The Moncton shootings were not exactly comparable to the Portapique scenario, but did involve an active shooter.

The staff sergeants were not provided with any training resulting from the Moncton shootings, and seemed to demonstrate a complete lack of curiosity about the recommendations. Such an attitude does not bode well for whatever recommendations may be included in the report that will emerge from these proceedings.

Perhaps in reaction to my pointing out that the Federal Department of Justice has not been asking many questions of their own witnesses, I would note that Federal DOJ lawyer Patricia MacPhee did ask a few (supportive) questions of the officers today.

Overall, the staff sergeants gave the impression that they felt the response operation was conducted as well as could have been, under the circumstances, and of lack of insight into how things may be improved in the future. It did not inspire confidence.