May 25, 2022

MCC Day 26 – A(n Overdue) Shift to Truro, & Accommodation Decision Drama

After operating out of three separate locations (most prominently the Nova Centre) in Halifax, the Mass Casualty Commission has temporarily shifted their proceeding location to Truro. The decision appears to have been made primarily for scheduling purposes and in consideration of the availability of venues, rather than being an attempt to situate the Commission in a ‘local’ venue. There was also a decision released by the Commissioners dealing with accommodations for RCMP supervisor witnesses, which has led to a dramatic boycott by lawyers representing the largest group of family participants.

Truro is the closest major center to the main events of the mass casualty, and seemed as though it would have been the most logical initial choice for a location for the proceedings. The location can be very important. I fought hard on behalf of the family to have the Desmond Inquiry take place in Guysborough. That was important, both because it allowed family and community members to more easily attend, and also because there is just something about being in a place that makes events sink in more deeply. Though it was further away for media attendees, many still came, plus there always remained livestream options available.

The MCC proceedings should really have been held in Truro from the beginning. It is closer to the most affected areas, and so not only would have brought the Commission team closer to the various scenes on a regular basis, but also provides a much better space for the community to process the terrible events that took place. It is not only good to get people out of Halifax (to gain some perspective), but also good to save people the hassle and sense of unease but can often accompany a trip to Halifax.

Now, this excursion to Truro seems something like a token appearance, taking advantage of a scheduling conflict at the Nova Center to check a box on the trauma-informed checklist. The witness for May 25, 2022, Staff Sgt. Bruce Briars, did not come on shift until 7 AM on April 19, 2020, and was in a supportive role in the background, not an operations commander. The next witness, Staff Sgt. Al Carroll, was the District Commander  for Colchester. While he certainly has a connection to the area and was central to much of the decision-making taking place, his testimony is going to be conducted via Zoom, so he will not be even physically present in Truro. In other words, the location was not especially reflected in the choice of witnesses.

Before even hearing from S/Sgt. Briars, however, there was significant drama in the Commission proceedings. After many complaints about the process and the marginalization of participants, we have our first boycott of the proceedings. Patterson Law is issued a statement that they have been instructed by their clients to not attend the next four days of proceedings. Josh Bryson from Chester Law, and Tara Miller from MDW Law, followed suit later in the morning.

These instructions have arisen as a result of a seven-page decision made by the Commissioners with respect to accommodation requests by six police officers. Three of these requests in particular have caused concern, those being the requests for accommodations by staff sergeants Carroll, O’Brien, and Rehill, none of whom, it may be noted, were directly involved in any violent encounters, nor did any of them attend any scenes of violence.

Staff Sgt. Carroll, who was the District Commander for Colchester County, had asked to be questioned only by lawyers for the Commission. That was rejected, though he is going to be permitted to testify by video, rather than in person. That will take place tomorrow.

Staff Sgts. O’Brien and Rehill will be questioned by recorded video to be posted (and perhaps played publicly) at a later time. Lawyers for the participants, and the Commissioners themselves, will be permitted to watch the interview, but will have to turn their cameras off and cannot ask questions. If the participants have any questions, they need to submit them by tomorrow at 4 PM. The witnesses will presumably then have four days over the weekend to prepare to answer.

No medical information has been disclosed publicly, nor would I expect it to be. In their interviews, the staff sergeants did not seem to have described undo personal suffering or trauma arising from the events, so it is unclear exactly how valid their requests might be. Given the previous accommodation requests we have seen from the National Police Federation, and the lack of obvious trauma on display in the testimony following requests from officers whose requests were rejected, it is more than fair to question these new requests and the granting of them.

In a dramatic statement issued before proceedings started, Patterson Law, which represents many of the family participants, indicated that they would not attend for the next four days, as their clients are “disheartened and further traumatized” by the decision, and that they “will not be associated with this restricted fact-finding process for such critical evidence”.

There was no reaction of any kind to this statement, or to the absence of many of the participants’ lawyers, from the Commissioners in their introductory remarks. Chief Commissioner MacDonald repeated some of what was indicated in their decision about how accommodations are not meant to allow anyone to avoid testifying, but he did not even so much as acknowledge that there was opposition to the requests.

Interestingly, in the decision itself, it seems to me that the Commissioners were trying to subtly shift criticism of the MCC proceedings away from themselves, and onto the Commission lawyers. The final paragraph of the accommodation decision noted that; “We rely on Commission counsel to examine the masses of document disclosure, interview witnesses and present the evidence in a fair and impartial manner to serve the public interest. In serving the public interest, Commission counsel are instructed to engage in an objective and tenacious pursuit of the truth.”

In other words, they are saying “don’t blame us, we can only work with what our lawyers provide to us”. The problem with that is that in the MCC’s Interim Report, and this morning in their introductory remarks, the Commissioners reminded us that this is an “inquisitorial” process that they as Commissioners control and direct. You cannot have it both ways.

The witness today was Staff Sgt. Briers, who was the Risk Manager who took over from S/Sgt. Rehill on the morning of April 19, 2020. He was not in charge of the response – that would be Critical Incident Commander S/Sgt. West. S/Sgt. Briers was there to ensure appropriate resources were in place or requested as needed. He was also coordinating with other police agencies to obtain and provide information, such as the photo of the car that the RCMP received.

Briers noted that he had received word from dispatch that Cst. Heidi Stevenson had asked whether consideration was given to a public warning. S/Sgt. Briers testified that this was not a decision he could make, but that he passed the idea “up the chain” to others. He tried to reach S/Sgt. MacCallum, then spoke with S/Sgt. Carroll. Carroll emailed back to say a decision had been made to not issue a release.

Briers was emotional when thinking about Cst. Stevenson. He also broke down later when asked in cross examination about information regarding the push bar on the mock cruiser. Briers said he did not hear that on the radio at the time, but has since read the transcript, and now says he has to live every day with the knowledge that missed/overlooked information like that could have made such a difference. It was difficult for S/Sgt. Briers to get through that part of his testimony, but he did, and I suspect those moments helped him process his guilt and his memories. It was also important for people to see him struggle. It is all very human.

In terms of recommendations for the future, Briers said that they are now trained to have a second Risk Manager on scene for incidents such as this, so as to be able to process all of the information that comes in, and also to ensure that any incidents in the rest of the province are being handled at the same time.

Tomorrow, the MCC, and some of the participants, will be present for the testimony of S/Sgt. Carroll, who will be attending by video.