The proceedings in the Mass Casualty Commission today focused on two decisions released by the Commissioners, a presentation on how next of kin notifications were (mis)handled, and we heard from outspoken Cst. Nick Dorrington.
The first of the two decisions referenced today dealt with requests by some of the participants for changes to the rules on questioning of witnesses, along with requests for specific witnesses to be recalled for cross-examination. The decision was actually released late on Friday afternoon, which in itself tells you much of what you need to know. The Commissioners rejected the request to recall Staff Sergeants Rehill and O’Brien to be cross-examined, and also rejected the request from participants to amend the Rules of Procedure to enshrine cross-examination as a right for the parties, rather than leaving it to the discretion of the Commissioners, as is currently the case.
I was not surprised by either decision, certainly the Commissioners would not want to give up the discretion to control the process at the MCC. The true complaint is not that they have such discretion, but rather their exercise of it, by which they have limited cross-examination, and forced parties into the unusual procedure of collaborating on questioning of witnesses.
The Commissioners noted that the Rules were distributed a year ago and nobody objected to the provision at the time. They also said with respect to the staff sergeants (who were questioned by recording video without any cross-examination) that the procedure worked as intended, and that the accommodations were therefore appropriate.
Neither of these justifications are all that persuasive, particularly for those who watched the testimony. Certainly, nobody could have expected the Commissioners to use their discretion to limit questions as extensively as they have done, and just because witnesses conveyed information with significant accommodations does not mean they could not have done so without them.
The second decision, released at the end of the day, confirmed what we had heard last week about the surveillance videos from the Big Stop being released publicly. The surveillance videos of the final moments of the killer’s life, where he was shot by two ERT squad members, are now posted to the MCC website. I suspect most adults will not find them particularly disturbing to watch. There is nothing gruesome or graphic about what is visible. The most you see is car windows being shattered by bullets.
The pump six video shows actions consistent with Constable Hubley’s witness account. He pulled ahead at the gas pump more than you would probably do if you were planning to get the jump on the person in the adjacent vehicle. As he got out of his vehicle on the driver side, he took a second to look back inside the vehicle as he reached for his gun, then waited another moment before shooting. It has the appearance of a focused, athletic movement.
On the pump five video just before the officers opened fire, it appears that Wortman gets a shot away at himself. The car shakes just before the officers opened fire, and the movement of the car seems to be more than you would expect from somebody simply shifting their weight in the drivers seat.
There are still questions about the approach to the pump, and reports have stated that other pumps were available before the pump adjacent to that which Wortman was using. As well, the simple fact that the videos were withheld continues to foster suspicion. Cst. Hubley also testified that his tank was just under half full, which makes it seem early to be filling up in an otherwise urgent situation.
The actual written decision on the videos has some curious elements. For example, the Commissioners state that the videos were always available for public viewing at the Commission offices, if anyone from the public had wished to view them. I have not seen any reference to the Commissioners having indicated this availability before now.
Substantively, the Commissioners note that they had to balance the importance of the best evidence being provided against the risk that showing the videos would sensationalize the killing, or perhaps re-traumatize those involved. In the decision, they said that now that Commission lawyers had recommended the release, and no other objections remained outstanding, they reconsidered their initial balancing decision. There is also going to be a new process in the future for any instance where evidence is made in exhibit but not published. In such cases, Commission lawyers will need to publicly state why they have withheld the exhibit from the public, which was never done with these videos.
In the proceedings themselves, there was a presentation on next of kin notifications, as well as testimony from Constable Nick Dorrington.
Next of kin notifications are meant to be done in an organized and respectful manner. With so many fatalities, the process became chaotic and disorganized. Next of kin notifications are governed by the Fatalities Investigations Act, which says that the next of kin order is spouse (if cohabitating), children, parents, siblings, grandchildren, grandparents, aunts and uncles, then nieces and nephews. Within each category, it is the oldest individual who is the official next of kin.
Getting information was very difficult and was not done in a timely manner for most families. Many individuals sought out information through the RCMP or other sources. Some had to wait a day or two, while dealing with rumors and uncertainty. Some learned about the deaths over social media. Some drove to the scenes, and had the unfortunate experience of having guns pointed at them while doing so.
Significantly, the process for notification of next of kin when the deceased person is an RCMP officer is much different. With respect to Constable Heidi Stevenson, a Constable, and the top RCMP officer in NS at the time, Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman were at her home within an hour and a half to notify her spouse. Next of kin notification may seem like a relatively minor feature of such an event is this, but in this case it started everyone on the wrong foot, fostered suspicion and frustration, and left many hurt feelings. Notably, Constable Stevenson’s family is the only family not represented at the Commission proceedings, and is also the only family which is not suing the RCMP.
Constable Nick Dorrington was an interesting witness. Constable Dorrington joined the RCMP in 2015, after having served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 17 years. He struck me as a highly competent officer, who was not utilized properly during the events of the mass casualty. He gave the impression certainly that he was not holding anything back. Cst. Dorrington was getting ready for bed after completing a 13 hour shift the day of April 18, 2020 when he received a phone call that there was an active shooter situation. He immediately sprung into action and drove to the scene, at over 200 km/h.
Constable Dorrington was critical of the command decision not to send a second team of officers into Portapique immediately. He was assigned containment duties instead. He was also critical of the equipment possessed by the officers in this rural detachment. He recommended that each detachment should have night vision goggles and handheld infrared heat sensors. He was critical of there being too many commanders giving orders.
Two months prior to the events of the mass casualty, Constable Dorrington had given the killer a speeding ticket. At that time, the killer was driving one of the decommissioned RCMP vehicles. In what Cst. Dorrington described as very unusual behavior, Wortman immediately got out of his vehicle when he was pulled over, looking infuriated. Constable Dorrington ordered him back into his vehicle and then was able to go deal with him. Wortman said he felt he was being targeted because he had dealt with the Halifax police earlier that same day.
One result from that traffic stop was that Constable Dorrington had a photo of the killer, which he was able to distribute to other officers as the active shooter situation unfolded.
On the morning of the 19th, Cst. Dorrington was again frustrated with command decisions as he was being assigned to drive around the community and check the various homes and other areas for anything unusual. He felt that with his military skill set, and the fact that he was driving an unmarked vehicle would have given him an advantage against the killer, who would have been on the lookout for fully marked RCMP cruisers.
In addition, Constable Dorrington had provided information over the radio that the killer’s vehicle was in Brookfield (information which he obtained from his wife, who had been speaking with a friend just as the vehicle passed by her home), and he felt that the information was not given sufficient priority. The radio communications that were played today seem to support his contention.
The testimony from Constable Dorrington seems to support some of the theories that the command decisions were hampered by having an unclear chain of command, too many commanders, communications issues, and an overly cautious approach in the initial minutes and hours.
Tomorrow, we will hear from Constable Wayne Bent, who was the family liaison officer, to discuss communications with the various family members of those who were killed.