July 27, 2022

MCC Day 56 – Chief Superintendent Chris Leather

The Mass Casualty Commission continued to hear from senior NS-based RCMP commanders today, with testimony from Chief Superintendent Chris Leather. C/Sup Leather was the second ranking officer in Nova Scotia at the time of the events of the mass casualty. He was in Halifax after having testified Monday in Ottawa before the Federal Public Safety and National Security Subcommittee.

Among the observations I was able to make from being at the Harbourside Marriot in person were that there were many empty seats (there were about 25 people watching, in addition to the lawyers, MCC staff, and media), perhaps a reflection of the choice to have these key witnesses appear during one of the hottest, nicest, weeks of the Nova Scotia summer.

Speaking with people during breaks, I was able to learn (to my complete lack of surprise) that the lawyers for participants are getting increasingly frustrated that they are being marginalized as they have been. The MCC choices have made it very difficult for these lawyers to properly represent their clients, by cutting off any real opportunity for questioning witnesses.

Also, I learned that Superintendent Darren Campbell’s acknowledgement at the end of his testimony yesterday of mistakes that the RCMP made, and his apology to the families, made an impact. Sup. Campbell spent 45 minutes speaking with one of the family members after he testified, and was reportedly quite genuine in his remarks.

C/Sup. Leather seemed to be quite subdued in his demeanor. Perhaps this is his natural personality presentation, but he was certainly a low-energy witness. One of the first topics he discussed was emergency alerting, and the training for that. He seemed to be advocating for a limited group of supervisors to have access to the system, noting that you had to take care to properly craft an emergency message. This seems likely to reinforce the problem of messages getting out too slowly, which is all contrary to the expert advice the MCC received on emergency alerts.

In discussing the main topic of his testimony, the press conferences that he lead, C/Sup. Leather did express some regret and contrition, while also deflecting blame to communications staff. He suggested that he had very little training in press conferences, or time to prepare for questions. It may be fair to argue that less training, rather than more, is appropriate for police communications with the media. Such training seems designed to help the officer conceal information from the public, rather than properly and fulsomely reveal it.

C/Sup. Leather indicated that the information that was being requested would often be information he does not have, or if it was not in his speaking notes might be information he should not reveal. That lead to him, by his own account, being uncomfortable with the question and answer portion of the press conferences. Perhaps this is an argument in favour of having lower-ranking officers who were actually involved in the events available for the press conference, rather than having commanders speaking simply on the basis of their rank.

MCC lawyer Rachel Young lead C/Sup. Leather through some of the statements given during the press conference that were later found to be false, or potentially misleading. Leather had stated there were “at least ten” killed, when known number was much higher, that the RCMP had “secured” the perimeter around Portapique when that was clearly not done, and that information on the replica vehicle was “immediately tweeted” when it was actually three hours before that was done. Leather accepted that these statements were incorrect when they were made.

Later, regarding the June 2020 press conference, C/Sup. Leather did not mention that the RCMP was aware of the Criminal Intelligence Service bulletin, where Wortman said he wanted to kill a cop. He did not directly state why this information was withheld from the public at that time, but it seemed clear that it was done to avoid tough questions that would inevitably flow from that discovery.

Leather also spoke about the Alert Ready system comments he made during that press conference. At that time, he spoke about an emergency alert that was issued the week following the shootings, and suggested that 29% of the calls were missed. That would seem to undermine the utility of the Alert Ready system, but the characterization was not accurate. Those calls were not missed, but were either diverted to other call takers, or else answered after a short delay. This topic was also covered in Lia Scanlan’s testimony.

A strange moment happened early in the afternoon. C/Sup. Leather was asked about a conversation he had with Commissioner Brenda Lucki about the makes and models of the firearms used by Wortman. He refused to answer the question, saying that he would only do so after receiving legal advice. The federal DOJ lawyer did not object, and the MCC lawyer asking the questions just moved on to the next question rather than pressing for an answer. I would expect we will be hearing that same question asked at least once tomorrow when participants’ counsel are given an opportunity to cross examine C/Sup. Leather.

There were other instances throughout the day where C/Sup. Leather gave very short answers and there was no follow-up by the MCC lawyer. No doubt there will be a more persistent search for answers during cross examination.

After watching the Parliamentary subcommittee hearings, and now Sup. Campbell and Chief/Sup Leather, I am increasingly doubtful that this group of senior officers has purposefully conspired to keep information on the connections between Gabriel Wortman and the RCMP secret. If there was such a conspiracy, I would have expected these senior officers to be mutually supportive of the decisions made by the others. Instead, they are pointing fingers, and trying to deflect blame from themselves. That does not mean Wortman had no connection to the RCMP, but it would appear that any such relationship was unknown to those officers at the highest levels.