RCMP commissioner apologizes to families of victims in mass shooting

The head of the RCMP has apologized to the families of the Nova Scotia mass shooting victims for not being “what you needed us to be.”

Commissioner Brenda Lucki testified Wednesday for the second day before the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) leading the inquiry into the April 2020 massacre where a gunman killed 22 people across the province. 

“I want to apologize for the RCMP — but in such a way that we weren’t what you expected us to be, and I don’t think we were what you wanted us to be or what you needed us to be,” Lucki said Wednesday after a day of questions from various lawyers for victims’ families and other participants.

“I wish that we could have been more.”

Ryan Farrington, who has attended most of the public hearings this summer, had been hoping for an apology from Lucki.

Farrington’s mother, Dawn Madsen, and stepfather, Frank Gulenchyn, were killed by the gunman in their Portapique home the night of April 18, 2020.

Ryan Farrington speaks with media outside the public inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shooting in Halifax on Aug.24, 2022. His mother Dawn Madsen and stepfather Frank Gulenchyn were killed by the gunman in their Portapique home the night of April 18, 2020. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Before the apology, Farrington expressed dissatisfaction with Lucki’s remarks to the families.

“If there were mistakes, you know, admit there were mistakes,” he said. “That’s all we want, and we’re not getting that.”

Lucki described the mass shooting as a “heinous” event that “nobody could predict,” and one driven by a highly motivated person. She said that’s why it’s especially important that the inquiry “get this right, and we have to make sure those recommendations will help us.”

She committed to acting on the recommendations that come from the Mass Casualty Commission and tracking that progress — the timing of which all depends on funding.

The commissioner also apologized to Nova Scotia RCMP members for not being on the ground in the province in the days following the shootings as they dealt with the aftermath of losing 22 people — including their colleague Const. Heidi Stevenson.

When asked how she can assure Nova Scotia Mounties they will be better prepared and safe to serve in a similar situation, Lucki said none of the 22 victims should die in vain. Whether it’s new training, tactical changes, improving relationships with other forces to improve responses, Lucki said she is “completely committed to that.”

Lucki also apologized specifically to the family of victim Gina Goulet, who was killed in her Shubenacadie home the morning of April 19, 2020.

Jane Lenehan, the lawyer for Goulet’s family, outlined for Lucki how Goulet’s daughter Amelia Butler wasn’t given an official next-of-kin notification or told where her mother’s body had been taken. Lenehan also said the Butlers were left to find evidence in Goulet’s home, including a bullet casing, after a forensic team had examined it.

“I’m sorry that happened,” Lucki said, adding that she couldn’t imagine what that would be like.

She said while there may have been many reasons why this happened, “it really doesn’t matter because we didn’t meet the family’s expectations.”

Joshua Bryson, who represents the family of victims Peter and Joy Bond, asked Lucki on Wednesday why it took RCMP almost 19 hours to search the homes on Cobequid Court in Portapique where the Bond and Tuck families had been killed.

Lucki said her team was taking notes on all issues brought up during the inquiry, like information gaps between officers on the ground and at the command post during the shootings. She committed to addressing those issues.

“I can’t explain what happened in the past. The only thing I can do is go forward and say, ‘You know what, I have a commitment to you, I have a commitment to the families — we will look into this,'” Lucki said.

Lucki promised to champion the inquiry’s final report to see that changes are made. (The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)

Bryson and other lawyers asked Lucki about a pattern of issues that arose during the response to the mass shooting that had already been highlighted in reports coming out of Moncton, N.B., and after Colten Boushie’s death, including how in the case of Cobequid Court, the Mounties weren’t following the national policies on securing crime scenes.

Although Lucki said she has a “10,000-foot” view on things within the RCMP and might not know exactly what changes have come from various inquiries or where progress has been made, she’s confident that people within her national team are aware of issues arising from the mass shooting.

“Where it’s at, who is specifically being tasked, I can’t give you those details,” Lucki said. “I just know that we’re not sitting back.”

When Bryson asked whether Lucki had appointed her own board of inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shooting response, which she has the power to do, Lucki said no.

Talking to reporters outside the inquiry Wednesday, Bryson said it’s disappointing that many things that went wrong during the shooting response still haven’t been formally looked at by the RCMP or included in cadet training.

“It’s 28 months after this mass casualty event, which is too long for the families to wait for some answers. There’s issues that they could remedy right away with a proper review,” Bryson said.

Since the April 2020 tragedy, many families that lost loved ones have been outspoken about their loss of trust in the national police force.

“What I’m taking away is that there’s absolutely no leadership in the RCMP,” Farrington said after listening to Lucki’s testimony Wednesday.

“How do you not know what’s going on? You’re the commissioner, the top officer running the show, and you don’t know what is going on? That’s not acceptable.”

Lucki said some “high-risk” issues have seen changes already, like new policies with the emergency alert system, but some are being worked on while the RCMP waits for the final report from the Mass Casualty Commission.

The inquiry has heard the RCMP has reviews into the shooting response either proposed, paused or drafted, but Bryson said it’s “very disheartening” to see no overall review has been done.

Another family lawyer gave Lucki the opportunity to comment on the entire Nova Scotia Mountie response during the shootings, including the lack of Portapique containment, officers shooting at a civilian at the Onslow fire hall, and the hours-long delay in sending out a public warning about the mock RCMP car.

Lucki said any situation “can always be better.” 

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O’Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

Many victims’ families represented by Patterson Law indicated to their legal team they didn’t want generic responses from Lucki, according to lawyer Mike Scott. 

“I think what the clients would like from the commissioner, and it would apply to everyone that we’ve heard from the RCMP, is to simply be candid, be direct, be transparent and tell them the truth,” Scott said.

“It’s difficult to believe that changes are going to be made when it appears clear that the powers that be are more interested in deflecting rather than actually addressing the issue.”

Scott said many of the families appreciated when Supt. Darren Campbell apologized to families last month, and promised to “do better.” Following those remarks, Farrington stopped Campbell in the hallway to thank him, but said he wasn’t prepared to forgive the entire force.

At the end of Lucki’s testimony Wednesday, Commissioner Michael MacDonald passionately urged her to be a “champion” of their final recommendations when the report is delivered in November.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki testifies at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry on Wednesday. In April 2020, Gabriel Wortman, dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a replica police cruiser, murdered 22 people. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

He said a lot of work has gone into the inquiry, and they need “courageous leaders” to make sure changes are implemented, and honour the pain Nova Scotians and Canadians still feel.

“lf people push back — be they politicians, be they colleagues — push back harder, please, for the memory of the people who lost their lives and for all the suffering,” MacDonald said.

Lucki said she takes her role extremely seriously, and understands the inquiry’s final report offers an opportunity to make change for not just the RCMP, but the entire policing community in Canada.

“We will champion this — you have my commitment,” Lucki said.

Lucki concerned she didn’t get wellness report for months

Lawyers also asked Lucki about why she never knew that a wellness report on senior RCMP officers and civilians in Nova Scotia even existed until months after it was finished.

Former assistant commissioner Lee Bergerman, the retired commanding officer for the Nova Scotia Mounties, told the commission earlier this week the wellness report only came about after she asked RCMP headquarters for immediate mental health support for the senior ranks.

Instead, the final report from Quintet Consulting was finished in September 2021 and outlined how participants felt about underlying issues with national RCMP leadership, policing partners in municipal forces, the shooting response and criticisms of Bergerman’s own performance.

Lucki said she didn’t learn the report was completed until this June, when she was getting ready to visit Nova Scotia for the first time since the mass shooting to attend Const. Heidi Stevenson’s memorial service and town hall with local Mounties.

It was “deeply concerning” that she only found out about the report so late, Lucki said, and asked Deputy Commissioner Brian Brennan and the new human resources officer why it hadn’t been brought to her.

“It’s completely surprising,” Lucki said.

Police following commission request on uniforms

Although Brennan and the HR official had “no idea” how the report fell through the cracks, Lucki said she got an update last month that an action plan is in place for tackling the wellness report recommendations.

Family lawyers have asked that federal justice counsel produce that action plan.

Lucki has worn civilian clothing while appearing before the Mass Casualty Commission in Halifax, similar to other police officers who’ve testified.

A spokesperson for the commission confirmed that they have requested no officers wear uniforms while testifying.

“This was out of concern for anyone following our proceedings who may remain troubled by the perpetrator’s abuse of the uniform during the mass casualty,” they said Wednesday in an email.

On Tuesday, Lucki was questioned by the commissioners and Patterson Law, which represents most victims’ families.

She repeated her stance that a controversial April 28, 2020, phone call where she mentioned upcoming Liberal gun legislation to the Nova Scotia RCMP team was just her explaining why the public safety minister and federal government were interested in details of the gunman’s firearms.

On Wednesday, Lucki said she hasn’t reached out to explain her side of things yet to the senior Nova Scotia RCMP officers and civilians who were in the phone call because she did not want to impact their testimony at the inquiry or House of Commons committee.

But Lucki suggested steps should taken to create a document for incoming federal ministers, politicians and RCMP commissioners that lays out what political interference is, and what to know about interacting with police agencies.

Lucki also told the public inquiry how the mass shooting in Nova Scotia became a “turning point” where residents lost faith in the Mounties, following criticism from the public and media which spiralled into low morale across the force’s ranks and a spike in retirements or transfers.