September 23, 2022

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The former top Mountie in Nova Scotia has highlighted what she thinks went wrong during the 2020 mass shooting response, including a “failure” to properly search the small rural community where the massacre began.

Lee Bergerman, a retired assistant commissioner and commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP, testified Monday in Halifax before the Mass Casualty Commission leading the inquiry into the shootings across April 18-19, 2020, when a gunman killed 22 people across the province.

Bergerman said in her view, there were “failures” and breakdowns in communication during the response, later specifying that included radio communications between officers on the ground and those in command posts.

She also said there were issues communicating with the public, and there could have been better “streamlining” of the messaging coming out from RCMP. Bergerman also saw shortcomings around co-ordinating where officers were placed, and said having community members more involved with the command centre to offer insight into “obscure roads” would have been useful.

“Those are all things that I think we can learn from, and I’m hoping that a lot of this comes out of this commission,” said Bergerman, who retired from the RCMP in October 2021.

She was also asked about her thoughts on how RCMP did not fully clear all crime scenes in Portapique, N.S., until 19 hours after the shootings began, meaning some victims on Cobequid Court — a small road at the southern end of the community — were not discovered until the late afternoon of April 19.

Bergerman said she doesn’t know why that happened and wasn’t involved in those decisions on the ground, but it was an “extraordinary event” where people tried their best.

“Obviously, if it takes 19 hours to find a crime scene, that’s a failure to have the appropriate resources in place to do it,” Bergerman said.

When asked about whether it would have been helpful to bring in nearby municipal forces to assist in searching Portapique, Bergerman said that could definitely be a “lesson learned.”

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)

She also highlighted that certain things were done very well, calling the efforts from the first RCMP officers on the ground in Portapique and the emergency response team “heroic.”

A commission lawyer, counsel for the victims’ families, police union and federal justice department asked Bergerman about various topics, including what the morale was like in the higher ranks in the year following the tragedy.

“There was a lot of burnout … we had a number of our key, senior people who were off duty sick and a lot of our commissioned officers were doing three jobs,” Bergerman said.

Bergerman said officers were coming to her about getting succession plans in place for their roles so they could transfer out of the province, so she turned to national RCMP headquarters in Ottawa for help.

Wellness report came from Ottawa: Bergerman

She said she spoke with Deputy Commissioner Brian Brennan about the senior officers’ mental health concerns, and asked for strategies to better support their needs.

Brennan then went to the RCMP’s chief human resources officer Gail Johnson and they made a decision to commission an independent wellness assessment from Quintet Consulting, Bergerman said, which would examine factors impacting morale.

The consultants interviewed 24 commissioned officers or civilian equivalents through the summer of 2021, according to a report summary released by the commission, including Bergerman.

The final report was finished in September 2021 but Bergerman said it did not address the issues she originally asked about.

Instead, the report outlined how participants felt about underlying issues with RCMP leadership, policing partners in municipal forces, the shooting response and criticisms of Bergerman’s own performance.

Commissioners Leanne Fitch, Michael MacDonald, chair, and Kim Stanton, left to right, look on as Lee Bergerman, right, former assistant commissioner and recently retired commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP, testifies. (The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan)

“I was looking for, ‘What strategies can we have in place to help people heal?’ Do we do team building, do we go on retreats, do we bring in psychologists, do we bring in extra members to support the officers … that’s what I was looking for,” Bergerman said.

She added that she asked for specifics on succession planning for top officers that weren’t part of the report, but that was “done eventually.”

Although Bergerman said relationships between the Nova Scotia RCMP and municipal forces were “good” before the mass shooting, things have worsened since then. It became “popular” for people to distance themselves from the Mounties and certain police chiefs criticized the RCMP publicly, Bergerman said, and the RCMP’s push for Nova Scotia-wide policing standards “has caused a rift” between the Mounties, provincial Justice Department, and municipal forces.

While Bergerman said the commission would have to ask a municipal chief why that has created an issue for them, she suggested it could be because standards come with specialized units like emergency response teams — all of which are “cost-prohibitive for a lot of municipalities.”

She added that municipal chiefs were also upset by the RCMP’s move to start tracking expenses every time police departments like Truro or Bridgewater call in RCMP special units they don’t have in their own forces. But Bergerman said the RCMP hasn’t been billing municipalities for those services, just keeping track to show the province where their money is going when they run a deficit.

Policing funding model questioned

Bergerman suggested the commission have a “hard look” at the policing funding model in Nova Scotia, and how that plays into the resources across Nova Scotia for both RCMP and municipal forces.

When asked if she agreed with comments from senior officers from the wellness report about how the province had underfunded the RCMP for years, Bergerman said “generally, I would say yes.” Although Bergerman said the province often turned down funding requests outside the regular budget, she understood it came down to “dollars and cents” and health care was more of a priority.

Under-staffing was made worse after the mass shooting, Bergerman said, when many Mounties were traumatized and on leave. This past year, she said the district where most of the shootings took place did get six new officer positions, but that isn’t enough.

“It’s a vicious circle … you don’t have enough resources, you’re using the resources that you do have on overtime and it’s not sustainable,” Bergerman said.

Before her testimony, the commission interviewed Bergerman in early August. At the time, Bergerman said she only learned about the gunman’s replica car when she saw it on the news the morning of April 19.

She said she was convinced that one of the RCMP cruisers had been stolen, so she called Chief Supt. Chris Leather to ask whether that was the case. “He confirmed that all of our police cars had been accounted for,” said Bergerman.

The photo had been sent to RCMP from Halifax Regional Police around 7:30 a.m., but the photo wasn’t shared publicly until the Mounties issued a tweet around three hours later.

Bergerman also said when it comes to recommendations from the commission, she’d like to see “robust tracking mechanisms” that can be followed up on after the final report is delivered, perhaps handled by lawyers or others involved in the commission.

One family lawyer, Tara Miller, suggested an ongoing committee made up of officers at the street level, RCMP senior management and the public to ensure the inquiry recommendations don’t sit on a shelf.

“I agree with that,” Bergerman said.

The commissioners leading the inquiry will question Bergerman Tuesday, before RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki takes the stand.

Lucki has been caught up in a political controversy for weeks following allegations that she was under pressure to release specific information about the gunman’s firearms ahead of the Liberal government’s gun control legislation.

The commission has set aside Tuesday and Wednesday for Lucki’s evidence, while on Thursday, Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella will testify.

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