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HALIFAX — At the centre of the political firestorm erupting over the RCMP’s response to the worst mass shooting in Canadian history is a phrase used by police to justify withholding case information.

In the weeks after a gunman killed 22 people during a 13-hour rampage on April 18-19, 2020, Nova Scotia RCMP officers insisted that disclosure of key facts — including details about the weapons used — could “jeopardize the integrity” of their investigation.

But what does that phrase really mean? And were the Mounties’ reasons for keeping those details from the public valid?

Internal RCMP documents released Tuesday show that on April 28, 2020, the head of the RCMP, Commissioner Brenda Lucki, told a meeting of senior officers she was disappointed that details about the firearms had not been released at previous news conferences in Halifax.

According to notes taken by Supt. Darren Campbell, Lucki said she had promised the Prime Minister’s Office that the Mounties would release the descriptions, adding that the information would be “tied to pending gun control legislation that would make officers and public safer.”

In response, Campbell wrote that he told Lucki that disclosure of those details could “jeopardize ongoing efforts” to determine how the killer illegally obtained two rifles and two pistols.

When Campbell’s notes were made public Tuesday in a report prepared for the public inquiry investigating the tragedy, the opposition federal Conservatives and New Democrats accused the governing Liberals of interfering in a police investigation for political gain.

The Liberals have denied the allegation, saying Lucki wasn’t told to do anything.

Lost in the partisan bickering was any discussion over the public’s right to know about the firearms in question.

There can be little doubt that most Mounties, like Campbell, were opposed to saying anything about the weapons. They believed the information, if released to the public, could tip off those involved in illegally supplying guns to the killer.

“It is reasonable to believe the (RCMP) had an ongoing investigation into the source of the weapons,” said a retired Mountie who asked not to be named to protect his relationship with the RCMP. “It may have involved U.S. partners, which would have made them less inclined to provide any information that could threaten the investigation.”

In November 2020, seven months after the shootings, the National Post obtained a list of the killer’s guns, which was included in a briefing note prepared for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and obtained through the Access to Information Act.

Three firearms were illegally obtained from the United States: a .40-calibre Glock 23 semi-automatic pistol, a 9-mm Ruger P89 semi-automatic pistol and a 5.56-mm Colt Law Enforcement semi-automatic carbine. A Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle came from a gun shop in Winnipeg, but investigators determined it, too, was acquired illegally.

A.J. Somerset, author of the 2015 book, “Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun,” said the release of those details was unlikely to hobble the RCMP’s investigation.

“When the shooter is identified, then anybody who had any information about how those guns were obtained would immediately want to avoid talking to police,” Somerset sad in an interview. 

“I don’t see how the identification of the weapons actually leads to that person becoming aware of something they weren’t already aware of.”

Somerset said the real problem is that law enforcement agencies in Canada have grown accustomed to using the jeopardized-investigation argument as a crutch.

“In Canada, the police don’t release information,” he said. “We’re kind of used to that, compared with the United States, where within an hour of a mass shooting, we know everything about what weapons were used.”

Somerset said a former Toronto cop once told him that as a police officer he believed the public had no right to know what police investigations uncover until there is a trial.

“In Canada, there’s a cultural difference around the idea of who the police are working for,” the author said. “Police in Canada, in general, don’t view themselves as accountable to the public …. We saw this in (the Nova Scotia mass shooting case). Warnings weren’t sent out to the public and the police appeared to be acting in their own interest.”

The public inquiry investigating the murders, known as the Mass Casualty Commission, has heard that police knew about an active shooter on the night of April 18, 2020, but no public warnings stating that fact were distributed until the next day — 10 hours after the killing started.

On Aug. 12, 2020, RCMP Sgt. Angela Hawryluk told a court hearing that search warrants used by the Mounties had to remain heavily redacted to ensure the investigation into the mass murder was not compromised.

Search warrants are supposed to be made public after they have been executed, with some exceptions. But in this case, the Crown produced redacted versions that were challenged in court by several media outlets, including The Canadian Press.

Those documents also contained information about the firearms and much of what the RCMP had learned during their investigation.

At one point, Hawryluk told the court, “I had no intention of any of the (search warrants) being revealed to the public.”

That kind of hardline approach stands in contrast to the way things used to be in Canada, said Blake Brown, a history professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

On Dec. 6, 1989, soon after a man fatally shot 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, the public was told about the gun he used: another Ruger Mini-14.

“But at some point, police stopped doing that,” said Brown, author of “Arming and Disarming: A History of Gun Control in Canada.”

“I don’t understand why that information can’t be released faster by police. One of the themes of the Mass Casualty Commission has been highlighting the tendency of the RCMP to hand out very little information and to treat the public like they don’t need to know much.” 

Both Lucki and Campbell are expected to testify before the inquiry later this summer.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2022.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press