The RCMP is reviewing whether its policies were followed in the case of two spouses of top Mounties in Nova Scotia who are working on a team set up to gather evidence for the public inquiry into the mass killing of 22 people in April 2020.
A team of officers is organizing evidence and passing along information required by the Mass Casualty Commission that is examining the circumstances of the tragedy. They are employed by the RCMP and not working for the commission itself.
The team will also work with officers called as witnesses and determine whether any training, equipment or policies need updating in light of the police response to the massacre, which happened in the rural communities of Portapique, Wentworth, Debert and Shubenacadie.
The Mounties told CBC it was reviewing the staffing after it was publicly revealed that Chief Supt. John Robin heads the group and is married to Chief Supt. Janis Gray, who oversees the Halifax District.
Another team member, Mike Butcher, who has been working as a public servant contracted by the force after retiring as a Mountie, is married to Lee Bergerman, the commanding officer of the Nova Scotia RCMP.
Both Robin and Butcher will remain in their roles while the review is underway "given the importance of ensuring full cooperation and support for the Mass Casualty Commission," Sgt. Caroline Duval, a spokesperson for RCMP in Ottawa, said in an emailed statement to CBC.
She said the review was a priority but it wasn't clear how long it would take.
Duval responded to questions from CBC about what steps, if any, were taken to ensure there was no conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest. Her statement said that there are various safeguards in place — from ensuring candidates have appropriate qualifications for a job to policies covering interpersonal workplace relationships.
It said senior leaders with Contract and Indigenous Policing in Ottawa monitor and oversee the team and that wasn't unusual for couples to both work for the RCMP.
"As they transfer to new posts, care is taken to ensure that, in alignment with policy, there is no direct reporting relationship between them," the statement said.
On top of that, the RCMP said officers are always subject to the force's code of conduct, their oaths of office and "are expected to maintain the highest ethical standards as they carry out their assigned duties."
Concerns about perception of bias
Wayne MacKay, an emeritus professor of law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the RCMP should be mindful about any appearance of bias and how that could impact public trust in the force, including its co-operation with the independent inquiry.
He said the nature of the RCMP team's work could also mean there is a potential for a direct conflict of interest, should one of the top Mounties be subject to criticism by the inquiry.
That would put the team members, Robin and Butcher, in a position where they could be handling information that ultimately the commission could determine reflects poorly on their spouses.
"It could potentially put the spouses who are working for the RCMP providing the information [to the inquiry], in a situation where they could not provide all the information that could implicate their spouses or reflect in a negative way on those spouses," he said.
"Again, not suggesting they would do that, but I think that would be something a reasonable person might be concerned about."
MacKay said they might be "absolutely beyond reproach, but in the whole area of bias, it's not just what actually might happen but what the reasonable person might think would happen."
He said this particularly relevant as public trust in Mounties has been called into question. Families who lost loved ones and members of the public have questioned the RCMP's actions — from why there was no emergency alert issued to whether police could have done more in response to previous allegations that the gunman was violent and had firearms.
"It certainly appears at this early stage, as though the RCMP as an institution and a force, may well be subject to criticism in the findings and recommendations of the commission," MacKay said.
"Given all the issues of trust that have surrounded this whole situation, I think everyone involved needs to go above and beyond to do everything they can to not create any apprehensions of bias or inappropriate access or anything of that kind."
Last fall and summer, Bergerman asked the provincial government to pay for the team disclosing evidence to the public inquiry but Mark Furey, the justice minister at the time, turned down her requests. The RCMP said it's funding it jointly through headquarters in Ottawa and "H Division" in Nova Scotia.
Frank Magazine first reported the spouses' names and roles.
Public proceedings next fall
The joint federal and provincial inquiry is looking at the cause, context and events during the massacre, including how police and various federal and provincial agencies responded. It will also examine intimate partner violence and the gunman's access to firearms.
The mass casualty commission's work will include public proceedings set to run this fall from Oct. 26 to Dec. 10. A final report is due in November 2022.
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Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Over the past 11 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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