With no answers a year after the murder of 22 people, the pain remains fresh for many Nova Scotians

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OVID-19 has been a blessing of sorts for the people of Portapique.

Approaching the first anniversary of the murder of 22 Nova Scotians and an unborn child, a municipal councillor representing Portapique says the pandemic has helped keep media and throngs of onlookers at bay.

“We need to remember and honour the people whose lives were lost,” says Tom Taggart, who represents the Portapique area on Colchester municipal council. “But we also want to protect the privacy of the victims’ families and the community. Maybe we’ll be fortunate and there won’t be extreme media coverage.”

Victims’ loved ones continue to suffer from the attack on Apr. 18 and 19, 2020. “We all lose family and friends sometimes, even tragically,” Taggart says. “But, a tragedy of this magnitude, we can’t really imagine how traumatic it is for them and it’s continued in public view.”

A local volunteer group that organized a national virtual vigil last year has three events planned to mark the anniversary, including a live-streamed memorial service with in-person seating reserved for survivors and victims’ family members only, a commemorative walk through Victoria Park in Truro, and a memorial marathon.

“We want the events to be reflective with not a lot of fanfare,” said Tiff Ward, chairwoman of the Nova Scotia Remembers Legacy Society. “We’d like the focus to be on the bright spot: the things we’re trying to do to make it better as a community and the great things about the people that passed away. We don’t want to remember how people died, we want to remember how they lived.”

Money raised from the marathon and through donations is going toward a permanent memorial site to replace the large shrine outside a former church. The shrine was dismantled in September after locals grew tired of vehicles stopping to gawk before driving along to nearby Portapique Beach Road where many of the victims died.

Ward, who lives 10 minutes from the tiny village and knew a number of the victims, says the society has taken stewardship of items at the makeshift memorial until it finds a new home for them.

“We don’t know what the memorial will look like,” she says. “We’d like it to be somewhere central and accessible. We’re going to do our best to have the views of as many family members and as many community members represented.”

The not-for-profit group plans to enlist a consultant with a trauma-informed background to help come up with a memorial, which could be a plaque in a field similar to the Swiss Air Memorial near Peggy’s Cove or a building with memorabilia, she says. “We’ve been low-key in trying to work our way toward this and when the time is right we’ll start.”

Susan Marsh, executive director of the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia, says media coverage and the approaching anniversary can trigger trauma for many.

To try to help, around a dozen psychologists are offering free therapy sessions for two weeks before and two weeks after the anniversary. Marsh says about 40 people made appointments for free therapy last year and calls started coming in immediately when the offer was made again this year.

“At the time and still now it makes psychologists and myself and other people feel good to be able to do something,” says Marsh, who takes all the calls and matches people up with a psychologist for virtual therapy sessions. “It’s the kind of thing you’rewatching on television and shaking your head and thinking, ‘Oh my God, is there anything I can do? I just can’t sit here.’ This is one thing psychologists can do and, although I’m not a psychologist, it’s part of what I can do, too.”

At the end of March, the commissioners leading a full public inquiry into the tragedy met in Truro with survivors and families of victims, with some participating in person and others through videoconference. Representatives from the Mass Casualty Commission‘s mental health and legal counsel teams observed

“The meetings provided the commissioners an opportunity to express their condolences directly to those who accepted our invitation,” says a statement from Sarah Young, spokesperson for the joint federal-provincial body. 

Victims’ families had to protest before government would order a public inquiry. Photo: Raissa Tetanish

The commission comes after the federal and provincial Liberal governments originally planned a more toothless “review” of the attacks. Commissioners have promised to brief media soon on their work.

Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer representing survivors and the families in two proposed class action suits, says potentially valuable tips continue to come in that could bolster their cases.

A Halifax firm led by retired police detective Tom Martin, that specializes in death and criminal investigations, has been enlisted to help.

“They’re doing a great job of reaching out to the public,” said McCulloch. “There are lots of people out there that have bits and pieces of information, big or small, that will help us, whether that’s come forward to the RCMP or not in their investigation or gone to the media.”

The ongoing investigation is at the centre of the efforts now, she says.

“We know that there’s oodles of information that the public has,” McCulloch says. “Any piece that they could give us—something that they saw out of the corner of their eye or maybe they have a photo that doesn’t seem particularly significant to them—might actually be quite critical to us.”

McCulloch, who’s working on the case with fellow Patterson Law lawyer Rob Pineo and a team of about a half dozen, says they’re awaiting word on whether the courts will grant class-action status to the case against the RCMP and province for allegedly failing to protect the safety and security of the public.

They have yet to seek that status for a separate suit against gunman Gabriel Wortman’s estate, estimated to be worth more than $2 million. His former common law spouse and two others were added to the suit in early December with allegations they illegally provided ammunition.

McCulloch says the class action suits could take years.

“Both of them have a lot of complications, a lot of moving parts,” she says. “We’re optimistic that once the formalities of the class action are out of the way that we all have been doing work to prepare for the next steps in the meantime so we can hopefully move ahead at a reasonable pace.”

The Wentworth Recreation Centre has installed a wooden bench with the initials of those killed in the mass shooting. Photo: Raissa Tetanish

Memorial events

Nova Scotia Remembers Commemorative Walk
Apr. 11 to 17
A quiet walk through an identified trail at Victoria Park in Truro will feature memorial sites honouring each victim. The walk will be reserved on Apr. 18 (noon to 2 p.m.) for victims’ families only. The Nova Scotia Remembers team will be on site to support anyone in need.

Nova Scotia Remembers Memorial Race
Apr. 18, 8 a.m.
Walk or run a 5K, 10K, half marathon, or full marathon. Races will be held in and around Truro and Colchester or virtually on your own course, day and time. Races will end in Victoria Park. No spectators will be allowed at the start or finish lines. Spectators are welcome along the course route (with distancing). Register online at Race Roster.

Nova Scotia Remembers Memorial Ceremony
April 18, 3 p.m.
The ceremony will stream live online. Jeff Douglas will MC the event, which will feature musicians, spiritual teachers, and political leaders. In-person seating is reserved for victims’ families only. Viewing sites will be set up at the bandstand at Victoria Park and communities throughout the Colchester region.

Halifax Magazine