Nova Scotia residents grieving the April 2020 mass shooting still seeking help

HALIFAX — Two years after a man disguised as a Mountie killed 22 people in Nova Scotia, grieving people are still coming forward to get help from the province's victim services program, a government official told a public inquiry Tuesday.

Kim Burton, a Justice Department manager, said that in the weeks after the mass shooting on April 18-19, 2020, the department faced challenges getting people to participate in the program, which offers counselling and other support services.

"The challenge remains that there's a lot of Nova Scotians and a lot of Canadians ... that we haven't reached yet," Burton said.

"It's humbling to know how many people are still out there."

Burton said victims of crime typically receive a referral to the program as cases involving them move through the criminal justice system. But in this case, where the gunman was killed by police, the department has had to reach out to the affected communities in northern and central Nova Scotia.

About a month after the tragedy, the department set up so-called navigation sites in four Nova Scotia communities: Portapique, Masstown, Shubenacadie and Wentworth.

"At the time, I remember our client base was unknown," she said. "We were relying on other agencies or on self-referrals."

Burton said victim services was contacted by one individual seeking help earlier this week, and she said more are expected to do so in the months ahead. 

"There's community members who have reached out in the last three months and said, 'I think I'm ready for help now,'" Burton said. "It could be their healing process, but some said, 'I wanted the families and those most impacted to be helped first.'"

Last month, the inquiry released an interim report saying many of the individuals and families most affected by the tragedy had yet to receive the support they needed.

"For example, a comment card left at a Mass Casualty Commission open house in the fall of 2021 stated: 'We need a grief and trauma counsellor more than ever,'" the report said.

"This theme was reiterated by numerous respondents to our web-based ... survey in February and March of 2022. One respondent wrote: 'It does not feel like anyone understands what we have gone through .... Our community desperately needs additional mental health supports.'"

The commission has encouraged governmental and non-governmental agencies to move quickly to provide additional mental health, trauma and bereavement supports.

Dana Bowden, the Justice Department's director of victim services, said the navigation centres were initially set up for two weeks, operating six days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

But the need was so great the centres were kept open until August 2020, when the Shubenacadie and Masstown sites had to close because both were in schools. The other two sites stayed open two days a week until January 2021.

In Portapique, where 13 people were shot to death on the night of April 18, 2020, the department set up a trailer next to the community centre, where counselling was available.

Christine Blair, mayor of the municipality where most of the killings took place, told the inquiry that a gap in support in Colchester has developed for people still suffering grief and trauma, which can lead to increased anxiety and mental illness.

"We just don't fully realize how extensive the suffering is, and it still needs to be addressed," she said.  "As much as has been done, more needs to be done."

Blair said a special  team is needed go into the communities to offer support.

Tom Taggart, a member of the provincial legislature whose district includes Portapique, said the team approach is a good idea. But he stressed that more specific mental health services should also be offered.

"This (event) changed a lot of lives forever," said Taggart. "It ain't supposed to happen in Portapique … but it did, and it's changed all our lives, and we can't ever forget that." 


This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2022.

Michael MacDonald and Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press