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Inquiry into Nova Scotia mass killing holds first of four community open houses

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DEBERT, N.S. — About 50 people from the community of Debert, N.S., turned out to meet investigators from the commission of inquiry investigating the mass killing that claimed 22 lives in the central and northern parts of Nova Scotia last year.

Sunday's gathering at a local community centre was the first of four so-called open houses to be held this week by the commission, which began its work 11 months ago.

Over the course of the two-hour meeting, people gathered at tables in small groups and in one-on-one conversations with about 20 inquiry investigators.

Barbara McLean, director of investigations for the commission, said the informal format of the open houses is meant to allow people from the community to talk directly to the inquiry teams.

"Open houses are not unique to this commission, other commissions have used them," said McLean. "It's a way to bring the work of the public inquiry to the community."

McLean said participants can simply relate their experiences or can take the opportunity to provide the commission with information relevant to its investigation.

She said it also gives the commission a chance to explain its work and to make connections with community leaders who will be important in helping to implement the recommendations the inquiry brings forward.

"The goal of tonight and the other engagement sessions is to get people involved," she said.

Victoria Dickie from the nearby community of Meaghers Grant, N.S., said she found the meeting helpful and "a little bit reassuring."

Dickie, whose nephew Joey Webber was one of the gunman's victims, said she had a list of questions that she put to investigators. She said she left the list with them.

"One question I had was what criteria do they use to decide who they are going to interview and what documents are they are going to subpoena," said Dickie. "Apparently they are still in the process, so it's still an ongoing thing."

However, not all who attended where pleased by a format that had no formal presentation or open question-and-answer session.

"Right here it's nothing but noise," said Joy McCabe.

McCabe lives next to the firehall in Onslow, N.S., where two Mounties fired shots at the building during the hunt for the gunman. She witnessed what happened from her kitchen window.

The officers were eventually cleared by the province's Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) which said they had reasonable grounds to believe a man outside the hall was the killer.

McCabe said there has been a lack of information about what happened as far as she's concerned.

"We have to have answers," she said. "We have PTSD, we have anxiety. It's so hard to go to go to work everyday and work through it."

The R.C.M.P have confirmed that on the night of April 18, 2020, a gunman disguised as a Mountie set fire to several homes and killed 13 people in nearby Portapique, N.S. Over the next 13 hours he evaded police while killing more people he knew and others at random.

The rampage ended after the killer was fatally shot by police at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., north of Halifax. All told, he drove across an area covering 100 kilometres while at large.

The inquiry is scheduled to begin public hearings next month in Halifax with an interim report expected by May and a final report to be filed by November 2022.

Commission chair Michael MacDonald, a former Nova Scotia chief justice, has said the commission's role is not to lay blame or find criminal or civil liability. He said it will be a fact-finding exercise that will determine how to prevent similar tragedies.

The inquiry can also make findings of misconduct. There's been no word yet on who is on the witness list.

As part of its work, inquiry staff walked through areas of Portapique during a visit in early June. The group included members of the investigations, legal, research and community engagement teams.

The visit was aimed at understanding the geography of the area where the killings occurred and where some survivors hid or fled through wooded areas as the gunman burned residents' homes.

On Monday the commission will hold another open house in Truro, N.S., before moving on to the communities of Millbrook, N.S., on Tuesday and Wentworth, N.S., on Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2021.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly spelled the name of the community of Meaghers Grant, N.S.

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