The RCMP in Nova Scotia knew it had a murderous gunman on the loose Saturday night but failed to warn local residents about the threat to their safety through the provincial emergency alert system.
It’s a decision that has friends and family of some of the victims wondering if their loved ones would be alive now if they’d been warned about an armed killer at large in Colchester County.
“I feel strongly about that. I do feel if we had received an alert, an amber alert, we’ve had COVID-19 alerts … then many people might have been spared,” said Heather Matthews, a longtime walking partner and neighbour of Lillian Hyslop.
Hyslop was killed Sunday morning in the Wentworth area, roughly eight hours after the shooter had killed people in Portapique, a community 40 kilometres to the south.
Matthews and her husband took a different path on their walk that morning, avoiding the roadway and a provincial park that had been closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two heard what sounded like a gunshot a few hundred metres away but assumed it was a hunter and kept walking.
They said they didn’t even realize there was a gunman on the loose until they got home and a friend called to warn them about the activity overnight in Portapique.
RCMP alerts went out on Twitter
Matthews said she wishes her friend Hyslop, a frequent walker along the roads in Wentworth Valley, had known about the shooter before she went for her usual stroll that morning.
The police force sent a tweet to its thousands of followers late Saturday, warning the people of Portapique to lock their doors as they investigated a “firearms complaint.”
Early Sunday morning, the force sent another tweet with the name and a photo of the shooter and a warning to people in the county that he was “armed and dangerous.”
“I understand that RCMP put it out on Twitter. But not everybody is on Twitter, not everybody has Facebook, not everybody has the internet, but we all have TVs, radio and a phone. There should have been some other way of notifying these people that they should have been inside safe,” Matthews told CBC News.
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Central and northern Nova Scotia is a largely rural area where internet service is spotty and Twitter use is not widespread.
Cumberland-Colchester MP Lenore Zann, who represents the area, said Monday many of her constituents “prefer Facebook” to Twitter.
Debi Atkinson is another friend of Hyslop’s from Wentworth. She told CBC Radio’s As It Happens Tuesday that most residents of their village feel like they were left in the dark by police.
“Everybody’s feelings about the whole thing was, why wasn’t there an amber alert? We went into this blind,” she said. “Out of all our friends, I don’t know anybody that follows Twitter, that has a Twitter account.
“You know, even after the fact, by the time we actually found out that there was a possibility of this man being in our neighbourhood, he had already passed through our neighbourhood. He was already in Masstown on his way to Debert. So we were way behind.”
Mounties never asked for emergency alert: province
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil confirmed Tuesday his government never received a request from the Mounties to send a message to the wider community through Alert Ready, Canada’s emergency alert system, which sends messages to Canadians through television, radio and LTE-connected cell phones.
McNeil said the province’s Emergency Management Office had been activated and technicians were brought in Saturday to send such an alert — but the request never came from the Mounties.
Under the terms of the Alert Ready system, federal, provincial and territorial governments are “responsible for issuing emergency alerts.”
“We are the lead agency and the RCMP has to ask for that alert to go out because, quite frankly, we need that information from them — what is it that they want in that alert to notify citizens?” McNeil said.
“We had staff on hand in the morning to be able to do that but it was not requested. The reason why the RCMP didn’t ask is a question for them, not for us.”
At a press conference Monday, the RCMP could not explain why an emergency alert wasn’t sent to warn local residents about an active shooter.
“It’s a good question, and I don’t have an answer for you at this moment,” RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather said.
“We have relied on (Twitter) because of the instantaneous manner that we can communicate. We have thousands of followers in Nova Scotia and felt that it was a superior way to communicate this ongoing threat,” he said.
Asked if she knew why Mounties didn’t use the alert system, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said “there’s always going to be a better way of doing things.”
“I do say in any incident such as this, we always have to look back at what they did. Nobody can lose their life in vain,” she said.
Not clear what message should be
The RCMP did not immediately respond to a media request Tuesday asking if the force had anything further to say about why the alert system wasn’t used. The force directed requests for comment to the provincial RCMP.
Jack Lindsay is an associate professor in disaster and emergency studies at Brandon University in Manitoba. He said the police may have held off sending a message through Alert Ready because of how fluid the events were that night.
WATCH | RCMP wouldn’t say how the gunman acquired an official RCMP uniform:
During a natural disaster, for example, it’s easier for authorities to give clear instructions to recipients about what to do next, he said.
“When a tornado warning is issued, we expect people to take shelter, and this may mean opening public buildings for that purpose,” Lindsay said. “It’s easier to plan those kinds of warning-action-support scenarios for natural and technological emergencies.
“Crimes, terrorism and other human-driven events are more difficult when you don’t know what the person might do next. Perhaps there wasn’t a clear message the authorities felt would help, given how dynamic the situation was.”