On Saturday night Nova Scotia RCMP started informing the public about what would become one of the darkest days in Canadian history.
The alert was sent via a tweet, at 11:32 p.m. Atlantic time. In it, authorities informed residents of Portapique, a small community 120 kilometres north of Halifax, to remain inside as police were responding to a firearms call. The next tweet, sent from the Nova Scotia RCMP Twitter account, came eight hours later and warned residents that this was an active shooter situation and again warned them to remain inside.
The Nova Scotia RCMP Twitter account has about 90,000 followers. Nova Scotia has a population just shy of a million people.
At no point during the 12-hour rampage was an emergency alert message sent out to Nova Scotians, and media reports have said a number of the victims were going about their day, unaware that there was an active shooter case.
Authorities still don’t know how many people were killed in the horrific 12-hour murder spree. The official total is 19, but there are several missing people, and burned homes are being searched for victims.
It is the worst killing spree in modern Canadian history.
If there ever was a moment to use the emergency alert situation—a moment when a man dressed as a police officer was travelling the roads preying on the public’s trust of police—this was it. But the alert was never sent. Instead, the majority of communication with the public remained via Twitter. There was also a single Facebook post put out by the NS RCMP on Sunday morning, which was updated three times. Its Facebook following is just over 90,000.
The difference between a tweet and an emergency alert is like the difference between a whisper among friends and a bloodcurdling scream. An emergency alert allows a province to send a message directly to the citizens through their phones, television, and radios It’s typically used during cases of a child abduction or when police are warning the public to stay inside. Nova Scotia most recently used an emergency alert on April 10 to warn the public about coronavirus rules.
A tweet relies on Nova Scotians in the area being aware that a website called Twitter exists and the media quickly picking up the story to spread the message. Given the incident happened overnight Saturday and into Sunday morning—when people are sleeping and news organizations have a skeletal staff, if any at all—it’s certainly not an optimal way to relay vital information.
Nova Scotia RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather and RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Lisa Croteau were asked during a press conference Monday afternoon about why the emergency alert system wasn’t used. Leather responded, saying that he believed an amber alert did go out, but Croteau corrected him: “It was just the Twitter and Facebook page because it was unfolding,” she said.
“We were in contact with the province about it but it just never…,” Croteau said to Leather before trailing off.
“It’s a good question and I don’t have a response for you about that,” Leather said later in the press conference when asked again. “We had relied on Twitter because of the instantaneous manner that we can communicate.
"We’re aware that we have thousands of followers in Nova Scotia and felt that it’s a superior way to communicate this ongoing threat.”
The victims include people the shooter knew and those he did not. Witnesses say the killer shot retired firefighter Tom Bagley dead after the victim went to investigate the cause of a house fire. Family members of another victim say he was killed when out running errands.
The Chronicle Herald reported a group of locals in Wentworth Valley started a telephone network warning local walkers to stay off the road. In the case of Lillian Hyslop, they were too late. By the time the network informed her husband she was already out for her walk, where she would be shot dead by the killer, the Herald reported.
One of the women who organized the telephone effort to keep people off the roads is lamenting why an emergency alert wasn’t sent out. “I could have saved Lillian's life if I had known 45 minutes before that,” Debi Atkinson told the Herald.
In total, the Nova Scotia RCMP team sent out 12 tweets during the murder spree. They ranged from showing a photo of the killer, to warning people that he was dressed as a police officer and driving a replica RCMP car, to clarifying that he wasn’t part of the police force.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told reporters on Monday that the RCMP will be using this as a learning experience.
“I do say that in any incident such as this, we always have to look back at what we did. Nobody can lose their life in vain and (Stevenson) will not lose her life in vain and neither will the other victims. We have to ensure that whatever happened there, there’s always going to be a better way to do things,” said Lucki. “And so if we can, we’ll take this and move forward and find a better way to advise the public.”
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said that the province didn’t issue an alert because it was never asked. However, he was quick to defend the RCMP and explain how chaotic a situation like the one involving Canada’s worst-ever spree killing could be.
“There will be lots of questions, but I can tell you I’m not going to second-guess what someone with the organization did or didn’t do at this moment in time,” he said. “This was an active environment—deaths, gunfire. Let’s give them an opportunity as an organization to explain that.”
Nova Scotia is hardly the only province with issues surrounding its emergency alert system. In January, Ontarians woke up on a Sunday morning to an emergency alert warning of a problem with a nuclear power plant. The alert turned out to be false, and “human error” was blamed.
Ontario released a lengthy report into the incident and has promised that its system has since improved.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.