HALIFAX — A former Supreme Court of Canada judge working with the inquiry into the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting says he's worried the federal Justice Department has been discouraging witnesses from being forthcoming with relevant evidence.
In an Aug. 5 letter to the department, released late Monday by the inquiry, commission counsel director Thomas Cromwell cites advice the department gave Nova Scotia RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather before he testified before the commission of inquiry on July 28.
Cromwell said he was "deeply concerned" by Leather's claim that he was advised "to be simply reactive rather than forthcoming," an approach that Cromwell said "will hamper the commission in fulfilling its mandate."
The former judge asked for assurances from the department that this sort of advice has not and will not be given to other witnesses.
"Rather, I would hope and expect that witnesses would be encouraged to share the relevant information that they have," Cromwell said.
On July 28, Leather testified that in an earlier interview with commission lawyers, he didn't say anything about emails or phone calls related to an April 28, 2020, meeting he attended with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki because Justice Department lawyers had suggested he take "a reactive posture."
Leather said he was advised not to proactively disclose previous conversations or correspondence with Lucki.
The April 28 teleconference, led by Lucki, focused on the effectiveness of the Nova Scotia RCMP's news conferences in the days after a man disguised as a Mountie fatally shot 22 people in northern and central Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020.
Meeting notes taken by another Nova Scotia Mountie, Supt. Darren Campbell, claim that Lucki said she had promised then-public safety minister Bill Blair that the RCMP would release details about the killer's weapons to lend weight to the Liberal government's pending gun control legislation.
That bombshell assertion has prompted allegations of political interference in a police investigation, an allegation that is being investigated by a parliamentary committee in Ottawa. Lucki and Blair have denied the allegations, saying political pressure was not applied.
In response to Cromwell's letter, the Justice Department's general counsel, Lori Ward, said department lawyers did not discourage Leather from being forthcoming. Ward's letter, dated Aug. 9, 2022, says that Leather's comments about what he was told "can only be the result of a misunderstanding."
"Counsel did not provide such advice," Ward said.
Still, Ward's letter confirms that at one point Leather was told not to say anything about an unrelated workplace assessment in 2021 because it might not be relevant or could be privileged information.
"We suggested that he not raise the assessment," Ward said in the letter. "However, we stated that should he be asked a question that would require him to discuss it, to answer truthfully."
On Tuesday, the Justice Department's deputy minister, François Daigle, confirmed that department lawyers told Leather to answer questions about the assessment only if he was asked about it — and not to bring it up on his own — because they hadn't seen the report themselves.
Testifying before the House of Commons public safety committee, Daigle was asked why the four pages from Campbell's handwritten notes — containing details about the April 28, 2020 meeting with Lucki — were held back from the public inquiry.
The Justice Department has admitted it should have alerted the commission when it withheld 35 pages of notes from seven senior officers, including Campbell's four pages, when it disclosed two packages of documents containing 2,400 pages on Feb. 11, 2022 and March 2, 2022.
"We acknowledge that the commission was not advised that these pages were being reviewed for privilege," the department said in a letter to the commission dated June 24, 2022. "(Department of Justice) counsel should have done so."
The letter goes on to say that the department is not aware of any other documents that have been withheld.
Daigle told MPs the documents were "caught up" in the 35 pages that were being reviewed for possible privilege, although he did not clarify what prompted that review. He said it was unfortunate that the Mass Casualty Commission was not told that pages were being held back. "The oversight was acknowledged and understood," he said.
As of June 24, all but three of those deleted pages had been submitted to the inquiry.
— With files from Michael MacDonald and Sarah Ritchie.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 16, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press