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Lawyer Roger Burrill, part of the presenting counsel team, releases details at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Halifax on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The RCMP and a police union are resisting calls to have officers who responded to the worst mass shooting in Canadian history be compelled to testify at the public inquiry investigating the tragedy.

All 18 officers who responded to the killings that left 22 people dead over two days in April, 2020, run the risk of being retraumatized on the witness stand, the lawyer for the National Police Federation argued Thursday.

Nasha Nijhawan told commissioners they must consider the inquiry’s mandate to be “trauma-informed” in dealing with witnesses.

In addition, Lori Ward, the lawyer for the Attorney-General of Canada, which represents the RCMP, said the families’ lawyers must realize the public inquiry is attempting a “brave new world” in terms of its format.

“We hear the frustration from lawyers used to a trial-style approach to gathering evidence … but that doesn’t mean other methods or alternate methods of evidence aren’t meaningful,” Ms. Ward said.

Most of the RCMP officers who responded to the killings have already provided extensive, unsworn interviews to commission counsel, she said, adding that unless it’s clear something is missing, that should suffice.

Lawyers for family members on Thursday asked the inquiry for constables Stuart Beselt and Vicki Colford to testify under oath about the early hours of the attacks in Portapique, N.S., the community west of Truro where the shootings began on April 18, 2020.

Constable Beselt was an acting corporal who was among the first four RCMP members to respond to 911 calls after the killer began his shooting spree.

Michael Scott, a lawyer representing 14 of the 22 victims’ families, said, “We need to hear from these officers for the simple reason: they were there. We need to know what the officers heard and saw and did.

“We haven’t heard from any witnesses and at this point in the process, we’ve moved very quickly through one of the central timelines.”

Steve Topshee, a lawyer who represents two of the victims’ families, noted that Constable Beselt was the first to arrive and within minutes encountered Andrew MacDonald, who had been shot and injured, and Mr. MacDonald’s wife, Kate MacDonald, as they were exiting the community.

The inquiry’s summaries, released earlier this week, indicated that it was Constable Beselt who determined that there was a mass shooting under way and decided to advance on foot with his body armour and carbine, along with constables Adam Merchant and Aaron Patton.

Constable Colford, meanwhile, remained at the main entrance to the community, assisting the MacDonalds and relaying information to other officers.

“It’s not to put him [Constable Beselt] on the stand to cross-examine him … it’s to get to the truth and get to the facts,” Mr. Topshee said. “It’s not a blame-seeking situation. It’s an inquisitorial and fact-seeking situation.”

He noted that as Constable Beselt prepared to enter the community on foot, rather than continuing in his patrol car, he talked about the Moncton shooting of five RCMP officers in June, 2014. During an interview Constable Beselt gave to the commission before hearings began, he told investigators that the Moncton shootings had taught officers that it was riskier to be in a car during a mass shooting than on foot.

“What is he talking about? … That has to be explored,” Mr. Topshee said. “That has to be looked into.”

Mr. Topshee said he wanted to ask Constable Colford, who has retired from the force, questions about information she had relayed to officers on April 18, 2020, about a possible escape route the killer could use.

The commission has published transcripts in which Constable Colford radioed to her colleagues that she had heard there was “kind of a road that someone could come out,” after she spoke to Kate MacDonald. The commission has said that the killer likely escaped through a rough road that wasn’t being monitored by the RCMP.

Ms. Ward said Constables Beselt and Colford had addressed key issues in their interviews, and she said it’s unclear further testimony is needed. She also suggested questions could be submitted in writing.

Lawyers for the police union and RCMP argued that the questions victims’ families have about the killings have already been answered and can be found in the written transcripts of preinquiry interviews.

Commission lawyer Gillian Hnatiw didn’t advocate for having any of the officers testify. Instead, she said that some police officers would participate in “a series of round tables” composed of firefighters, paramedics and police that are scheduled to take place during the inquiry’s second phase later this year.

However, Mr. Scott said this wouldn’t address the questions families have about the police response on April 18-19, 2020, during the 13-hour manhunt for the perpetrator, who was driving a replica police vehicle.

“We are extremely frustrated at the prospect of having to justify seeking facts in a fact-finding process,” he told the commission.