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RCMP officers prepare to take a person into custody at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., on April 19, 2020. A mass shooting at the time left 22 people dead, the worst in Canadian history.tim krochak/The Canadian Press

Families of the 22 victims in Nova Scotia’s mass shooting say no one should be untouchable for a public inquiry trying to investigate all the facts in the tragedy, including police responders and the gunman’s partner, who was with him as he appeared to be planning his attack.

But the high-profile inquiry was bogged down in a dispute Wednesday over who could be forced to testify through the use of its subpoena power – with arguments focused on Lisa Banfield, Gabriel Wortman’s common-law spouse, and 17 RCMP officers whose lawyer says being put on the witness stand would be too traumatic for them.

No one, the victims’ families lawyers said, can help fill in gaps in the timeline of the massacre better than Ms. Banfield. She was riding around with him on April 18, 2020, in the hours before the attack as he allegedly plotted his route and even helped him cut a path through the brush that it’s believed he later used to escape.

But while Ms. Banfield, who is facing criminal charges of her own for transferring ammunition used during the attack, has so far declined to co-operate with the inquiry, the families’ lawyers are also getting resistance from the RCMP union.

A lawyer for 17 rank-and-file Nova Scotia RCMP officers named by the Mass Casualty Commission says the police shouldn’t be forced to testify in inquiry hearings because doing so would cause them to relive the trauma of April 18-19, 2020. Nasha Nijhawan, representing the RCMP’s National Police Federation, argued to the inquiry’s commissioners that those officers have already “suffered deeply,” including grieving the death of one of their own in the attack.

She said the inquiry has an obligation to use a trauma-informed approach to handling witnesses, and said the officers’ previous interviews with inquiry staff, free from cross-examination in a public forum, should be enough. Ms. Nijhawan wants the commission to accept an expert’s report on mental-health problems among police officers to back up her argument.

“Are you prepared to risk causing them more harm?” she asked the commission. “They are people, more than just their uniforms.”

That argument didn’t sit well with lawyers for families of victims, who say decisions made by the RCMP in responding to the attack on April 18-19, 2020, are among the most critical questions for the inquiry – and those officers need to answer to the public.

“It’s contrary to the public interest,” said Robert Pineo, a Halifax lawyer representing many of the families involved. “I’m not sure how much faith there would be in the ultimate findings and recommendations of this commission if a blanket expert report was used to block critical evidence from being given.”

Joshua Bryson, a lawyer representing victims Peter and Joy Bond, said police have difficult jobs and are often called to testify in criminal trials involving violent events. Using concerns over the potential for officers’ trauma because of a “generic expert opinion” as a reason to avoid testifying in the inquiry is simply unacceptable, he said.

“This was traumatic for everyone,” he said. “To suggest these members be disqualified from testifying because of the nature of this subject matter and their hypothetical experiences is very concerning. In our view, it acts as a bar for this commission to fulfill its mandate, which is to understand what happened.”

Who should be called to testify at the inquiry into the mass shooting has been the subject of intense debate in early stages of the Mass Casualty Commission, which is being held inside a ballroom at the Halifax Convention Centre.

A lot of focus was on Ms. Banfield, and information she may be able to provide around the timeline of the massacre and some of the planning the gunman appeared to be doing. Tara Miller, a lawyer for the families of victims Kristen Beaton and Aaron Tuck, said Ms. Banfield was with Mr. Wortman on April 18 when he went on a long drive around rural Nova Scotia.

He appeared to be tracing part of the route he’d eventually use in his attack, the lawyer said, pointing out homes of some of his victims and visiting a bunker he’d later use to hide out. Ms. Banfield allegedly helped him clear brush for a path the lawyer suggested he may have used to escape from police, although she never mentioned this when she was interviewed by the RCMP, Ms. Miller said.

“Having a complete understanding of what they did that day, where they travelled and who they talked to will be material,” Ms. Hill said. “There are still many gaps and factual inconsistencies that exist in the timeline.”

Ms. Banfield’s lawyer, Craig Zeeh, said until her criminal charges are resolved, his client can’t speak to the inquiry. She’s already provided four statements to police, he said, and helped RCMP investigators perform a re-enactment.

“We’ve been steadfast in our position that she will not, at this time, open herself up to further interviews,” he said. “If her legal jeopardy were to be gone, Ms. Banfield would co-operate fully with this inquiry.”

Anastacia Merrigan, a lawyer for a coalition of women’s shelters and intimate partner violence groups participating in the inquiry, also argued Ms. Banfield, who was assaulted by Mr. Wortman the night the attack began, should be shielded from testifying because it could discourage other victims of domestic abuse from coming forward.

Some key pieces of information about the hours leading up the attack come from statements to police made by Angel Patterson, a mutual friend of the couple who spoke to both of them multiple times on April 18. Ms. Patterson, however, has not responded to requests to be interviewed by the commission – and as an American living in Maine, the inquiry’s power to subpoena her is limited.

Sandra McCulloch, another lawyer for the families, said some of the evidence given by Ms. Banfield to police, including her account of escaping from Mr. Wortman’s look-alike police vehicle, while handcuffed, and spending eight hours hiding in the woods in sub-zero temperatures, needs to be more thoroughly examined.

“We have significant concerns about areas of Ms. Banfield’s account, reflected in her statements to the RCMP. There’s much left unsaid, including her account of her escape,” she said. “There’s no witness more critical to assisting with fulfilling the commission’s mandate than Ms. Banfield.”

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