Justin Trudeau has called on Canadians to stand unified in the face “senseless violence” as the death toll from the country’s deadliest mass shooting rose to 18 people, including the gunman.
“No one man’s action can build a wall between us and a better day, no matter how evil, how thoughtless or how destructive,” the prime minister said on Monday morning. “As families grieve the loss of a loved one, all Canadians are standing with them.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) revised the death toll of the weekend shooting upwards on Monday and said they anticipated finding more victims from the rampage, which lasted for at least 12 hours.
“I know this is a challenging time for Nova Scotians and that there are so many unanswered questions. I want to reassure you that we are working hard to find out as much information as possible in the days and weeks to come,” said Chris Leather, RCMP chief superintendent, adding that officers were currently examining 16 crime scenes. “We will be in this for months to come.”
Police said Gabriel Wortman, a 51-year-old denturist, disguised himself as a police officer before his first attack in the coastal town of Portapique on Saturday evening.
The victims included a teacher, nurse, police officer, social worker and three married couples. Wortman was shot dead by police following a standoff late Sunday morning.
With Nova Scotia already in lockdown in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Trudeau acknowledged the grieving process would be especially difficult, announcing a virtual Facebook vigil on Friday at 7pm.
“We are a country that stands united in our effort to defeat a pandemic, save lives and to help each other make it to a better day,” he said. “But yesterday we were jolted from that common cause by the senseless violence and tragedy.”
The chaos began late Saturday evening, when police responded to emergency calls in Portapique. Residents told local media that Wortman set fire to numerous properties – including his own – and shot people fleeing for safety.
Officers found “several casualties” inside and outside at a house in Portapique at 11.30pm, but couldn’t locate a suspect.
On Monday, police said they anticipated finding additional victims in the remains of buildings that were burned down.
Authorities haven’t yet determined a motivation for the attacks, but the fact that Wortman had created a replica RCM vehicle and “either a real uniform or a perfect facsimile” suggested his early actions were deliberate, said Leather.
One resident told the Globe and Mail that Wortman arrived at his house Sunday morning, dressed as a police officer and driving what appeared to be a police car. Brandishing a pistol and rifle, Wortman began pounding on the door. “He came here to kill me,” the man told the Globe and Mail. “There’s no question about that.”
The man and his wife hid until Wortman left. “He wasn’t killing enemies, he was killing his friends,” he said. “He was trying to beat down our door. It was beyond terrifying.”
Wortman eventually swapped his police cruiser replica for a silver SUV on Sunday, leading police in a chase down a busy highway, culminating in a fatal shoot-out a at a gas station in the town of Enfield.
On Monday, police faced questions over why they didn’t send out text alerts to warn residents of an active shooter in the region, instead relying on Twitter to keep the public updated. Many rural communities in the province lack access to high-speed internet.
Police said the victims included a police officer who was shot after responding to reports of the shooting on Sunday morning. Constable Heidi Stevenson, a mother of two, had served on the force for 23 years.
“We have lost one of our own while she was protecting others,” said Leather. “This is the definition of a true hero.”
As news of the shootings spread, family members and friends eulogized the victims on social media.
Among the dead was Tom Bagley, who was killed as he rushed to help victims.
“This beautiful soul was taken from me so unnecessarily. I can’t even comprehend it,” his daughter Charlene wrote on Facebook.
Heather O’Brien, a nurse and grandmother from the town Truro in central Nova Scotia, was remembered for her kind spirit.
“The pain comes and goes in waves. I feel like I’m outside of my own body,” wrote her daughter Darcy Dobson, who described texting her mother minutes before she died – and the “monster” that killed her. “I want everyone to remember how kind she was … Let those things define her. Not the horrible way she died.”
O’Brien’s niece Megan Brown remembered her aunt as a “healer” and a “bright light”.
Greg and Jamie Blair, a husband and wife, were also among those killed. “I have absolutely no words for the heartache my family & many others are going through,” wrote Jessica MacBurnie on Facebook. The couple, married in 2014, leave behind their two children.
Lisa McCully, a teacher and mother of two, was also killed during the rampage, according to her sister and the Nova Scotia teacher’s union.
“She was somebody who taught from the heart,” said the union president, Paul Wozney. “She taught her kids not just the curriculum but teaching about virtues and personal qualities.”
On the Nova Scotia Kitchen Party Facebook group – originally created for residents to connect and sing together during the coronavirus pandemic – members posted tributes to the victims and sang songs, including Amazing Grace.
The massacre in Nova Scotia is the worst of its kind in Canadian history, eclipsing the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, in which 15 women were killed in Montreal. A man driving a van deliberately ran over and killed 10 people in Toronto in April 2018 and a man shot dead six people at an Islamic cultural centre in Quebec City in 2017.
In his remarks on Monday, Trudeau also addressed children living in Nova Scotia.
“I know the world can seem like a mean and ugly place right now, but there’s a whole lot of good in the world too. You’ll see it in your neighbours and in Canadians in the days and months ahead,” he said. “This is a difficult time and it can be a scary time too. But we’re here for you and we’re going to get through this together, I promise.”
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