The Amherst Fire Department showed their love and support for the communities and families affected by the Portapique tragedy by creating a heart with their vehicles. Kurt Fawthrop photo

PORTAPIQUE – A global health pandemic isn’t usually seen as a blessing, but it has been to one small community in Nova Scotia over the past year.

As the first anniversary approaches for last April’s senseless tragedy that claimed 22 victims, plus an unborn child, a municipal councillor representing Portapique says the COVID-19 pandemic has helped keep TV camera crews and throngs of onlookers at a bay.

“We need to remember and honour the people whose lives were lost,” said Tom Taggart, who represents the Portapique area in the Municipality of Colchester. “But we also want to protect the privacy of the victims’ families and the community. Maybe we’ll be fortunate and there won’t be extreme media coverage.”

While residents of the community are doing well, the same can’t be said for the families of the victims, he says.

“It’s still very raw. We all lose family and friends sometimes, even tragically. But, a tragedy of this magnitude, we can’t really imagine how traumatic it is for them and it’s continued in public view.”

The local volunteer group that organized a national virtual vigil with tributes and music a week after the tragedy has three events planned to mark the anniversary, including a live-streamed memorial service with in-person seating reserved for survivors and victims’ family members only, a commemorative walk through Victoria Park in Truro and a memorial marathon.

“We want the events to be reflective with not a lot of fanfare,” said Tiff Ward, chairwoman of the Nova Scotia Remembers Legacy Society. “We’d like the focus to be on the bright spot—the things we’re trying to do to make it better as a community and the great things about the people that passed away. We don’t want to remember how people died, we want to remember how they lived.”

Money raised from the marathon and through donations is going toward a permanent memorial site to replace the large shrine outside a former church. The shrine was dismantled in September after locals grew tired of vehicles stopping to gawk before driving along to nearby Portapique Beach Road where many of the victims lost their lives.

Ward, who lives 10 minutes from the tiny village and knew a number of those killed, says the society has taken stewardship of items at the makeshift memorial until a new home is found.

“We don’t know what the memorial will look like,” she said. “We’d like it to be somewhere central and accessible. We’re going to do our best to have the views of as many family members and as many community members represented.”

The not-for-profit group plans to enlist an outside, independent consultant with a trauma-informed background to help come up with a memorial, which could be a plaque in a field similar to the Swiss Air Memorial near Peggy’s Cove or a building with memorabilia, she says.

“We’ve been low-key in trying to work our way toward this and when the time is right we’ll start.”

Susan Marsh, executive director of the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia, says media coverage and the approaching anniversary on April 18 and 19 can trigger trauma for many.

To try and help people close to the tragedy cope, around a dozen psychologists are volunteering their time to offer free therapy sessions for two weeks before and two weeks after the anniversary.

Marsh says about 40 people made appointments for free therapy last year and calls started coming in immediately when the offer was made again this year.

“At the time and still now it makes psychologists and myself and other people feel good to be able to do something,” said Marsh, who takes all the calls and matches people up with a psychologist for virtual therapy sessions. “It’s the kind of thing you’re watching television and shaking your head and thinking, ‘Oh my god, is there anything I can do? I just can’t sit here.’ This is one thing psychologists can do and, although I’m not a psychologist, it’s part of what I can do, too.”

At the end of March, the commissioners leading a full public inquiry into the tragedy met in Truro with survivors and families of victims, with some participating in person and others through videoconference. Representatives from the Mass Casualty Commission’s mental health and legal counsel teams attended as observers.

“The meetings provided the commissioners an opportunity to express their condolences directly to those who accepted our invitation,” Sarah Young, spokesperson for the joint federal-provincial body, said in a statement. “Out of respect for their privacy, personal information shared in these meetings will be held in confidence.”

The commission, launched after an uproar over the initial plan by Ottawa and the province to conduct a far less comprehensive independent review, plans to hold a background briefing with reporters in the next few weeks regarding its work on the probe.

Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer representing survivors and the families in two proposed class action suits, says potentially valuable tips continue to come in that could help bolster the legal cases.

A Halifax firm led by retired detective Thomas Martin that specializes in death and criminal investigations has been enlisted to help.

“They’re doing a great job of reaching out to the public,” said McCulloch. “There are lots of people out there that have bits and pieces of information, big or small, that will help us, whether that’s come forward to the RCMP or not in their investigation or gone to the media.”

The ongoing investigation is at the centre of the efforts now, she says.

“We know that there’s oodles of information that the public has. Any piece that they could give us—something that they saw out of the corner of their eye or maybe they have a photo that doesn’t seem particularly significant to them—might actually be quite critical to us.”

McCulloch, who’s working on the case with fellow Patterson Law layer Rob Pineo and a team of about a half dozen, says they’re awaiting word on whether the case against the RCMP and province for allegedly failing to protect the safety and security of the public will be granted class action status.

They have yet to seek that status for a separate suit against the lone gunman’s estate, estimated to be worth more than $2 million. His former common law spouse and two others were added to the suit in early December with allegations they unlawfully provided ammunition.

McCullouch says the class action suits could take years.                                

“Both of them have a lot of complications, a lot of moving parts,” she said. “We’re optimistic that once the formalities of the class action are out of the way that we all have been doing work to prepare for the next steps in the meantime so we can hopefully move ahead at a reasonable pace.”

Nova Scotia Remembers Memorial Race, April 18, 8 a.m.

Walk or run a 5K, 10K, half or full marathon. Races (with limited capacity) will be held in and around Truro and Colchester or virtually on your own course, day and time. Races will end in Victoria Park. No spectators will be allowed at the start or finish lines. Spectators are welcome along the course route (maintain proper physical distancing). Register online at Race Roster.

Nova Scotia Remembers Commemorative Walk, April 11, 11 a.m.-April 18, noon

A quiet walk through an identified trail at Victoria Park in Truro will feature memorial sites honouring each victim. The walk will be reserved April 18, noon-2 p.m., for victims’ family members only. The Nova Scotia Remembers team will be on site to support anyone in need. Follow COVID-19 protocols in place.

Nova Scotia Remembers Memorial Ceremony, April 18, 3 p.m.

The first anniversary will be commemorated with a live stream at novascotiaremembers.com courtesy of CBC. Jeff Douglas will emcee the event, which will feature musicians, spiritual teachers and political leaders. In-person seating is reserved for victims’ family members only. Viewing sites will be set up at the bandstand at Victoria Park and communities throughout the Colchester region.