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N.S. mass shooting: how gun smuggling happened, and the inquiry’s call for reforms

A decade before a Nova Scotia man used smuggled guns to murder 22 people in the province in 2020, police information systems had labelled him as a firearms risk.

Yet those records never found their way to the Canada Border Services Agency, and they didn’t prevent the mass shooter from obtaining a Nexus card — granting him status as a low-risk traveller.

The final report of the public inquiry into Canada’s worst mass shooting, released last week, details troubling breakdowns in information sharing and recommends reforms to develop “fully interoperable systems” for exchanging records between police and the federal border agency.

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The report also describes how red flags about the killer didn’t lead to detection of his illegal activities during any of his 21 border crossings between 2016 and the April 18-19, 2020, killings.

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It was during that time that Gabriel Wortman — a wealthy, 51-year-old denture maker — is believed to have smuggled three semi-automatic guns through Woodstock, N.B. Two were handguns he obtained from a friend in Houlton, Maine, and the third was a rifle he bought after spotting it at a gun show in Maine.

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However, after Wortman threatened to kill his father in 2010, a notable warning went undetected.

After the death threat, Halifax police generated a report on Wortman that included a reference to him as “Firearms Interest to Police.” That was attached to a report in the Canadian Police Information Centre _ which intelligence officers with the border agency were authorized to access. The police information centre, operated by the RCMP, is the national information sharing system that links law enforcement and other public safety agencies.

The inquiry’s final report says the document stated in capital letters, “This person may be of interest to firearms officers.”

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Yet when Wortman applied for and received his Nexus card in 2015, the border agency “did not have access” to the firearms warning, the report says. It also says the border agency didn’t have a record of a 2011 Nova Scotia police intelligence report indicating that Wortman had said he wanted to kill police officers.

Through the summer of 2016, a “lookout” was placed on Wortman by the border agency suggesting he was undervaluing motorcycles he bought in Florida. The inquiry report says he was pulled aside for more detailed examinations at the border on seven occasions as a result, but no seizures occurred.

The inquiry said despite the 2016 “lookout” and an earlier one in 2010 on suspicion of drug activity, Wortman kept his Nexus status. The border service’s website says Nexus is reserved for “trusted travellers” who are deemed “low-risk.” Though it doesn’t exempt holders from secondary border searches, it gives them a fast track at ports of entry.

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The inquiry found that the inability of the border agency to access the 2010 and 2011 red flags about Wortman when they processed his Nexus application in 2015 “clearly indicates there are gaps in information and intelligence sharing between law enforcement and the CBSA.”

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Kat Owens, the project director of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund — which participated in the inquiry — said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the CBSA “should have had additional knowledge about the perpetrator when assessing his application for a Nexus card.”

“It’s important CBSA have information about potential possession of firearms,” she said.

The border agency cancelled an interview it had agreed to provide to The Canadian Press with its vice-president of intelligence and enforcement and instead sent written comments.

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The agency said it has reviewed the inquiry’s recommendations and is “working with our partners in Canada and internationally to examine the possibility of increasing our collaborative frameworks to facilitate the sharing of information and records among law enforcement agencies.”

Karine Martel, a spokeswoman, said CBSA intelligence officers have had access to the “Firearms Interest to Police” reports since 2007, and since June 2022, the agency’s immigration enforcement officers, criminal investigators and border officers have also had access.

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However, she wrote, employees who screen for Nexus cards still aren’t allowed access to the firearms warning because “it would not be appropriate under current legislation and rules.”

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The mass shooting inquiry’s final report cites a 2020 border agency assessment that says that before the killings, there was “minimal intelligence … about firearms smuggling in Atlantic Canada because it was a ‘lower tiered priority’ for the CBSA.”

It also noted the agency had ended the practice of having its own regional intelligence position in the years before the mass killing, even though these officers were key resources when it comes to firearms smuggling from the United States.

The final report noted that special joint U.S.-Canadian border enforcement teams had been set up across the country, but a unit in New Brunswick was disbanded in 2018, and no reason was provided to the commission.

The border agency said in an email the position of regional intelligence officer was reinstated in the Atlantic region in late 2021.

It also said it has taken other steps to strengthen information sharing, “while balancing privacy and Charter rights,” including regular meetings with U.S. border agency officials and the creation of a special task force “to combat the threat posed by smuggled firearms.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2023.

&copy 2023 The Canadian Press

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