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There is no national RCMP policy on the use of the Alert Ready system

So Global News — and only Global News, for some reason — last night reported that RCMP spokesperson Corporal Caroline Duval stated, “There is currently no national RCMP policy on the use of the national Alert Ready system.”

This just flabbergasted me!

Is there a more egregious example of mixed-up priorities and putting the cart before the horse?! It seems that someone invented a system — the ability to send alerts to all cell phones (and radios and TVs) — without the supreme national police agency who might be empowered to use it even having a use for it! Think about it: Nobody (presumably at the RCMP) apparently said, “We need to have a system to alert the public in case of an emergency.” What someone else apparently said was, “Hey! Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to spam the entire population of a country all in one go?!” Someone else said yes, invented it, then sat around waiting for the authorities to come to them and tell that they needed to use it. (Yes, of course I’m simplifying all that, but that seems to be how to boil it down as far as the RCMP are concerned!)

The Global article linked to above is full of the excuses we’ve heard from the RCMP in the last ten days, some of which are covered in my earlier article. It also points out something of which I didn’t realise the full import, that being that while the Nova Scotia RCMP was allegedly “in the process of preparing an alert” for many hours, they had, in fact, issued multiple alerts (over a dozen) already via Twitter. Which one of those alerts was not suitable to send via the Alert Ready system, slightly modified if necessary?

Old excuses offered include that it was a “fluid” and “quickly-evolving” situation. I get that, and I said before that I don’t envy anyone having to deal with that situation. However, this is exactly why organisations such as the RCMP have a command and control structure and support personnel. A competent incident commander should have the ability to have an overview of the incident, and make decisions accordingly. Whoever was in command of this incident didn’t apparently have that ability. And apparently, neither did anyone else among the support personnel have the presence of mind to complement the officers on the ground dealing with death, blood, bodies and fire, by helping with administrative decisions removed from those immediate circumstances.

A new excuse offered in the article is that “[t]he [RCMP] system is ‘regional by design’ [Dan Henstra of the University of Waterloo] because of the different threats each province faces …. It’s also tough to impose policies that apply across the entire country, even for the RCMP, which has a clear chain of command.” I’ll admit I’m not an expert on the RCMP chain of command, and I have to admit that it’s refreshing to see an authoritarian paramilitary organisation not impose policies on Nova Scotian police officers (just for example) that only make sense in Yukon, but really? Are you telling Canadians that there are no forward-thinking, bright minds at RCMP HQ that think/thought far enough ahead about a day on which an alert might have to be issued on a provincial/territorial/divisional or possibly even national level, and come up with at least a vague guideline on why and how such an alert might be decided on? If so, what exactly is the point of having a “national” police force?!

There is also finger pointing between Nova Scotia’s Emergency Management Office and the RCMP. Premier Stephen McNeil has stated “that emergency management staff were brought in (‘on their own accord‘) [on Saturday night] specifically for the purpose of issuing an alert about the shooting, but that no request was ever made by the RCMP.” (Quote is of the article.) This seems credible, and McNeil clearly knows which way the wind is blowing on this issue. Think about it; the EMO knew that an alert should be sent out, and was ready and waiting to send that alert (not sure how many staff are required to tap a “send” button, but not just any yahoo should be able to do so), and yet the RCMP dithered. The RCMP claim that “in general, standard operating procedures for when to use the emergency alert system would be set up through the provincial and territorial emergency management officials [but] Nova Scotia’s Emergency Management Office [did not provide specific details (to Global News) on the question of] if it has protocols in place for when the RCMP and other law enforcement agencies should issue an emergency alert.” So it does seem that in general there is some blame to be shared here between the RCMP and Nova Scotia’s EMO, but who was actually in charge of the situation on 18 and 19 April? It was the RCMP, not the EMO.

Again addressing the disastrous decision to use Twitter, “The RCMP … said it used Twitter and not the emergency alert system because it is their ‘normal method’ of communicating with the public and because it is a better way for sharing information about a quickly-evolving situation. [What, exactly, is “normal” about the country’s biggest mass murder, and how, exactly, is it better than an emergency alert system designed for exactly this type of emergency?!] ‘We have relied on [Twitter] because of the instantaneous manner that we can communicate. We have thousands of followers in Nova Scotia and felt that it was a superior way to communicate this ongoing threat,’ said RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather a day after the shootings.” (Emphasis mine.) I addressed their “thousands” of followers previously — the equivalent of whispering/tweeting “Psst, fire” to about 5000 random people inconsistently scattered around Rogers Centre in Toronto, and then expecting the stadium to empty immediately in an orderly manner. (With respect to the reference to “thousands of followers”, I’m reminded of Dr. Evil laughably holding the world hostage for “one million dollars” in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.) Give me a fucking break! To quote a CBC article, “… in communities plagued by spotty internet [sic] service and heavily populated with seniors who might not use Twitter, some people are asking why the province did not use its emergency alert system to issue text messages to cellphones [and radios and TVs] advising people of what was happening and to stay inside.”

Also overlooked by the RCMP, notwithstanding vagaries in cell phone technology there is nothing more “instantaneous” than an emergency alert that won’t shut up until you attend to it. Even if you are following their Twitter account, you could go a whole day without noticing their tweet, even if your do have Twitter installed on your phone!

I mean, it was even a Sunday in the middle of a pandemic! Staying at home and locking the doors wouldn’t even have been a massive inconvenience for much of the population!

What happened here was a massive failure to “serve and protect” the public. (I realise that’s an American pop culture police motto, but there’s a reason it’s used in pop culture.) I have no doubt that, as a result of Canadians and Nova Scotians being outraged at this failure, questions will be asked and answered. I also agree that the RCMP needs to focus on a thorough investigation of the incident itself, for now, but this question does need to be asked now so that it can be answered later. But will it be answered? And will someone take responsibility and fall on their sword? Or will it be dismissed and swept under the rug? And even if guidelines come out of this, they will be too little too late.

I will conclude this editorial with some additional quotes from various Global and CBC articles that stand out on their own. But first, here’s the emergency message I would have sent out late on 18 April or very early on 19 April:

Stay inside until further notice. Gunman fleeing police is armed and dangerous. Shelter in place and lock your doors. This message will be updated in X minutes/hours.


There is ‘no national RCMP policy’ for when emergency alerts should be issued, 28 April 2020

… the RCMP sent out more than a dozen tweets, advising the public to stay inside and providing information about Wortman’s appearance and whereabouts.

There was an active shooter. Why didn’t Nova Scotia send an emergency alert?, 21 April 2020

[Tony] Gibbs is also concerned by how he and his wife found out about the shooter: a call from their neighbour, rather than a provincewide alert.

Leather was asked twice to explain why the province’s alert system, which experts say uses radio, television and cellular networks to warn residents of serious threats to health and safety, including “active law enforcement responses,” wasn’t used.

The RCMP should use all tools at its disposal, Dan Henstra, an expert in emergency preparedness at the University of Waterloo, said. This includes the Alert Ready system, which, Henstra said, has proven highly effective in communicating threats to the public. … “It is a little surprising that the RCMP didn’t use the (alert) system, one purpose of which is to notify residents about ‘civil emergencies,” he said.

N.S. premier not ready to question if a public alert should have been issued about gunman, 20 April 2020

Heather Matthews, a resident of Wentworth, N.S., about 140 kilometres north of Halifax, believes such an alert would have saved her friend and neighbour, Lillian Campbell Hyslop, and possibly others. Hyslop was shot and killed while out for a walk Sunday morning.

“If we were all given that security alert for Northern Nova Scotians to lock your doors, she would have been home,” Matthews said in a telephone interview. “She would have been safe in her house. She wouldn’t have gone out for a walk.”

Matthews, who was also out walking with her husband, David, at about the same time, believes they heard a gun shot while they were out. Normally, they walk along the main road but decided to take a different path yesterday. It was only after the couple returned home that they learned what was happening because friends were calling to tell them to stay in and lock their doors.

Questions emerge about RCMP’s failure to send emergency alert on gunman’s rampage, 21 April 2020

[Lillian Campbell] Hyslop was killed Sunday morning in the Wentworth area, roughly eight hours after the shooter had killed people in Portapique, a community 40 kilometres to the south.

Matthews said she wishes her friend Hyslop, a frequent walker along the roads in Wentworth Valley, had known about the shooter before she went for her usual stroll that morning.

“I understand that RCMP put it out on Twitter. But not everybody is on Twitter, not everybody has Facebook, not everybody has the internet [sic], but we all have TVs, radio and a phone. There should have been some other way of notifying these people that they should have been inside safe,” Matthews told CBC News.

Central and northern Nova Scotia is a largely rural area where internet [sic] service is spotty and Twitter use is not widespread.

Cumberland-Colchester MP Lenore Zann, who represents the area, said Monday many of her constituents “prefer Facebook” to Twitter.

Debi Atkinson is another friend of Hyslop’s from Wentworth. She told CBC Radio’s As It Happens Tuesday that most residents of their village feel like they were left in the dark by police.

“Everybody’s feelings about the whole thing was, why wasn’t there an amber alert? We went into this blind,” she said. “Out of all our friends, I don’t know anybody that follows Twitter, that has a Twitter account.

McNeil said the province’s Emergency Management Office had been activated and technicians were brought in Saturday to send such an alert — but the request never came from the Mounties.

Inexplicable lack of alert of a killer on the loose in Nova Scotia

Fake RCMP cruiser used by mass shooter in Nova Scotia.

Fake RCMP cruiser used by mass shooter in Nova Scotia

It was a week ago that Canada’s worst mass shooting started in Portapique, Nova Scotia. One man spent over thirteen hours murdering people (many of them apparently unknown to him and just out and about their business) and burning down houses around the province. And yet, at no point did the Royal Canadian Mounted Police issue an alert to the residents of Nova Scotia.

It is unfathomable to me, and many others, that they did not do so. Speaking on behalf of the Nova Scotia RCMP, Chief Superintendent Chris Leather (the Criminal Operations Officer for the Nova Scotia RCMP) offered the excuse that “We were in the process of preparing an alert” when the police shot and killed the suspect, Gabriel Wortman. Thirteen hours after the rampage started, they were still “in the process of preparing an alert” that should have taken minutes to prepare! This despite the fact that the provincial agency responsible for sending those alerts had reached out to the RCMP and basically begged (my word) to send an alert. This too is unfathomable and inexcusable to me.

Late on the Saturday night the police started receiving emergency calls and came across multiple crime scenes with thirteen dead bodies, a shot and injured victim (who had information on his assailant, the shooter), and burning homes … and no suspect. I don’t envy anyone in that situation, civilian or police officer, but my god, you already know you have a crime of unimaginable magnitude in peacetime on your hands, and no fucking suspect in sight, in custody or anywhere to be found! The alert should have been sent out there and then, never mind hours later when they received credible evidence that the perp was driving a fake police car and dressed in a police uniform!

And really, there are just no polite words in my vocabulary to address the moronic use of Twitter as the only mode of communication with the public. I know this is the 21st century, but Twitter is at best a niche mode of communication — a large niche I will admit, but niche nevertheless. I and many others have no need for it, never mind needing it enough to have it on my phone; in fact, I don’t personally know anyone who uses it, especially for sending or posting messages. Despite working in the tech industry I only have a largely abandoned Twitter account for my business (which I only ever used to transmit, not receive), and as of this writing only about 11 percent of the Nova Scotian population follow the Nova Scotia RCMP’s Twitter account (the introduction to which features a dead link). At the time of this crime I think it was less than 9 percent. Even so, that 9 or 11 percent likely includes many who don’t live in Nova Scotia (especially now), and an even smaller percentage of the largely retired population in and around Portapique would be followers.

I fully agree with anyone who says that the emergency alert system should not be overused — except those morons in recent months who have complained about Amber Alerts. Nobody in their right mind thinks that the average cop on the beat should be able to access that system directly. But higher echelons — if not the highest echelon — of the Nova Scotia RCMP should have been roused out of their beds well before midnight, and made the decision to alert the public to an armed and dangerous mass murderer being on the loose in the province. There should be no need to “prepare” anything; there should be a template ready to go. Someone in the office — not at the scene — at the RCMP should have already, within minutes, had the text of the message prepared for immediate approval. I know very well that mass messages are sometimes easily misunderstood by the recipients if they’re unexpected, but that’s a small price to be paid to save lives and all the more reason to have a previously composed and vetted template ready to go.

What this boils down to is that if the alert had been issued within an hour of the above realisation — that numerous shooting deaths had occurred and that no suspect had been apprehended — quite possibly nine lives could have been saved, including that of Constable Heidi Stevenson. As it turns out, she is the only hero among the RCMP in this incident, apparently putting her life on the line in what I can only surmise was an intentional head-on collision with Wortman’s fake RCMP cruiser, and then losing it in an apparent gun battle with him.

Perhaps a public enquiry is needed as some have been calling for, and it can address the negligence involved in not sending an alert, but a public enquiry is not needed on that point alone. It simply requires someone in the RCMP with big enough balls, male or female, to step forward and admit that the RCMP fucked up big time, and apologise … and then resign, or be demoted and/or fired.

But is there enough decency in the RCMP to do that, in memory of the victims of the killer, and in deference to their surviving families?

I am a supporter of terrorists and other nasty people

I’m a little behind the eight ball, as this is now “old news”, but this week I donated money to Greenpeace Canada for the first time in my life. Why? Well, I’ll explain it this way: When you donate to Greenpeace online they have a field on the donation form that asks why you’re motivated to donate to them. This is what I filled in: “Stephen Harper says you’re terrorists” (not to mention funded by foreign money).

Way to go Stevie. Nothing like using hyperbole to convince people to support those not on your side of what should be a reasoned debate. Maybe you should take a lesson from … uh, yourself.

In other vilify-your-opponent news, there’s your friendly neighbourhood defender against the bogeyman, Vic Toews, Canadian Minister of Public Safety. Didn’t he learn anything from George Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” gaffe? (Read or watch George; read or watch Vic.) Really, any thinking person on either side of any argument rejects this kind of useless rhetoric, and some courageous people (like Margaret Wente) have the guts to come right out and say it.

Mr. Toews also took to the pages of the Asian Pacific Post in a full-page editorial that may have been preaching to a choir that probably thinks Canada is too soft on crime anyway, given the regimes in place where many of the readers of that publication originate. (Incidentally, the online version appears to be a slightly reduced version of the printed one.) He also makes the disingenuous comparison of private data (what he calls “basic subscription data”) to “the modern equivalent of phonebook [sic] information”. Mr. Toews, I can’t help but wonder if your personal home phone number is listed in your local telephone directory. Is it? Oh, it’s unlisted? You mean, you want it to be private?! What a radical concept!

A much more reasoned response to Toews’ rhetoric comes in the form of an editorial by John Ibbitson (‘With us or with the child pornographers’ doesn’t cut it, Mr. Toews). He writes:

Privacy commissioners in Ottawa and the provinces will not like being called such vile names. … There are powerful arguments on both sides. None of us want to handicap police in their efforts to track those who would defraud us, harm children or plot acts of terror. But we must also be wary of granting the state new powers that could restrict the sovereignty of citizens. … should the state be allowed to have new powers to know who we are on the web — in effect, to register our online identities — without a judicial warrant or even our knowledge or consent?

But Yoni Goldstein also makes half a point in his editorial (or is it a satire piece?) Stop Pretending to Care About Privacy. He contends that the general public is hypocritical and has already given up any notion of privacy in”tweeting” and “facebooking” the minutiae of their lives, and using Gmail. (Actually, I’ll give him two-thirds of a point, as he also validly points out the hypocrisy of people who wail about their privacy being violated, all while keeping rags like the National Enquirer and websites like TMZ in business so that they can see the nipples and dead bodies of celebrities.) However, he conveniently doesn’t mention things like monitoring private communications like email, instant messaging, voice and video.

Sometimes it takes a cartoon to really get the point across, and so I present these two. The first refers to Bill C-51 (the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century (IP21C) Act, also here), a predecessor to the current Bill C-30 (previously known by its short title Lawful Access Act, tendentiously renamed to Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act to make sure that opponents of the bill are aware that they are supporters of child pornographers), and plays on the well-worn (but completely bogus) argument that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about. The second is clever and speaks for itself.

The innocent have nothing to fear.

The innocent have nothing to fear.

Toews must be an online predator.

Toews must be an online predator.


Update, 15 March 2012: This post was getting long enough, so I had to cut it off somewhere. However, if your impression of “Anonymous” is that they are a bunch of rogue geeks/nerds that are kinda mostly harmless, but they could get out of hand and bring down civilisation as we know it at any moment, you need to read How I learned to stop worrying and love Anonymous.

And probably the most succinct summary I’ve read about why Bill C-30 is bad comes from Ivor Tossell, who writes (in Toews’s ‘child pornographers’ gaffe aside, Bill C-30 has real dangers):

Contrary to what you might have heard, the new bill, C-30, doesn’t invite police to monitor your every online move without a warrant. It does, however, require Internet companies — loosely defined — to cough up your name, Internet protocol address and a few other identifiers if the police ask for them, even without a warrant. This means that the police could conceivably collect a pseudonym you’ve been using to comment on websites, present it to the relevant company, and say, “Who is this person?”

By trading pseudonyms for IP addresses, then IP addresses for real names and addresses, and repeating the process, police could get a pretty clear picture of what you’ve been up to online.

So yeah, without a warrant the cops can “only” get “the modern equivalent of phonebook information”, but to extend that analogy, they can then follow you from your home to see where you work and with whom you socialise, they can peek in your windows to see your taste in the art hanging on your walls (and which one your safe is hiding behind), they can rifle through your garbage and the mail in your mail box, and on the list goes, and all without a warrant just because they managed to obtain your “phonebook information”. In the online world — again, all without a warrant — they can now see that you gripe about (or are blowing the whistle on) your employer, they can see that you have a personal advert on that dating site that caters to cheating spouses, they can see that you regularly bid on and buy old Barbie dolls on eBay (you big tough biker guy you), and so on. This is all personal information that is ripe for abuse in the wrong hands, and that includes the hands of the police.

Now maybe you and I “have nothing to fear” (see cartoon above) or even be just a little bit embarrassed about, but these things violate your privacy, plain and simple, and we should all fear that.