Creating permanent memorial to Nova Scotia mass shooting victims a delicate task

Creating a memorial for those killed in Nova Scotia's mass shooting is a delicate task at a time when families continue to grieve and communities are reluctant to revisit horror, say volunteers working on the project.

"We're just getting started really. It's quite a process," Cees van den Hoek, a board member of the Nova Scotia Remembers Legacy Society, said in an interview Thursday.

The local antique dealer was standing in front of a former church he owns in Portapique, where the first impromptu arrangements of flowers, paper hearts and laminated photos were placed after the deaths last April 18-19. The tributes were removed in September, with some being passed on to families.

Van den Hoek was taking a moment from helping organize a run that will start nearby, one year to the day after the shootings began -- an initial step toward raising money for a permanent site.

"It would be a nice, quiet and secluded place, clean and well kept with some gardens, nicely landscaped and with little corners where you can be by yourself," he said. He first became involved immediately after the mass shooting as part of a group of local citizens who created a tribute video, and that group gradually formed into the non-profit legacy society.

This week, as the first anniversary of the 13-hour rampage by a gunman disguised as an RCMP officer approaches, the remembrances are less formal.

Beginning Sunday, the society has invited people to take a quiet walk through a wooded trail at Victoria Park in Truro to pay tribute to the 22 people killed, including a pregnant nurse who was murdered in her car about 20 kilometres from the park.

On the morning of April 18, a closed service for families is planned in Truro, with broadcasters livestreaming the event.

In a separate event, some family members have said they will be participating in a peaceful march to the Bible Hill, N.S., RCMP headquarters to express their concerns over the federal police force's handling of the case. The Mounties have declined all comment, citing an upcoming public inquiry into the shootings.

Jenny Kierstead, the sister of Lisa McCully -- a neighbour of the gunman who was among the first killed in Portapique -- said in a recent interview she hopes a formal memorial site will provide some solace in the years to come.

The 48-year-old Halifax resident, who is the chairwoman of the society's anniversary committee, said after a period of numbness and denial passed, the loss has been hitting harder in recent weeks.

"It's like a veil has been lifted and reality revealed, and I'd say the last few months have been the hardest because of that," she said.

"Six months ago I said to myself I can either succumb to this darkness or I could reach for the light," she said, referring to why she started working on the memorial project.

Van den Hoek said site selection will have to be approached with caution and include consultation carried out by third parties who have experience dealing with grief. "It's so emotional and so many people are in so many stages of grief. This will probably take a few years," he said.

Tom Taggart, a municipal councillor who represents the Portapique area, said local residents don't want a memorial site too close to the initial scenes of shooting and arson.

"It doesn't mean they don't want a respectful memorial, but it needs to be properly sited and properly managed for sure. They don't want their little community to become a tourist destination," Taggart said in an interview last week.

"They don't want Portapique to be known for this."

Joy Laking, a painter who lives across the river from the scenes of violence, was friends with three of those who died and said she still feels depressed by the events of a year ago. She said in an interview at her Portapique studio that it's time to "think outside the box" about a memorial, suggesting an oceanside park where people can go on quiet walks to remember the victims.

"In my opinion shoreline access would be better than any monument," Laking said. "I'm not one for big, solid memorials. I think just plant a tree."

Heather Sparling, a professor of ethnomusicology at Cape Breton University who researches memorial sites, said it's not uncommon for memorials to take time after incidents such as mass shootings -- and in the early years raw emotions may slow things down.

She notes plans to memorialize the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., where 26 died, are just coming to fruition -- with a proposal going forward for a two-hectare site that includes a nature walk to a reflection pool, with a sycamore tree growing at the centre.

"Formal memorialization has always been challenging, because there are always questions about who will be memorialized and where it goes," she said.

Ideas for memorial sites that include more active spaces such as gardens, bandstands, and walking labyrinths -- which Kierstead says the legacy society's committee is considering -- are all becoming more common, Sparling said.

"My sense is that when somebody dies who we love, our greatest fear is that person's memory is erased from the Earth, and we desire ... that their legacy lives on," she said.

"Creating a space where there's a feeling something beautiful and meaningful has been left for others to use, this is something I'm noticing more and more."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2021.