Honour song for the dead: Mi’kma’ki mourns as death toll rises in shooting spree’s aftermath

Angel Moore and Brett Forester

Cpl. De-Anne Sack woke up on Sunday and found herself in a nightmare.

The Mi’kmaw RCMP officer felt helpless and speechless upon learning “the tragic news” that a fellow officer was one of at least 19 people dead after a gunman’s rampage shook 16 different locations across northern and central parts of Nova Scotia.

“We’re in a time of crisis and we’re in this pandemic and then this happens. I don’t even have the words. I felt lost, I felt empty, I felt numb,” she said.

Sack, a member of Sipekne’katik First Nation, was “a sister and a colleague” of Cst. Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year RCMP veteran who was killed while responding to the shooting.

“She really embraced our communities, and as a female member she brought those attributes of kindness, compassion, caring and sincere interest in our communities,” Sack said of her colleague’s work in local Mi’kmaw communities.

“As the day progressed and the tragedies continued to unfold it was like a bad nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from. And you look at the totality of the loss of so many lives in Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia) – it was so overwhelming. I had lump in my throat all day and a pit in my stomach.”

Speaking with APTN News from her home in Truro, which is 44 kilometres east of Portapique where the rampage began, Sack said she decided to pay respects to the dead with a traditional Mi’kmaw honour song.

So she called the drum-keeper for the local Eastern Eagle singers and soon they all gathered in ceremony outside the local RCMP detachment in Sipekne’katik.

“I just had a vision: we had to go pay tribute to the members and we just rallied up at the Indian Brook detachment and we gave thanks to them and the members that are out there working and the comrade that’s in spirit world, making her journey to spirit world.”

Another community member stopped to film the gathering. Sack didn’t know the video, which went viral on social media with close to 800 shares and 21,000 views, was being broadcast live.

“Everybody in Mi’kma’ki, which is Nova Scotia, is affected by what took place yesterday. Everyone. It rattled everybody to the core, especially our members who are out there working and are still working hard at it to piece things together.”

“What came to mind was to honour the people that had passed and crossed into spirit world as a result of the tragic events, but also to honour and recognize and pay tribute to the members that are out there working in our communities, and they truly go above and beyond, and to the people in all the other communities that suffered losses and to help them with their grief in some small role.”

(Police released this picture of the gunman’s “mock police car,” differentiated only by the circled number, which they said helped him avoid detection. Photo: RCMP in Nova Scotia)

RCMP explained at a press conference on Monday that the current death toll of 19, which includes the gunman, is expected to rise as the investigation proceeds.

Police are confident they have identified all 16 crime scenes currently under investigation, Chief Supt. Chris Leather explained.

“However, we’ve been unable to fully examine the crime scenes because, for instance, we have had five structure fires, most of those being residences, and we believe there may be victims still within the remains of those homes which burnt to the ground. So that part of the investigation is still very much ongoing,” he said.

Leather said the gunman, who has been identified as 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, avoided early detection because he impersonated a police officer. The subject drove a “mock police car” nearly identical to a real police vehicle and wore either actual police uniforms or “very good facsimiles.”

Details continue to emerge about the 18 people who police have confirmed were killed.

These include “a nurse, a teacher, correction officers, a serving police officer, parents, neighbours and friends,” Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair said in Ottawa.

“The full scope of this tragedy and the 18 innocent lives that were lost will be remembered throughout Canada’s history.”