After shooting, Nova Scotia finds ways to grieve under lockdown

Why We Wrote This

Suffering Canada's deadliest mass shooting was a hammer blow for a community already struggling with the coronavirus lockdown. But Nova Scotia is finding ways to grieve – and to persevere.

Moira Donovan
Ed McHugh (right) looks on as George Purcell affixes a Nova Scotia flag to Valery, the wooden heart they've set up on a cliff overlooking the highway running into Halifax, Nova Scotia, on April 22, 2020.

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The mass shooting in Nova Scotia that left 22 dead is the sort of tragedy one would expect to be followed by full churches and community halls – neighbors gathered to grieve together. But that's not happening, because the province is also grappling with one of the highest per-capita infection rates of COVID-19 in Canada.

Instead, the community's grief will be expressed in a virtual vigil over Facebook and myriad other ways as it improvises their shared consolation amid the pandemic.

Cees van den Hoek set up sheets of lattice outside Portapique’s former church, which he owns. He says people who want to express their condolences from afar can mail him cards, which he’ll put up at this “mail-in memorial.” A Facebook page created to combat isolation, called “Ultimate Online Nova Scotia Kitchen Party (Covid19 Edition),” has turned into a musical memorial of haunting tributes, including several with bagpipes.

It is this kind of act that Michael Ungar of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax says helps communities recover. “When you have communities where people know each other, they look out for each other. There’s a sense of neighborhood.”

The heart, perched on a bare cliff overlooking the highway outside Nova Scotia’s capital, Halifax, is called Valery. “It stands for courage, valor,” says Ed McHugh, who built the 11-foot-tall wooden symbol with friends.

They raised Valery, traced with red twinkle lights so it can be seen at night, last week. It was a tribute to front-line workers and a rallying symbol for the province, grappling with one of the highest per-capita infection rates of COVID-19 in Canada.

But this week, Mr. McHugh and his friend George Purcell climbed through the woods from his home, a bucket of ropes and zip ties in hand. They raised a blue and white Nova Scotia flag next to the heart as a double mark of hope after the Maritime province became the site of Canada’s largest-ever mass shooting across April 18 and 19.

“Our hearts are broken in this province,” Mr. McHugh says. “Anything to try and mend hearts back together – even for the 30 seconds when you’re driving on the highway behind my house – is important.”

The shooting took 22 lives in a 13-hour spree of terror across 16 crime scenes in which houses were torched and residents gunned down at random – something that would be terrifying anyplace, but especially rural Nova Scotia. And at a time of historic shutdown over COVID-19, when social distancing measures have shuttered schools, businesses, and borders, residents accustomed to keeping their front doors open have been forced to hunker down in their homes – the very place where some of the victims were killed.

“People are already anxious and out of their routines and distant from other people,” says Michael Ungar, director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “The way people cope with a mass shooting or other significant community stressors, is to get together. … People do things that reassert control and predictability over their lives. And of course, all of those processes, which are normally part of the healing and that coming to grips with this kind of tragedy, are largely being changed or not occurring at all.”

But this wind-swept province is used to hard times, and is leaning on centuries of perseverance and a culture of kinship to overcome the obstacles that the pandemic presents. On Friday, when churches and community halls would normally be full, when neighbors would be walking together holding candles or drinking coffee at one another’s kitchen tables, grief and mourning will be expressed in a virtual vigil over Facebook. And the community is improvising their shared consolation in myriad other ways.

“I really do feel that if I can play a small part, to be just a little shining moment,” says Mr. McHugh, “so that you can reflect and say, ‘You know what? There is still good in the world.’”

“Everyone’s all intertwined”

To get to Portapique, where the gunman began his spree Saturday night dressed as a Mountie in a faux police car – the motives are still unclear – one leaves Valery’s perch and continues for nearly an hour through the center of the province. Then the road turns west and follows the meandering shore of the Bay of Fundy where the world’s highest tide washes over broad beaches.

Decades of urban migration following a decline in industries such as forestry and farming have turned many of the once bustling towns around here into sleepy places dependent on an influx of summer visitors. Yet communities are tightknit, the list of victims revealing the social fabric of the community, with a school teacher, nurses, a retired volunteer fireman, and a Mountie among the dead.

Tim Krochak/Reuters
Denise Caume and her dog, Mimi, are seen in front of a makeshift memorial for the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting in Portapique, Nova Scotia, on April 23, 2020.

“Everyone’s all intertwined, one way or another,” says Cees van den Hoek, who grew up in the area. He owns Portapique’s former church and uses it as storage for the antique business he runs. But in the days after the shooting, he had another idea. “I thought about all the people at home that wanted to express their feelings, and I had probably the ideal spot to do it, in the heart of the community,” he says.

On Tuesday, Mr. van den Hoek set up 4-by-8 sheets of lattice, attached to fence posts outside the simple, white building. He says people who want to express their condolences from afar – or who can’t come near, because of social distancing – can mail him cards, which he’ll put up at this “mail-in memorial.”

“It just gives people a little outlet, to help them deal with what they’re going through now.”

It is this kind of act that Dr. Ungar, who authored “Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success,” says helps communities recover. And despite the trauma that Nova Scotia is facing, from isolation, global uncertainty, economic anxiety, and now the kind of trigger event that upturns any community, he says this one can lean on its resilience built over decades.

“When you have communities where people know each other, they look out for each other. There’s a sense of neighborhood,” he says. “Those communities tend to do better because those networks are already present.”

He says they’ll reassert their collective identity – which is already on minds here.

Anita MacLellan has been helping with the “Colchester – Supporting Our Communities” Facebook page that is hosting Friday’s vigil. But she’s also focused forward. For the past four years, she’s served on the board of the Cliffs of Fundy Aspiring Geopark, which has been working toward UNESCO Global Geopark status. That decision was supposed to come this spring, but will be delayed because of the pandemic.

If and when they start receiving visitors, Ms. MacLellan says it’ll be an opportunity to present themselves beyond this tragedy. “This story will remain a part of our history. But we’re going to have to work extra hard at getting the word out there, that this is not who we are.”

On Sunday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil spoke in similar terms. “It may change us a little, but it cannot define us,” he told the province.

“Good old-fashioned values”

For now, residents are working toward redefining what it means to overcome tragedy, when the playbook has changed. As the head of the Debert and Area Community Association, Marie Benoit would normally be opening her doors, as she did when an employee of the municipality was killed in a car crash and Ms. Benoit leaped into action with a fundraiser for her family.

But following the mass shooting, in which the perpetrator shot two people in Debert, Ms. Benoit can’t organize a gathering or events to raise money for victims’ families.

So they are improvising instead. On Monday she participated in a candlelight vigil with her family. As many locals lit flames, a brilliant sunset, the kind they haven’t seen for years, lit the sky. A Facebook page called “Ultimate Online Nova Scotia Kitchen Party (Covid19 Edition)” that was created to combat isolation has turned into a musical memorial of haunting tributes, including several with bagpipes. (One of the victims of the shooting, a teen killed with her parents in their home, had played the fiddle on the page in late March.)

Back on the highway to Halifax, Mr. McHugh and Mr. Purcell affix their flag firmly to a pole with zip ties to protect against the wind. Mr. Purcell climbs onto the heart to attach the pole. “Don’t let me down now, Valery,” he says.

The two have scarcely stood back to examine their work when horns started to sound from cars passing below. Mr. McHugh waves.

“We’re a province that still has many good old-fashioned values. You know, take care of your neighbor, look out for each other, be kind,” he says. “There’s still a lot of that in this province. And my goodness, I hope we never lose it.”

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