OTTAWA: The death toll from a weekend killing spree in Canada's Nova Scotia province has risen to 23, police said on Tuesday (Apr 21), after remains were found in burnt out homes and vehicles.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said new human remains were discovered in homes and vehicles set ablaze by the suspect during the weekend killing spree in Nova Scotia.
"We believe there to be 23 victims, including a 17-year-old (girl). All other victims are adults, both men and women," the RCMP said in a statement.
"We have recovered remains from some of the locations of the fires," it said, noting that at least five homes and buildings, as well as vehicles, had been lit on fire by the gunman.
The RCMP did not specify if the shooter, who died in an exchange of gunfire with police, was among those counted in the death toll. The police could not be immediately reached for clarification.
The gunman, identified as 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, launched his rampage late Saturday in the seaside village of Portapique.
He died about 14 hours later after being shot by police at a gas station outside Halifax, 100km away.
"Some of the victims were known to Gabriel Wortman and were targeted while others were not known to the suspect," the RCMP said.
Among the victims identified were a young father, a woman who twice previously beat cancer, a pregnant woman, a veteran RCMP constable, a nurse, an elementary school teacher, prison guards and a retired firefighter.
Among the dead were also two elderly couples who had recently retired and moved from Toronto - Canada's largest metropolis - into cottages in the quiet Nova Scotia towns.
Nurse Kristen Beaton was killed while working, according to a GoFundMe set up in her name. Beaton's husband, Nick, told reporters he warned his wife about the presence of an active shooter just before she was killed.
She was pregnant with the couple's second child.
"We never got the chance to tell family," he said. "We were going to tell them this week, she was going on vacation."
The assailant's motive was still a mystery. Media reports said Wortman was a denturist who owned clinics in Halifax and Dartmouth that were closed under the pandemic lockdown.
The shooter was also reportedly obsessed with policing, having refurbished several old squad cars, and struggled with alcoholism.
In an update on their investigation, police said Wortman wore an "authentic police uniform" during the shootings but that the vehicle he drove from town to town was a "replica" police car, both of which aided his easy movement during his 13-hour spree.
A search for evidence, they added, was ongoing at 16 locations in the towns of Portapique, Wentworth, Debert, Shubenacadie, Milford and Enfield.
The RCMP has been criticised for not alerting the public to the presence of an active shooter via the province's emergency alert system and instead relying on its Twitter account, which had fewer than 91,000 followers at the time.
Nova Scotia RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather told reporters on Monday the force felt it was a "superior way to communicate" the threat in the community, but said the force would look into the matter.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said the province had not received a request from police for an emergency alert to be sent out. McNeil said the military was assisting in the RCMP's investigation.
No details have been released about the type of gun used by Wortman or how it was obtained.
Bringing in stricter gun control measures was an election promise of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the October 2019 federal election, and he told reporters on Tuesday the legislation had been "almost ready to go" when the COVID-19 crisis hit.
"The tragedy in Nova Scotia simply reinforces and underlines how important it is for us to continue to move forward on strengthening gun control in this country," Trudeau said. "We will do that at the appropriate time."
"WE ARE ALL NOVA SCOTIANS"
Queen Elizabeth II said she and Prince Philip were "deeply saddened by the appalling events in Nova Scotia."
The monarch, Canada's head of state, also paid tribute to the RCMP officers - one of whom died - and others who "selflessly responded to these devastating attacks."
Across Canada, flags flew at half-mast, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proclaimed: "Today we are all Nova Scotians."
He recounted how members of his RCMP security detail knew and remembered fondly Constable Heidi Stevenson, who was killed while responding to the shootings.
"It really goes to show just how tightly knit not just the RCMP is as a force, but how close we are as a country," Trudeau said.
A "virtual vigil" was planned for Friday evening, but several have already popped up on social media.
Residents are unable to gather for in-person services due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings.
A plane's flight path - shown on tracker website FlightAware - marked a heart shape over the Atlantic coast towns in a sign of mourning.
"I wanted to reach out to the community. I wanted to be there with them. I wanted to tell them that I love them," pilot Dimitri Neonakis told reporters.