Andrew MacDonald’s quiet Sunday morning gardening was disrupted by dozens of vehicles passing by his house. It’s become the normal for people living in Portapique, N.S.
“We counted 50 cars in an hour in the morning,” he said.
“It’s really intrusive, and we feel like we’re in a bit of a fish bowl with everybody just looking at our lives, and for all the wrong reasons.
“I would love people to come to Portapique and visit, but not to come and gawk at the horror and tragedy.”
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Since it was the site of the beginning of a deadly shooting spree this spring, the small community and its roughly 100 residents have been under the microscope.
It was locked down for days following the April 18 and 19 rampage, in which 22 people were killed and buildings on five properties were burned.
Thirteen of the victims were Portapique residents, and four properties were burned on Portapique Beach Road and Orchard Beach Drive.
The RCMP held crime scenes for weeks as they worked to determine what happened.
Now, locals say the summer has seen a steady stream of traffic in and out of the quiet gravel roads where the tragedy began. Many have been coming to look at the sites of the house fires, which have been gravelled over.
“They drive right by a sign that says, ‘Please give us our privacy,’” MacDonald said.
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The signs were erected shortly after the shootings by the Municipality of the County of Colchester. Land owners on the privately-owned Orchard Beach Drive also hired security in late April to deter visitors.
People in the area are still dealing with what happened that weekend, and experts say individuals deal with that grief and trauma in different ways.
“Part of our grief is actually we’re also grieving the identity of our community,” said Serena Lewis, the bereavement, grief and wellness co-ordinator for the Northern Health Zone with Nova Scotia Health.
“Being known now as this area, this region in Canada where this tragedy has occurred, there’s definitely a discomfort with having that kind of identity. I think that for a lot of people, I hear them talking about the fact that it’s now uncomfortable that people are seeking this out as a site to come and visit.”
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A makeshift memorial has also drawn visitors almost every day this summer, according to locals.
The many flowers, stuffed animals, and tributes left at the corner of Portapique Beach Road and Highway 2 in the aftermath of the shooting were moved to a former church in May.
That memorial may also be coming down soon, according to area councillor Tom Taggart. Some have raised concerns about safety, with vehicles constantly stopped along the highway.
MacDonald says what began as a show of solidarity has soured for some.
“It felt really nice to have that within the first month or two, to know that the province was behind you and, you know, everybody was there to support you,” he said.
“But now it’s become just almost like a memorial or a shrine, which feels terrible. It’s almost like a trophy for the shooter.”
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He says he understands why some people appreciate the memorial and want to visit, but having people come to Portapique for this reason makes him relive the “fiery, horrible night” of April 18.
“If they were going to the beach or something, great, go park along the street, I wouldn’t care at all. (It would) be great if people wanted to come in and go to the beach,” MacDonald said.
Lewis says the removal of the memorial may also trigger “a tremendous sense of loss” for some. She says it’s important to listen to the community to understand what they need next.
“We’re still going to be in the throes of healing for a very long time. Out of sight will not be out of mind for the families, for the neighbours, for the kids that are going to be going back to school from these communities,” she said.
The province set up a help line for people to call after a series of tragedies this spring. The shock of what happened is now wearing off for many, Lewis says, and people are moving into a response phase.
“I think that within collective trauma, there can also be collective healing. And that’s the important part that I continue to remember,” she said.
Part of that is supporting students as they return to school in communities across Colchester County. For instance, Lewis says, there are discussions happening with community police officers who work in schools about whether they should be in plain clothes or driving marked cars as the year begins.
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“How do we continue to evolve and keep working through this process of grief, and really making sure we’re doing the absolute best we can to hear what people are saying and what they think their needs are at this time?” Lewis said.
And that’s exactly what MacDonald is hoping his fellow Nova Scotians will do.
“Although we understand we’re all hurting together, the healing process can’t be at the expense of the Portapique residents,” he said. “So we need, unfortunately, we need to be made a priority a little bit.”
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