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Family and friends of victims attend a march demanding an inquiry into the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia that killed 22 people, in Bible Hill, N.S., on July 22, 2020.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The federal and Nova Scotia governments have set up a three-member panel with no power to compel witnesses and no requirement to conduct business in public to examine circumstances around the worst mass killing in Canadian history, frustrating widespread demands for a full public inquiry.

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and provincial Justice Minister Mark Furey said the review process is quicker and avoids dragging traumatized families and community members through emotional public testimony. The terms of reference stress the need for “restorative principles” in pursuing the truth to avoid trauma.

But Robert Pineo, a lawyer representing the families of 21 of the 22 people killed in the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia, said the rejection of a public inquiry comes as a major disappointment to his grieving clients.

“The independent review announced by Ministers Furey and Blair is wholly insufficient to meet the objectives of providing full and transparent answers to the families and the public,” said Mr. Pineo, who is representing 21 families and five injured survivors in a class-action lawsuit against the gunman’s estate.

Just one day before the announcement, the families held a march to demand a full public inquiry.

Instead, the governments opted for a process that places the investigative work beyond the public eye, with all testimony and evidence that doesn’t appear in the report remaining confidential, according to terms of reference released on Thursday.

“The pursuit of truth need not come at the cost of re-traumatizing or re-victimizing individuals,” said Mr. Furey, who acknowledged that the families preferred a public inquiry.

Mr. Pineo dismissed that justification, accusing the governments of hiding behind a “contrived notion” of the need for a trauma-free process. “This is not how the families wish to be treated,” he said in a statement. “I know that Minister Furey has spoken with the families, so he must know that they want to participate, not to be protected by an incomplete process.”

Former Nova Scotia chief justice Michael MacDonald will chair the panel, with former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan and retired Fredericton police chief Leanne Fitch rounding out the trio. Costs will be shared between the two governments.

The terms of reference give the panel a broad mandate to investigate an array of factors that may have contributed to the tragedy, including gender-based violence, access to firearms, previous interactions between the gunman and police, RCMP active-shooter response tactics, disposal of police gear and public communications.

The panel will issue an interim report to the ministers by Feb. 28 of next year and a final report by Aug. 31. No date has been set for its public release.

The ministers have pledged to implement the report’s recommendations “where reasonable, within a reasonable timeframe.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, residents of Portapique, N.S., and its surroundings questioned why the Mounties had opted to use Twitter rather than the province’s emergency alert system to notify people that an armed man driving a look-alike RCMP cruiser was on the loose.

The gunman eluded police for hours after he drove away from Portapique before midnight on April 18. Police were told the night of the attack he was driving a mock RCMP vehicle, information that wasn't shared publicly until the next morning.

A Globe investigation found that law enforcement overlooked several incidents in the gunman’s past that should have raised red flags: a 2001 assault on a 15-year-old boy, death threats against his parents in 2010, a 2011 police safety bulletin that warned he had guns and wanted to kill a cop and a 2013 weapons complaint by a neighbour that also reported a violent attack on his spouse.

“Everyone here wants to know what happened and they want to hear the testimony,” said Bill Casey, former Conservative and Liberal MP for the area. “The rumours are rampant about how this came to be and the only way to clear the air is through a public inquiry.”

While the panel cannot compel testimony, both governments have issued letters of commitment directing all departments involved in the lead-up and response to the shooting to co-operate.

The terms of reference give panel members flexibility to go public if they encounter stonewalling from public officials.

An anti-domestic violence group in Truro, N.S., called Persons Against Non-State Torture said the review terms don’t adequately address a culture of misogyny within the RCMP and among the broader public that ignores violence against women.

The gunman was never charged in connection with the 2013 complaint. He launched his rampage on April 18 and 19 with an assault on his spouse.

“The more I talk about it the angrier I get,” said Linda MacDonald, one of the group’s co-founders. “They are not going to set up a system that holds police accountable for the system of misogyny that’s been set up.”

With a report from Greg Mercer

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