The preliminary phase of a long-awaited provincial inquiry into the triple murder-suicide of a Canadian veteran of the Afghan war and his family began in northeastern Nova Scotia Tuesday with applicants making their case to participate and family members raising concerns about the scope of the proceedings.
The inquiry is looking at what happened leading up to Jan. 3, 2017, when Lionel Desmond, a retired corporal, shot and killed his wife, Shanna, his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda. The tragedy occurred 18 months after Mr. Desmond was released from the Canadian Armed Forces, and hours after he had sought psychiatric care at a nearby hospital.
Mr. Desmond’s sister, Cassandra Desmond, said she’s relieved that the inquiry has finally started more than two years after the tragedy.
“It’s been a long time coming and I am happy this has finally started,” she said.
Shanna’s mother, Thelma Borden, provided The Globe with a statement saying she, too, is glad the inquiry is finally under way, but also just wants it to be over.
Nine parties applied to be a part of the inquiry. They include the Attorney-General of Canada, which represents Health Canada, Veterans Affairs, the RCMP and Public Safety, which is responsible for firearms laws; the Attorney-General of Nova Scotia, which represents various provincial departments; two psychiatrists who treated Mr. Desmond, Dr. Ian Slayter and Dr. Faisal Rahman; and legal representatives for the people who died.
Presided over by provincial judge Warren Zimmer, the inquiry is scheduled to begin in September. He acknowledged in his opening remarks that many questions about the tragedy have been left unanswered.
This provincial fatality inquiry only has power to ask federal-government witnesses specific questions in relation to the deaths; it can’t call federal expert witnesses or ask for information on federal administrative systems, the court heard. It also will not be making findings about misconduct or who may be legally responsible for the deaths.
Adam Rodgers, the lawyer for Lionel Desmond’s estate, said that regardless of the restrictions, the inquiry is going to need to hear from experts, including ones on how Veterans Affairs handle mental-health issues, and whether changes are warranted.
Ms. Desmond, meanwhile, hopes for a broader public inquiry in the future, where recommendations are far-reaching to other provinces and apply to federal agencies such as Veterans Affairs.
“My role here isn’t to point blame or [seek] vengeance on the government, it’s just ‘Own up to your wrongs,’” she said.
During the hearing, Justice Zimmer read a statement from the Nova Scotia Health Authority that captured the timeline of Mr. Desmond’s care when he showed up at the emergency room of St. Martha’s Regional Hospital, as he had done several times in 2016. He arrived the evening of Jan. 1, 2017, and was admitted for observation overnight and discharged late morning on Jan. 2. On Jan. 3 (it’s unclear whether he did this in person or not), he made a psychiatric appointment for Jan. 18.
A 2017 Globe investigation revealed Mr. Desmond had been diagnosed by a military psychiatrist with PTSD with major depression and depressive episodes. Just months before the killings, Mr. Desmond had attended a Veterans Affairs in-patient clinic in Montreal. Back home in Nova Scotia, he struggled to navigate the provincial health-care and Veterans Affairs systems to get the support he needed.
The coming inquiry will examine a multitude of issues around the deaths, including the circumstances of Mr. Desmond’s release from hospital the day before the gun attack, gun-licence access and domestic-violence intervention services.
The inquiry will culminate with Justice Zimmer making recommendations on these matters; however, he does not have jurisdiction to do so regarding federal departments.
At the end of the hearing, Justice Zimmer reserved his decision on all parties’ requests to participate, except for one. Thelma and Ricky Borden’s request to represent their granddaughter, Aaliyah Desmond, will be heard by the judge at a separate hearing. Justice Zimmer acknowledged the emotional toll of the inquiry.