By Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press on January 30, 2024.
HALIFAX – Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond calmly bought a semi-automatic rifle on Jan. 3, 2017, and later that day fatally shot his mother, wife and 10-year-old daughter before killing himself in the family’s rural Nova Scotia home.
The killings in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., stunned the province. Tough questions were immediately raised about how such an awful thing could happen.
And more than seven years later, a provincial fatality inquiry is set to release its final report into what happened and how a similar tragedy can be prevented.
With the passage of so much time, lawyer Adam Rodgers is worried the public and both the federal and provincial governments have lost interest in the inquiry’s work.
“That really risks undermining the whole report,” said Rodgers, who represents Desmond’s estate and his sister Cassandra. “Justice delayed is justice denied. It’s an old adage that is certainly true here.”
In the days and weeks after the killings, the federal and provincial governments could not agree on who should lead an inquiry. Desmond’s twin sisters, Cassandra and Chantel, then mounted a vocal campaign for action that included an appearance on Parliament Hill.
The provincial inquiry was finally announced in December 2017 – almost a year later. Public hearings started in January 2020, but the proceedings in rural Guysborough, N.S., were suspended two months later when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. An 11-month delay followed, and the hearings did not conclude until April 2022.
And there was yet another interruption in July of 2023 when the Nova Scotia government fired the presiding provincial court judge, Warren Zimmer, for taking too long to complete his final report.
On Wednesday, when Zimmer’s replacement, provincial court Judge Paul Scovil, releases the long-awaited report, Canadians should pay attention, said Rodgers.
“The issues that the inquiry explored affect so many Canadians,” he said in an interview Monday. “Anybody with a connection to the military is going to see the effects. It will talk about what happens when a soldier comes back from battle and has to reintegrate with their family and community – and that’s a very difficult process.”
During public hearings, the inquiry learned Desmond had been diagnosed with severe PTSD and major depression in 2011 after he took part in two particularly violent tours in Afghanistan in 2007. He was medically released from the army in July 2015 after receiving four years of treatment in New Brunswick.
But Desmond was still a desperately ill man whose marriage was in trouble when he later left a residential treatment program in Montreal and returned home to eastern Nova Scotia in August 2016. Family and friends told the inquiry he did not get the help he needed.
Dr. Ian Slayter, who assessed the retired corporal in the fall of 2016, testified that Desmond was also suffering from a probable traumatic brain injury, possible attention deficit disorder and borderline delusions about his wife’s fidelity.
The psychiatrist, who at the time was working at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., said Desmond told him his PTSD symptoms had been subsiding but his jealousy toward his wife, Shanna, had been getting worse.
Slayter also said he was worried Desmond was “falling through the cracks” because he had been receiving care through the federal Veterans Affairs Department when he was living in New Brunswick, but those services stopped when he moved to Nova Scotia.
That testimony proved pivotal to the inquiry.
The inquiry learned that during the four months before the killings, Desmond did not receive any therapeutic treatment. Instead, the federal Veterans Affairs Department, which was responsible for helping Desmond find mental-health services, was beset by delays and bureaucratic glitches.
During that crucial period, Desmond sought help from two local hospitals in eastern Nova Scotia, but the doctors he met were unable to get his federal health records.
On another front, the inquiry heard that as Desmond became increasingly paranoid about his wife’s fidelity, he also became more controlling, though there was no evidence of physical abuse.
Three hours before Desmond killed his 31-year-old wife, their daughter, Aaliyah, and his 52-year-old mother, Brenda, Shanna Desmond sought information about how to get a peace bond, the inquiry heard.
Dr. Peter Jaffe, a psychologist at Western University in London, Ont., told the inquiry that Desmond presented 20 risk factors associated with domestic homicide, out of 41 factors developed by the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee.
As public hearings wrapped up in April 2022, lead counsel Allen Murray said the inquiry had heard repeatedly that “professionals may not have fully grasped the numerous red flags for the risk of serious domestic violence or domestic homicide.”
Among other things, the inquiry’s mandate includes determining if Desmond and his family had access to appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services.
As for Desmond’s access to guns, the inquiry heard that his firearms licence was suspended in December 2015 after he was arrested in New Brunswick under the province’s Mental Health Act.
The licence, however, was reinstated in May 2016 after a New Brunswick doctor signed a medical assessment form that declared his patient was “non-suicidal and stable.”
At the time, Desmond was receiving treatment at a clinic in Fredericton, where staff later determined his mental state had become unstable, as he was plagued by intrusive thoughts that forced him to relive traumatic experiences he had endured in combat. As well, a psychiatrist at the clinic told the inquiry that the former rifleman suspected his wife of wasting money and plotting against him.
None of that information was shared with federal or provincial firearms officials, as the clinic was not required to do so.
In all, 69 witnesses testified during 53 days of hearings in Guysborough, N.S., and later in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., where the final report will be released.
The report will offer recommendations on how to prevent a similar tragedy, but it can’t make any findings of criminal or civil liability – and its recommendations are not binding.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2024.