GUYSBOROUGH: The preliminary phase of the Fatality Inquiry looking into what caused retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond to kill his mother, wife and 10-year-old daughter, before turning the gun on himself, began May 21 more than two years after the tragic incident.
Overseeing the inquiry is provincial court Judge Warren Zimmer, who opened the hearing by recounting the bleak facts from January 3, 2017, when the Afghan war veteran staged a raid on his Upper Big Tracadie home armed with a rifle.
“Family members, friends and the community have all been impacted by the deaths in a variety of ways,” Zimmer said in his opening remarks. “Many questions have been left unanswered.”
For Lionel’s sister, Cassandra Desmond, she told reporters last Tuesday it’s great to be able to get the inquiry initiated, even though in the beginning, she wasn’t sure what the end result was going to be.
“It caused for my sisters and I to team up, knowing that we’re going to have to do something to figure out what happened to Lionel, because this wasn’t Lionel,” she said. “I’ve said this from the very first day I put my face on camera, this wasn’t my brother and whatever he had to go through while fighting over in Afghanistan within that war – the war came back with him.”
Cassandra said the family is still frustrated by what they see as the Defense Department dragging its feet on supplying her brother’s official documents.
“We still don’t have Lionel’s medical records. But at the same time, I’m just happy that the time is here, to get a start,” she said. “At the end of the day, we could suppress those feelings of the tragedy but instead we decided to use those feelings as our strength and to rise up and to be the fight, not only for Lionel but for his brothers-and-sisters-in-arms and also for our mental health community within Nova Scotia.”
Adam Rodgers, who is representing Cassandra as the personal representative of the estate of her brother Lionel, said the day, which was mostly procedural, was an important day for the Desmond Inquiry.
“For the family, it’s a very important day just to get this started, it’s been two years since they’ve been waiting for this, so just to get the process started I think helps the family,” he said addressing media. “It’s a difficult day too, every time this comes up, and they deal with this every day of course anyway, but when it comes forward in a more focused way, it can be a difficult time.”
Evidence brought forward established somewhat of a timeline as Desmond, 33, self-admitted himself into St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish on Januar 1, where he was observed overnight by staff and discharged on January 2. The following day, he returned to the hospital where he booked a follow-up appointment for January 18.
Later that day, Lionel crept up to his family home, slashed the tires on the family truck before going inside, where he killed his mother Brenda, 52, his wife Shanna, 31, and their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah.
Lionel had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in Afghanistan in 2007 with the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment’s India Company. He was deployed to Kandahar one month after the birth of his daughter.
Lionel, a then 24-year-old rifleman, was in direct combat with the Taliban as they ramped up their guerrilla campaign in one of the Canadian military’s most bloodiest combat missions, and was additionally tasked with carrying the wounded on stretchers and collecting body parts of the dead.
Even though Lionel had sought treatment for his mental illness, his family believes he didn’t receive the necessary help he desperately needed.
The Inquiry’s mandate is to determine the circumstances under which these deaths occurred, as well as some specific issues, including; whether Lionel and his family had access to the appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services; whether healthcare and social services providers who interacted with Lionel were trained to recognize the symptoms of occupational stress injuries or domestic violence; and whether Lionel should have been able to retain, or obtain a licence, enabling him to obtain or purchase a firearm.
At the conclusion of the proceedings, Judge Zimmer will file a written report with the Provincial Court containing his findings and recommendations, but his report will not contain any findings of legal responsibility.
“If it wasn’t for our strength as a family, and for the veteran community and the strength and support that they have shown within us, I don’t think we would be this far and probably would have given up a long time ago,” Cassandra explained. “To see how many people are suffering like Lionel has and are still going through and still having to fight our government it’s not fair. Those people can’t be a voice for themselves, and if I can be that voice, I’m going to stand and continue to be that voice, and continue with their fight for them.”
An application was filed by lawyers who represented the Attorney General of Canada, speaking for the involvement of Health Canada, Veterans Affairs, the RCMP, Public Safety, and the Canadian Armed Forces.
The attorney general of Nova Scotia applied for standing representing the involvement of the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, Health, Education, and Community Services, the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, and the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs.
For the involvement of St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish and the Guysborough Memorial Hospital in Guysborough, the Nova Scotia Health Authority filed an application.
Two psychiatrists from St. Martha’s who had dealt with Lionel directly – Dr. Ian Slayter and Dr. Faisal Rahman – also applied for standing.
Not represented by council and making a formal application was Heather MacPherson, who is the daughter of a Second World War veteran and has been dealing with Veterans Affairs for more than 30 years on his behalf.
Cassandra filed an application to be the personal representative of her brother Lionel, while her twin sister Chantel has filed to be the personal representative for their mother Brenda. The parents of Shanna, Thelma and Richard Borden, also submitted an application to be the personal representatives of both their daughter and granddaughter, but Judge Zimmer advised the decision for Aaliyah would come at a later date.
The next step in the Desmond Inquiry will be the disclosure of evidence and documents to the approved applicants for standing, which will begin in September.
For Cassandra, it’s taken a long time to get to this inquiry, but she’s hopeful to get some answers to be able to lay a foundation for a future so they won’t be back detailing another inquiry because another tragedy happens.
“My message for the veteran community is don’t give up – just hope. Even if it’s just a little bit – hold on pain ends – that’s what I tell my sisters and that’s what I tell myself,” she said. “Just spell out the word hope, H-O-P-E, hold on pain ends. Just have hope.”