PORT HAWKESBURY: The two families who have been affected the most by, and find themselves at the centre of the Desmond Fatality Inquiry, began testifying as the inquiry resumed on Feb. 16; looking into the incident that rocked the small, tight-knit, black community of Upper Big Tracadie.
On Jan. 3, 2017 retired Cpl. Lionel Desmond purchased a Soviet-era SKS 7.62 semi-automatic carbine that he would then use hours later to kill his 52-year-old mother Brenda, his 31-year-old wife Shanna and their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah in the family’s home, before turning the gun on himself.
Following an 11-month adjournment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a change in venue, the inquiry’s second session is expected to hear witness testimony from the people who knew Desmond the best.
Opening the second session of the inquiry was Lionel’s sister Cassandra Desmond. She talked about her knowledge of the support, or lack thereof, her brother and his family received from the Canadian Armed Forces transitioning back into normal, everyday civilian life.
Cassandra highlighted her brother’s pride in joining the military, how he hung his oath of allegiance on his grandmother’s wall crooked, and how the family had nearly a dozen family members serving in previous generations.
“You signed up to protect Canada… My brother signed an oath to be a protector, to fight with patriotism for his country, along with his brothers and sisters,” she said. “Lionel was owned by the Canadian Armed Forces… Not everyone has that bravery or courage.”
Originally Cassandra indicated she was very mad at her brother for doing what he did whenever she thought about her mother, but those feelings eventually changed as she began to understand that he wasn’t her brother the night of the tragedy.
“I didn’t lose my mom to a natural health cause,” she said. “I lost my mom (at 25) because my mom died at the hands of my brother.”
She described her brother as the comedian of the family, who always was willing to lend a helping hand to whoever needed it.
“After Afghanistan that pride in everything you could see it just slowly deteriorating. You knew something happened; when he came back from Afghanistan every bit of pride that that man wore all those years just was gone,” Cassandra said. “You could just tell that something deep and dark was on his mind; his silence of Afghanistan and him not sharing was enough to say that Afghanistan done a lot to that man… It was almost like his soul was lost.”
Recounting the phone calls she received on the night of Jan. 3, 2017, she remembers a scream coming out of her twin sister she’s never heard before telling her she found the bodies of Lionel and Shanna.
“The phone dropped. The first thing I did was call my mother, I called my mom three times and left three voicemails,” Cassandra said of then finding out her mother and niece were gone too. “My whole world paused, my whole world just went numb and my whole world stopped, the life came out of me, I just couldn’t move.”
After the tragedy, Cassandra recounted it took her two-weeks to be able to build up the strength to face her five-year-old daughter to tell her her nanny Bren, uncle Lionel, aunt, and cousin were now angels.
“My nine-year-old, she became my anchor at the age of five.”
The inquiry has previously learned when Desmond was released from the military in 2015; the former infantryman was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) along with a potential traumatic brain injury.
Cassandra said her brother always loved music and dancing, but after returning home from the war in Afghanistan even something as simple as the whizzing of a fan, brought the veteran back to being inside a helicopter.
“Noise was not good for Lionel after Afghanistan,” she said. “Noise became an enemy… It triggered him.”
Reading from a handwritten letter to Veterans Affairs Canada that was included in her brother’s medical discharge, Cassandra described a situation in which he became frustrated about a back to work program. He said the government should have provided better work integration and should have better solutions.
“There’s no support in place,” Desmond wrote. “I feel like you’re thrown to the wolves and the rest is for the seagulls.”
Cassandra doesn’t understand how her brother couldn’t get the necessary help for his PTSD he was desperately seeking.
“A person doesn’t go to 10 different departments and six different doctors with the same story, telling you ‘I need help, I don’t feel right, I feel like my brain is broken’ if they were getting the proper help that they needed,” she said. “Why is it that they’re being shifted through so many different doctors in so many different departments and provinces, but yet still nobody is able to give this man the proper help that he’s crying out for?”
The first session of the inquiry, that concluded March 2, 2020, exposed evidence that Judge Warren Zimmer said made it clear Veterans Affairs allowed Desmond “to fall through the cracks.”
“How is this man going to walk into a treatment facility, being a man crying for help wanting to be normal but yet walk out those doors feeling the same way?” Cassandra said. “I was hopeful. They said they were going to take him for six-months and I assumed he was coming home early, because he responded well to the treatment.”
The inquiry also learned, on at least two separate occasions, desperate to find help, Desmond travelled to St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish because he felt he was in crisis.
A movement to launch the inquiry was led by Desmond’s twin sisters, Cassandra and Chantel.
“I was fighting provincial and federal governments by myself. I was flying to Ottawa on my own dime; trying to fight for what happened,” Cassandra said. “Lionel was fighting to be normal.”
Amongst other things, the inquiry is investigating whether Desmond and his family had access to the appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services and whether healthcare and social services providers who interacted with the Desmond family were trained to recognize the symptoms of occupational stress injuries or domestic violence.