N.S. judge to preside over fatality inquiry

HALIFAX: A Nova Scotia provincial court judge has been appointed to preside over the fatality inquiry into the deaths of Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond and his family.

In a press release Thursday, the Nova Scotia judiciary said Warren K. Zimmer was appointed to the post by Judge Pamela Williams, chief judge of the provincial court.

Last December, the provincial government promised an inquiry, almost a year after Desmond fatally shot his mother, his wife, their 10-year-old daughter, and himself in their rural home in Upper Big Tracadie.

The 33-year-old soldier had been diagnosed with PTSD in 2007, after two harrowing tours in Afghanistan.

Provincial Justice Minister Mark Furey said the Nova Scotia government hoped to learn the circumstances of the deaths and how they could be prevented in the future, when the inquiry’s terms of reference were released in May.

The fatality inquiry will examine whether Desmond had access to appropriate mental health services and whether his family had access to domestic violence intervention services.

Zimmer will also consider if Desmond should have been able to keep or obtain a license enabling him to purchase a firearm, and also whether health care and social services providers who interacted with Desmond were trained to recognize occupational stress injuries or domestic violence.

In addition, the final report is to consider if there were any restrictions in the flow of Veteran Affairs or Defence Department records to provincial health personnel.

The rare inquiry will be the first in the province in over a decade.
Zimmer was called to the Nova Scotia bar in 1978. He worked as a Crown prosecutor until 1983 when he entered private practice, specializing in criminal law. He was appointed to the bench in 2011.
The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service has appointed Allen Murray as the inquiry’s prosecutor.

Murray, the chief Crown attorney in Antigonish, spent four years as a staff lawyer with Nova Scotia Legal Aid in Antigonish before joining the prosecution service in 2001.

As previously announced, a start date for the inquiry has not been set.

A communications director for the judiciary confirmed hearings would begin later this year and be held in the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, near the community where the deaths occurred.

The push for an inquiry began with family members, after they expressed dissatisfaction with internal reviews. They have repeatedly claimed the veteran did not get the help he needed from the Defence Department or Veterans Affairs.

However, it remains uncertain whether the inquiry will be able to compel federal officials to testify at the hearings, a leading expert on public inquiries said.

Edward Ratushny, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, has said the inquiry may be unable to examine why Afghan veterans have been taking their own lives and, on rare occasions, the lives of others.

“This is a provincial inquiry and therefore it is limited to dealing only with matters that fall within Provincial jurisdiction under Canada’s Constitution,” Ratushny said in an email Friday. “The subject matter of National Defence falls under Federal jurisdiction.”

His expectation is that the Defence Department will cooperate fully and share information with the inquiry, but only to the extent that it does not potentially reflect badly on the department.

“If the Inquiry attempts to get into tough questions about its actual practices in treating its soldiers it will be legally entitled to decline on the basis that such issues fall exclusively under Federal jurisdiction.”
More than 130 serving military personnel have taken their own lives since 2010, according to reports from the Defence Department.

Officials haven’t been able to determine the number of suicides among veterans, but previous studies have suggested former service members are more at risk than those still in uniform.