GUYSBOROUGH – For Cassandra Desmond, Tuesday marked a turning point in a long journey. Almost two and a half years after the tragic deaths of her brother, mother, sister-in-law and niece, preliminary hearings for the Fatality Inquiry into those deaths began in Guysborough.
“Even though this is just the beginning, I’m just glad that we’re here,” she told The Journal as hearings wrapped up Tuesday afternoon. “I thank God for giving us the strength to continue on with this fight and to have not given up.”
Desmond has applied to represent her brother, Cpl. Lionel Desmond, in the inquiry, with testimony to begin in Sept. She said it was reassuring to hear from the others who want to take part.
"To be able to sit here and to hear the different applicants go through as to why they are here and what they plan to represent, it brings a lot of joy to my heart. It makes me realize that we really are not alone.”
Individuals and organizations wanting to participate in the upcoming Desmond Inquiry appeared before Judge Warren Zimmer at council chambers in the Guysborough Municipal Building.
The inquiry will examine the circumstances surrounding the tragedy of Jan. 3, 2017, when Cpl. Lionel Desmond, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, shot his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, and his mother Brenda before killing himself. Their bodies were found in the Desmond home in Upper Big Tracadie.
Among others appearing before Judge Zimmer on Tuesday was Cassandra’s twin sister Chantel, who has applied to be the personal representative of their mother Brenda.
Judge Zimmer raised his concern about the risk of potential conflicts between Chantel and Cassandra Desmond’s roles as representatives of Lionel and Brenda Desmond. They are both administrators for their mother Brenda’s estate. In his addressing their counsel, Judge Zimmer took pause, “I would just say this, how everything will unfold is hard to say -- but it’s not outside the realm of the possible that the interests of Brenda and Lionel may not match.”
In its application to take part, the Nova Scotia Health Authority noted that Desmond sought mental health help at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital and was admitted on Jan. 1, 2017. He was discharged on Jan. 2, and on Jan. 3 — the day of the tragedy — a follow-up appointment was made for Jan. 18.
Ten-year-old Aaliyah Desmond’s maternal grandparents, Thelma and Richard “Ricky” Borden, have applied to be the personal representatives of both their daughter Shanna and granddaughter Aaliyah in the inquiry. Judge Zimmer asked about Aaliyah Desmond's paternal grandfather, highlighting the importance of making sure that both sides of the family are in agreement. A decision on Aaliyah’s representation was not made Tuesday and will be addressed at a later date, before the actual inquiry begins.
Retired Sgt. David MacLeod of Antigonish County, who suffers from severe chronic PTSD, also spoke at the hearing. “I’m here because it is in my family’s best interest, my community’s best interest, and the province’s best interest that we find out, explore and discover the faults that lead to the demise of Cpl. Desmond and his family,” he said.
The inquiry’s mandate is to determine the circumstances under which these deaths occurred, including whether Lionel Desmond and his family had access to appropriate mental health and domestic violence intervention services leading up to their deaths.
The judge will consider what he heard Tuesday, and applicants will be notified if they have been approved for participation.
Cassandra says she is hopeful that the inquiry will do good for others. “This was a major tragedy, not just on my family, but on a community, a province, on a country,” she told The Journal. “At the same time, even though this has affected so many, it’s also going to help a lot of people when we finally get our end results of all of this.”
At the conclusion of the inquiry proceedings, Judge Zimmer will file a written report with the Provincial Court containing his findings and recommendations. The inquiry will not make findings of legal responsibility. A copy of the report will be provided to N.S.’s Minister of Justice.
Modifications have been made to MODG’s council chambers and use of the building to accommodate the hearings. Testimony will be webcast.
Below is a list of applicants (and their counsel) discussed during the Desmond Inquiry hearing Tuesday, May 21.
Attorney General of Canada, represented by Lori Rasmussen and Melissa Grant, for the involvement of Health Canada, Veterans Affairs, the RCMP, and Public Safety
Attorney General of Nova Scotia, represented by Glenn Anderson, Q.C., for the involvement of the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, including Victim Services, the Domestic Violence Court Program, the Nova Scotia Department of Health, the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, and, as needed, the Nova Scotia Departments of Education, Community Services and the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs
Nova Scotia Health Authority, represented by Roderick Rogers, Q.C., and Karen Bennett-Clayton, for the involvement of St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish and Guysborough Memorial Hospital in Guysborough
Dr. Ian Slayter and Dr. Faisal Rahman, both represented by Stewart Hayne
Cassandra Desmond, Lionel Desmond’s sister, who has applied to be the personal representative of the deceased, Lionel Desmond, represented by Adam Rodgers
Chantel Desmond, Lionel Desmond’s sister, has applied to be the personal representative of the deceased, Brenda Desmond, represented by Tara Miller, Q.C.
Thelma Borden and Richard Borden, parents of Shanna Desmond and grandparents of Aaliyah Desmond, who have applied to be the personal representatives of the deceased, Shanna Desmond and Aaliyah Desmond, both are represented by Coline Morrow
Sheldon Borden, as an interested person, represented by Coline Morrow
Heather MacPherson, not represented by counsel, daughter of a WWII veteran, has been dealing with Veteran Affairs for more than 30 years on his behalf
The inquiry also received applications from Dolly Mosher on behalf of Silent Witness Nova Scotia; Dr. Verona Singer; Dr. John Murdoch on behalf of the Health Association of African Canadians; and retired RCMP Sgt. David MacLeod. Inquiry counsel spoke with these applicants prior to the hearing and they confirmed they will not be pursuing their applications for standing but are all willing to act as a witness, if required.