GUYSBOROUGH – The N.S. Judiciary announced on Oct. 28 that the Desmond Fatality Inquiry will move to a new location when proceedings resume, due “to the ongoing situation with the COVID-19 pandemic.” But the inquiry did not consult with the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) about safety measures that could be taken to keep the inquiry in Guysborough. Hearings have so far been held at the Municipal Building on Pleasant St. in Guysborough.
Evidentiary hearings began on Jan. 27, 2020 and adjourned on March 2, 2020. The inquiry had anticipated resuming the hearings in late May; however, due to the pandemic, Judge Warren Zimmer opted to wait until he was confident the proceedings could continue safely and in compliance with public health directives.
“It soon became apparent the Inquiry could not proceed at the current site in Guysborough and still respect physical distancing,” says last week’s release. “Using the COVID-19 Court Recovery Plan as a guide, Judge Zimmer has been working with the Nova Scotia Department of Justice – Court Services Division to make alternative arrangements for the resumption of the Inquiry. Those discussions are ongoing, and a decision is expected soon. Once the location has been confirmed, the Inquiry will be able to release more information about the resumption of proceedings.”
MODG’s CAO Barry Carroll confirmed to The Journal on Sunday that the municipality was not consulted about the move.
Among those voicing concerns about the decision is Guysborough lawyer Adam Rodgers, counsel for Cassandra Desmond (representing the estate of Lionel Desmond). Rodgers says there is likely enough space at the Municipal Building to safely continue with the inquiry.
“But it seems the question was never asked as to whether the whole thing could just stay in Guysborough,” he told The Journal via email. “The delays resulting from the logistics of moving the Inquiry may have been based on a mistaken and untested presumption.”
“Perhaps it would mean fewer or no spaces for audience members to watch in person, but there are other rooms in the building already set up for family viewing, and the Inquiry had rented space from the (Chedabucto Lifestyle Complex), for general viewing as well, and that space had barely been utilized.”
Rodgers said he has been hearing concerns from local residents about the decision to move the inquiry. “There are two things on the minds of people locally (in addition to the core issues under examination in the Inquiry itself). One is that this is the local community for the Desmond and Borden families, and it is a shame that it has to be moved, even to Port Hawkesbury. Secondly…. the local businesses (several B&B’s, the grocery store, the local bakery which had been providing food, and even the fitness centre) that are going to lose out from the move. The Municipality is likely losing substantial rent revenue as well.
“A few minor changes are all it would probably take,” said Rodgers on accommodating the inquiry in Guysborough during the pandemic. “It really shouldn’t be that complicated.”
In response to a query about the lack of consultation with MODG, The Journal received the following statement from Dept. of Justice spokesperson Heather Fairbairn: "First, our thoughts continue to be with the family. They have suffered an incomprehensible loss and deserve answers. As you are likely aware, proceedings in Guysborough were put on hold as result of Covid-19. Since that time, the Department through Court Services has been actively working with the Inquiry Judge to consider possible modifications or alternative arrangements so that the hearings can proceed safely and in compliance with Public Health requirements. The existing space at the Guysborough Municipal Building was assessed using the COVID-19 Court Recovery Plan and public health protocols, and it was determined that it cannot accommodate the number of people expected to participate in the Inquiry. Other possible locations were also considered as part of our assessment, including relocation to other Court facilities in the province. Through that process, we understand the Port Hawkesbury Justice Centre was identified by the Inquiry Judge as the preferred location. Court Services is working with the Inquiry Judge on any requirements that may be needed to support a move."
For now, the inquiry’s counsel is continuing its work interviewing and preparing witnesses, providing disclosure to counsel, and research required for the second stage.
On January 3, 2017, Lionel Desmond, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, shot and killed his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, and his mother Brenda at the family home in Upper Big Tracadie, before taking his life. The Fatality Inquiry is looking at the circumstances around those deaths, and related issues.