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Desmond Inquiry calls for changes, but critics say recommendations fall short

  • February 7 2024
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter    

GUYSBOROUGH — The long-awaited report of the Desmond Fatality Inquiry, which took six years to complete and was released on Jan. 31, has found that “no one person” should shoulder the blame for the horrific triple murder-suicide that happened in Upper Big Tracadie on Jan. 3, 2017. That’s when Afghanistan veteran Lionel Desmond shot and killed his wife, Shanna; their daughter, 10-year-old Aaliyah; and his mother Brenda, before taking his own life. 

“No one person should have a finger pointed at them,” former provincial court judge Paul Scovil told a packed courtroom in Port Hawkesbury. “The issue is systemic.” 

Scovil – who was mandated to explore the circumstances around the tragedy, gleaned from 56 days of hearings involving dozens of family members, friends and expert witnesses – set forth 25 rigorous, if legally unenforceable, recommendations aimed to help prevent something like this from ever happening again.

He called for better coordination between federal and provincial authorities on handling and distributing veterans’ health files; tougher, more detailed oversight of firearms and police databases, including weapons applicants’ health and employment information; more and better public awareness programs about intimate partner violence; and more comprehensive and inclusive medical file sharing, and mental and social supports for African Nova Scotians.

“At the end of the day, it is impossible to say with certainty that had my recommendations been in place when Corporal Desmond left the military, no suicide or homicides would have occurred,” he said. “But, we can say they could have possibly helped avert the tragic events... It has been an arduous and emotional process for everyone involved, but hopefully also a worthwhile one.”

Still, while acknowledging Scovil’s efforts and good intentions, many in Guysborough and elsewhere are wondering just how worthwhile some of his recommendations are. Many of them, they say, merely restate the systemic problems without providing any clear direction for solving them. How, for example, would better coordination between federal and provincial military and civilian law enforcement authorities work; what specific mechanisms need to be enforced or even created? The same goes for mental health and intimate partner violence awareness and support structures: Who’s in charge? Where does the buck stop?

This is especially true, said Municipality of the District of Guysborough councillor and African Nova Scotian elder Mary Desmond, aunt of Brenda Desmond, of the measures designed to better assist members of her community.

“It’s spitting out stuff to control [problems], but how are they going to follow up?” she asked. “I can’t see it... The only good thing I see in this report is where the military and [civilian doctors] can share files more easily. I totally agree with that, and it should be doable... I mean... these are good words, but [most of them] are not reality. They are what we would dream. It’s like what Martin Luther King said: ‘I had a dream.’ Well, that’s this: ‘I had a dream report.’”

Cassandra Desmond, sister of Lionel Desmond, noted that while she won’t give Scovil’s effort a failing grade, she’s become less enamored of it since its release. “We waited a long time for this, and there are a lot of recommendations there that we can take and, at least, start to implement,” she said. “However, were there more things they could have gone into greater depth about ... [to provide] a broader perspective? ... Honestly, to tell you the truth, I am very disappointed.”

Adam Rodgers, lawyer for Lionel’s estate, is more lenient. “I’d give the report a ‘B’. I mean, there are recommendations in there, but I do think it needed to go a little further than it did,” he said.

Ultimately, Mary Desmond, Cassandra Desmond, and Rodgers say that the key flaw in the report is summed up in recommendation 25 – a recommendation that its other recommendations are not ignored, but lacks any power to ensure that is the case.

“To ensure that the recommendations from this inquiry are not lost on the passage of time,” it says “the Province of Nova Scotia should create a formal implementation committee comprising of senior government officials from relevant departments to oversee the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations. This committee should have, at minimum, a five-year mandate and liaise with appropriate federal departments.”

Following the report’s release, Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor told reporters in Ottawa that, while she had not yet read the report, “Since the start of the inquiry, our department has already started to make some changes ... At this point in time when a veteran asks for mental health supports, those supports are approved immediately... We’ve also increased the number of case managers.”

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia Attorney General and Justice Minister Brad Johns stated: “Our commitment to the Desmond family, their friends, and the African Nova Scotian community is that we will learn from this tragedy and seriously consider the recommendations put forward... They have suffered an incomprehensible loss, and I hope the inquiry’s findings and the actions government takes to build safer communities will provide a step forward in the family’s healing process. We will also consider how [these] recommendations interconnect with our actions in response to the ... Mass Casualty Commission Final Report [examining the shooting spree that took the lives of 22 Nova Scotians, April 18-19, 2020].”

Said Rodgers: “As we’ve seen in the Mass Causality Commission, it’s been almost a year since that report was issued and very little, if anything, has happened [with it]... You know they also had a big public release, telling all of the politicians to make sure they took it seriously... With something like this [Desmond Fatality Inquiry]? I don’t know.”