Nova Scotia

To curb domestic violence, N.S. must do more to help violent men: Desmond inquiry witness

To reduce the level of domestic violence in Nova Scotia, the province needs to offer more resources to men who use violence in relationships — both in terms of education and offering housing, an expert witness told the Desmond fatality inquiry.

Standing Together provincial grants have funded 80 domestic violence programs in N.S.

Shanna Desmond and Aaliyah Desmond, 10, were killed by Lionel Desmond, their husband and father, respectively, on Jan. 3, 2017. (Facebook)

To reduce the level of domestic violence in Nova Scotia, the province needs to offer more resources to men who use violence in relationships — both in terms of education and offering housing, an expert witness told the Desmond fatality inquiry.

The executive director for the Office of the Status of Women in Nova Scotia was called Tuesday to offer the inquiry a picture of the services available now for families experiencing violence — and to offer her own recommendations about what else is needed. 

Hearings resumed this week with testimony from Stephanie MacInnis-Langley and other expert witnesses on the issues at the heart of the inquiry — mental health, access to firearms and domestic violence.  

Those issues violently connected on Jan. 3, 2017.

That's when Lionel Desmond, an Afghanistan veteran with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, legally purchased a rifle and drove to his in-laws home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. It is where he'd lived with his wife, Shanna, after being released from a psychiatric facility in August 2016 until she asked him to leave two days before.

Lionel Desmond, shown here in this family photo, with his mother, Brenda, left, and Aaliyah, right. (Submitted by Cassandra Desmond)

Desmond went inside and shot Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother Brenda. He then turned the gun on himself.

The inquiry's mandate is to see if the systems the family interacted with in the preceding months should be changed in order to prevent future deaths.

MacInnis-Langley told the inquiry that Standing Together, which connects government and community organizations to prevent domestic violence, has funded 80 programs since it launched in 2019. Last year, it issued $950,000 in grants.

In 2022, the organization will assess what's working well — and where there are still gaps in education, funding and resources. 

MacInnis-Langley said that, historically, programs have been directed at women who need support. 

But resources for men are a critical part of reducing intimate partner violence, she said. 

"I really feel we need to increase our approach and our resources and services for men who use violence," she said, citing a project involving working with young men in school. 

"It's about helping young men understand the issues around masculinity and the need to find a path that doesn't involve violence."

Housing and domestic violence

Beyond that, she noted that a burgeoning housing crisis in Nova Scotia has exacerbated issues of domestic violence — and notes that while there are resources women can access for short-term housing, it could be useful for men to have access to similar resources while they're working on issues within the relationship.

Lionel Desmond's care team at the psychiatric hospital had suggested to him that it might be better for him to rent an apartment in Antigonish, N.S., for a few months after his return home.

They thought that he was already facing many stresses: his transition to civilian life after a decade of service in the military, the ongoing need for mental treatment, given that his psychiatric team wrote that he'd made only "minimal progress" and that he and his wife were still having conflict in their relationship. 

A separate apartment

One of the reasons cited for not having a separate apartment, beyond Desmond's desire to be with his family again, was a concern about money, given that he wasn't working.

Another expert witness is expected to submit a report looking at the level of risk of violence to Shanna Desmond based on what the inquiry now knows. 

The inquiry has heard previously that she contacted the Naomi Society in Antigonish anonymously for information on the day she was killed. But she didn't believe her family was in any immediate danger, according to the society's director who testified about the phone call. 

Lionel Desmond was part of the India Company, 2nd battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment in Afghanistan in 2007. (Facebook/The Canadian Press)

Nicole Mann told the inquiry, however, that Shanna Desmond told her that other people suggested her husband was unfit to be around their daughter if the military felt he was unfit to serve.

Desmond had been medically released from the military in 2015 after being diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, connected to a seven-month long tour of Afghanistan in 2007.

While MacInnis-Langley did not want to speak specifically to Shanna Desmond's situation, she did say that women in abusive relationships often minimize the level of risk.

"Victims tend to minimize the level of danger in the relationship — and that's why the education and awareness is so critical."

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Laura Fraser

Social Media Editor

Laura Fraser is an award-winning journalist who writes about justice, health and the human experience. Story ideas are welcome at laura.fraser@cbc.ca

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