Nova Scotia

Families feeling 'let down' by inquiry into Nova Scotia mass shooting

The lawyers representing many families of people killed during the Nova Scotia mass shooting in April 2020 say they fear that long-awaited public hearings into the tragedy will fail to adequately explore evidence and fall short of the thorough inquiry for which their clients pushed.

Law firm says it shares in families' 'deep discouragement' regarding Mass Casualty Commission probe

Nick Beaton's pregnant wife Kristen, a continuing care assistant, was working the morning she was shot and killed in her vehicle in Debert, N.S. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

The lawyers representing many families of people killed during the Nova Scotia mass shooting in April 2020 say they fear that long-awaited public hearings into the tragedy will fail to adequately explore evidence and fall short of the thorough inquiry for which their clients pushed.

Patterson Law represents 23 families and individuals participating in the Mass Casualty Commission's probe, including people who were directly impacted when a gunman disguised as a Mountie travelled through rural communities burning homes and killing 22 people including neighbours, strangers and acquaintances.

In the months that followed, loved ones of the victims along with community members and groups across Canada demanded answers about what police knew and why more wasn't done to warn the public.

In July 2020, the federal and provincial governments announced there would be an external review — a less extensive process than a public inquiry and one that wouldn't have the ability to subpoena witnesses. The resulting public outcry prompted a quick reversal.

Now some of the families who advocated for the inquiry that became the Mass Casualty Commission say it resembles the process they wanted to avoid.

"I feel severely let down," said Nick Beaton in a statement issued Monday by his lawyers. His pregnant wife Kristen Beaton was killed in Debert, N.S., about 12 hours after police were first called to respond to a shooting in Portapique, N.S.

"The commission is supposed to ask the hard questions and identify where things went wrong and how things need to change, but right now I just don't see that happening."

So far, the Mass Casualty Commission has cost taxpayers more than $13 million and most of the work has happened behind the scenes.

Hearings on the first two phases of the inquiry — which relate to what happened over the course of the 13-hour rampage and why things played out as they did — are scheduled to start Feb. 22 and run until the end of March.

Beaton's words echo those of Darcy Dobson, whose mother was killed on the same stretch of road in Debert. Dobson spoke to CBC about her frustrations and disappointment that she still didn't know whether she'd be able to testify at the inquiry. 

Family and friends of victim Joey Webber attend a march demanding an inquiry into the mass shooting in Nova Scotia that killed 22 people, in Bible Hill, N.S. on July 22, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Nearly a month ago, the lawyers at Patterson Law representing families called for the public inquiry to avoid any further delays and to provide more clarity on what to expect during the proceedings. 

Lawyer Sandra McCulloch said her clients are "troubled at the outset" by not knowing who will be called as a witness. She said one of their priorities is hearing from people who were on the ground in Portapique, since so little is known about what happened in the early hours and what police did when they arrived.

"We have some indications of a name or two that will in fact not be called before the public inquiry, which is deeply troubling for our clients," she said.

"But certainly not having the opportunity to examine them is a problem as well, because, you know, as much as commission counsel may do a fine job of what they believe they want to do, there are participants that come to the process with different perspectives. That's why we're here."

'Closer to an observer'

Last week, the Mass Casualty Commission said it was still working on a witness list. It also told CBC that counsel for participants will be able to question witnesses, but McCullough said it's still not clear to her team if lawyers will first have to make a case for why or be limited to asking witnesses about certain subjects. 

For weeks in the fall and into this winter, the commission held meetings with counsel for participants, including those representing families, and it said it's been collaborating with them to get feedback on information commission staff have gathered and are compiling into documents.

The commission is planning to release more than 30 documents that summarize its findings starting Feb. 28. But McCulloch said after giving input on draft versions, they've only seen three revised documents.

"We are concerned that because we don't have that information that it's a sign of a limited participatory role — that it's a sign that we will be restricted to something that's a lot closer to an observer than a meaningful participant. And our clients are having a pretty hard time stomaching that at this point," she said.

Close to 300 people participated in the march demanding a full public inquiry into the mass killing that left 22 people dead in rural Nova Scotia. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

McCulloch said her legal team believes it's important to have the opportunity cross-examine information presented, including foundational documents, at the upcoming hearings.

"And frankly, to test some of the evidence that these people have provided in those documentary records, as opposed to simply taking them as gospel and that they are wholly accurate in a way that they are presented," she said.

McCulloch also said they're worried the delayed start to the public portion of the inquiry, which was originally scheduled for last October, will mean "the fact-finding portion of these public proceedings will be truncated."

She issued a detailed list of the outstanding questions her team and their clients have with regard to the public proceedings. They include:

  • How the people called as witnesses will give evidence and the subjects about which they'll be called to speak.
  • Whether they'll receive access to additional source material that went into revising the foundational documents.
  • If they'll be able to voice objections should commission counsel decide not to call certain people as witnesses.
  • If they and their clients are able to appear in person at the public proceedings, which will be held at the Convention Centre in Halifax.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

now