Nova Scotia

Why a daughter who pushed for a public inquiry into the N.S. mass shooting is starting to regret it

Darcy Dobson, the daughter of Heather O'Brien, has been waiting nearly two years to share her mother’s story at the public inquiry for which she lobbied. But she doesn't know if the commission overseeing it will let her testify.

‘We’re 13 days away and have no idea what’s happening,’ says Heather O'Brien's daughter

Heather O'Brien, a mother of eight, is shown with her husband and grandkids. (Submitted by Darcy Dobson)

Darcy Dobson lobbied hard for an inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shootings that took the life of her mother nearly two years ago.

But with public proceedings about to begin, she's frustrated that it's still not clear whether she will be allowed to testify.

She is now accusing the commission overseeing the inquiry of not only "failing" the families of the 22 victims, including a pregnant woman, killed by a gunman across several rural communities, but also members of the public who want to better understand what happened, and why.

"We're 13 days away [from hearings] and have no idea what's happening," Dobson told CBC Wednesday.

Dobson's mother — nurse Heather O'Brien — was driving when she encountered the shooter, who was a stranger, on April 19, 2020.

At the time, she knew police had been responding to a situation in Portapique, about 25 kilometres away, but she was killed before police tweeted that their suspect was on the move driving a replica RCMP cruiser. 

Her loved ones later learned people identified the gunman by name to 911 operators and RCMP officers when they responded to reports of shootings the previous evening.

O'Brien's family has been adamant that she wouldn't have been on the road if the Mounties had shared more information earlier. Many other families and community members have questioned if the RCMP did enough to stop the shooter and warn the public.

Heather O'Brien with daughters Katie Devine, front, Darcy Dobson, second from right, and Molly O'Brien. (Submitted by Darcy Dobson)

Now a joint federal and provincial inquiry is examining what happened, how officials responded and how the people most affected were treated in the aftermath of the tragedy. Public proceedings, which were initially scheduled to start in October, are now set to begin Feb. 22 after two delays.

Dobson said she has hoped, and expected, to be able to share her family's perspective during the weeks of hearings now scheduled to run through May in hopes no one else will be killed in the same way.

"To have our voice heard, to have our experience shared with the world is important so people know this is what happened," she said. "This is our experience. This is our reality, and we have no idea if we even have a platform to do that."

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O'Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

The O'Brien family are participants in the inquiry. It means their lawyers have been in meetings with commission staff for months reviewing and giving feedback on some of the information gathered during the commission's own investigation.

It was shared on the condition that the specifics be kept confidential until documents are submitted as evidence during the inquiry.

The commission said it has shared tens of thousands of documents. They include witness interviews, investigative files, transcripts of 911 calls and security camera footage.

Daughter describes frustrations with inquiry into N.S. mass shooting that killed her mother

6 months ago
Duration 2:22
Less than two weeks away from long-awaited hearings, Darcy Dobson feels left in the dark and still doesn't know if the commission overseeing the probe into the deaths of 22 Nova Scotians, including her mother, will let her testify.

'Almost being silenced'

Dobson said interactions with staff have been generally "one-sided" and neither she nor her counsel have the information they need to prepare for the proceedings. 

"It's never going to bring my mom back," she said. "I'm never going to have that comfort again in my life. But I can be an advocate to make sure that it never happens to anybody else. And I feel like I'm almost being silenced because I'm not being given any information."

Dobson, who lives in the Debert area and is going to school while also working and parenting, said it's been challenging trying to prepare emotionally for the hearings in Halifax — about 100 kilometres away — when it's not clear if she'll even be part of them. 

Letter says commission 'failing'

On Feb. 1, Dobson wrote a letter on behalf of her family to the Mass Casualty Commission saying they're frustrated about being kept in the dark about the process, including who will be called as witnesses and whether their lawyers will be able to cross-examine them. 

"You are failing," she wrote. "Not only are you failing the living victims of these crimes, but you are also failing the public, our province, and this country. From where I sit, it feels like you are trying to make this go away."

She shared the letter with CBC after meeting with commission counsel a week later, saying she received only "roundabout answers" that left her with no further details than what is posted online. 

"I am mentally exhausted at this point because I don't know what else to do," she said in an interview.  "It's frustrating not to be heard. We continually hear the words, 'We hear you.' But it definitely feels like nobody is listening." 

Darcy Dobson, front left, led family members and friends of victims at a march demanding an inquiry into the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia that killed 22 people, in Bible Hill, N.S. on July 22, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Barbara McLean, the commission's director of investigations, said in response to questions from CBC that counsel for the participants will be able to question witnesses. The statement said the commission is still identifying witnesses and is open to suggestions from the lawyers of participants.

She said staff are working "in collaboration with participants who have provided valuable insights and information."

The Mass Casualty Commission has repeatedly stressed its work is guided by a trauma-informed approach to "minimize the potential for further harm and re-traumatization." It's for that reason, for instance, that the commission doesn't name the perpetrator or refer to him as the gunman or shooter. 

A memorial pays tribute to health-care worker Heather O'Brien along the highway in Debert, N.S. on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

But Dobson said no one from the commission has gotten to know her family well enough to understand their struggles. 

"For me, it's more traumatic, the waiting game, and having to live in the trauma because there's no closure," she said.

"It almost feels like nobody cares. So to even use the words trauma informed is, it's an insult, really." 

Darcy Dobson, left, and Nick Beaton, right, spoke on behalf of all the families who lost loved ones in the April mass killing. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Adding to the stress, she said, is being let down by the process she hoped would lead to meaningful change. 

The summer after the mass shooting, Dobson led a group of 300 family members and supporters on a march to the RCMP station in Bible Hill, N.S., calling for a full independent inquiry into the tragedy. At the time, she told media they "deserve transparency in everything, everything that happened."

When the province and federal government first announced there would be a review, as opposed to an inquiry, she called it a "slap in the face" and was part of the immense public pressure that led officials to backtrack. But Dobson said she's come to regret her role in advocating for the process she now calls "a mess."

Looking for accountability

Her letter to the commission states she would "like to formally apologize to the public and the other living victims of this massacre for putting so much, time, energy, and faith into this and believing that it would be conducted with tact, accuracy, and the ability to ask questions." 

Despite feeling disillusioned, she still holds onto some hope. 

"I think at the end of the day, the only thing anybody is looking for is accountability — for somebody to say, 'Hey, we made some mistakes,' so this never happens again," she said. 

"Our voice will be heard. I just have no idea how that's going to look."

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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

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