Nova Scotia

Veteran's family disappointed by delay of inquiry into his suicide, family's death

A long-awaited fatality inquiry into the death of an Afghanistan war veteran who killed his family and himself in rural Nova Scotia has been adjourned until early 2020.

Judge says going ahead now with newly hired lawyer would create unfairness

Shanna and Lionel Desmond hold their daughter Aaliyah in an old photo from the Facebook page of Shanna Desmond. (Facebook/The Canadian Press)

A long-awaited fatality inquiry into the death of an Afghanistan war veteran who killed his family and himself in rural Nova Scotia has been adjourned on the same day it was set to begin, much to his family's disappointment. 

Lionel Desmond, 33, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in the years following an eight-month tour in Afghanistan in 2007.

On Jan. 3, 2017, he shot his wife Shanna, 31, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah and his 52-year-old mother Brenda before turning the gun on himself in the family's home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. 

Judge Warren Zimmer granted a request for adjournment made by a new lawyer for Shanna Desmond's family, the Bordens. The inquiry, being held in Guysborough, N.S., about 280 kilometres northeast of Halifax, is now scheduled to continue on Jan. 27, 2020. 

Zimmer said to go ahead "would create an unfairness that I do not believe could be overcome by allowing [the Bordens] to recall witnesses to get caught up."

Tom Macdonald told the inquiry Monday that he was only retained on Friday after the Bordens parted ways with their previous lawyer. The reason the family dismissed Coline Morrow is unclear, with Shanna Desmond's brother telling CBC only that his family felt Macdonald would offer better representation for an inquiry with such broad scope.

The evidence already submitted to the inquiry includes roughly 58,000 files, numbering about 120,000 pages.

Macdonald told the inquiry he understands the request "is frustrating, inconvenient and could be seen as last-minute," but said it's a necessary one, in order for him to be able to go through the evidence and ensure the Bordens have a voice at the table.  

"Could there be a worse start if there is a whisper in the air that there was an injustice because someone didn't have their say?" Macdonald said Monday.

The lawyer for the family of Lionel and Brenda Desmond, however, opposed the adjournment, given that nearly three years have passed since the deaths of their loved ones. 

His sisters told reporters that they're disappointed, because the adjournment not only delays answers for her family but for any potential recommendations that might improve mental health services for veterans.  

"We sit there and we pray that something's going to come out of this inquiry, but at the same token we have to think about our family that left us behind, to grieve, to carry on the memories," Diane Desmond said.

"It's hard on us … and adjourning the inquiry today put a damper on my heart. We have special occasions every day, every month, every year — my brother's birthday being Thursday, for one, Christmastime, our niece's birthday, my mom's."

Zimmer acknowledged that his decision to adjourn might be frustrating, but it would not be unfair to any of the parties — and that principle is one that must guide him throughout this process. 

If the inquiry were to go ahead Monday, it might result in "real or perceived unfairness to the Borden family, because they would be here, unprepared and unengaged not in the way that they would like to be, that they have a right to be."

He noted that while it might seem as though it's taken three years to get to this point, the volume of documents, parties and witnesses is unprecedented in the province's history.

The Attorney General of Canada, the Attorney General of Nova Scotia, a lawyer representing two doctors who treated Desmond and counsel for the Nova Scotia Health Authority were not opposed to an adjournment.

The inquiry counsel, prosecutor Allen Murray, said that while "everybody is anxious to begin," he said that it's essential that the Bordens feel their voices are heard, given that they are one of two families at the heart of this tragedy.

The inquiry is expected to probe many aspects of the support systems available to Desmond before his death, including whether he had access to mental health services, whether he should have been able to obtain a firearms licence, and whether health care providers who treated him were trained to recognize occupational stress injuries.

Unlike a public inquiry, which traditionally can make findings of legal responsibility, a fatality inquiry ends with recommendations contained in a report.

Legal experts and the Desmond family have raised concerns about whether a provincial inquiry will compel the federal government departments involved in making changes. 

Zimmer told the court that his decision does not prevent the federal government, the Department of National Defence or Veterans Affairs from calling its own inquiry — or from making changes in the interim based on what happened to Lionel Desmond and his family.

About the Author

Laura Fraser

Social Media Editor

Laura Fraser is an award-winning journalist who writes about justice, politics and the human experience. On weekends, she can be found in hiking boots, on skis, or guarding home plate for The Hazzards.

With files from Cassie Williams and Kayla Hounsell