Nova Scotia

Sister of veteran who killed family testifies about lack of support at N.S. inquiry

Members of two families at the heart of the Lionel Desmond fatality inquiry have begun to share what they remember of the time leading up to the tragedy that shattered a small community in Guysborough County, N.S., on Jan. 3, 2017, when Desmond, an Afghanistan veteran with a history of mental illness, fatally shot his wife, mother, daughter and himself.

After 11-month break due to pandemic, Lionel Desmond fatality inquiry resumes in Port Hawkesbury, N.S.

The second session of the fatality inquiry into the deaths of former soldier Lionel Desmond and his family resumes today, following an 11-month break due to the pandemic. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Members of two families at the heart of the Lionel Desmond fatality inquiry have begun to share what they remember of the time leading up to the tragedy that shattered a small community in Guysborough County, N.S., on Jan. 3, 2017.

That afternoon, Desmond, an Afghanistan veteran with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, shot his wife, Shanna; his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah; his mother, Brenda; and then turned the gun on himself. 

The inquiry resumed Tuesday after an 11-month break due to the pandemic. 

While the first 17 days of the inquiry focused on testimony from RCMP, health professionals and firearms officers, this session will hear from Desmond's sisters and from Shanna's family, the Bordens. 

A light extinguished, sister testifies

Cassandra Desmond, one of Lionel's sisters, began testifying Tuesday morning about her brother's pride in serving in the military, a decision she said he made upon learning he was to become a father. 

But although he returned to his family home in Lincolnville, N.S., after swearing his oath of allegiance, aglow at continuing the family's history of military service, his sister testified that light extinguished after his eight-month tour of Afghanistan in 2007. 

CBC reporter Laura Fraser is live blogging the hearing:

Cassandra spoke of the lack of support that her brother received from the Canadian Forces as he transitioned to living with his wife and infant daughter when he returned in August 2007. 

"You knew something happened," she said. "He stayed quiet. He wasn't as talkative, he wasn't as open. In previous years in the military, his training and stuff, he had so much pride, he just lit right up ... but when he came back from Afghanistan every bit of pride that that man wore all those years just was gone."

Her brother's dissolution would later be diagnosed as complex PTSD, something that he would struggle with for the next decade of his life. 

Difficulty reintegrating

Previous witnesses at early sessions have described the difficulty he had in reintegrating to military life in Canada, to his family life, and later to his role as a civilian.

Although he saw numerous doctors within the military, it wouldn't be until May 2016, that he would go to a Veterans Affairs psychiatric institution for in-patient treatment. 

He was supposed to be there for six months, but was released in mid-August 2016, less than five months before he would kill his family and himself.

Upon his release, he went months without support as he transitioned from the military health-care system to the civilian one; his first meeting with a psychiatrist wouldn't happen until October and that was because he took himself to the emergency room in crisis.

Adam Rodgers, the lawyer for Lionel Desmond's estate, said that from the sisters' perspective, there were "... virtually no supports from the military in terms of providing the family with some structure and some guidance as to what they should be expecting and what kind of strategies they might want to employ to help reintegrate somebody back into the family situation and back into the community."

That perspective was echoed in the testimony of those psychiatrists in the Antigonish, N.S., area who treated Desmond at the emergency room in December 2016 and the first days of January 2017. 

Several testified during the first session about him "falling through the cracks" by not receiving followup care for months after his return to the community.

Shanna Desmond's family, the Bordens, are also expected to testify later in this session. (Remembering Shanna Desmond/Facebook)

Cassandra repeatedly returned to the idea that her brother fell through the cracks, not only once he left the military, but while he was there. 

She described his increasing desperation to get help — using medical marijuana as he was overseen by a physician while he lived in New Brunswick — how he "just wanted to be normal again," she said. 

Cassandra was critical in getting the inquiry off the ground, travelling both to Ottawa and contacting provincial officials to demand answers for her family and for the families of other veterans about what level of care they should be entitled to both during and after serving.

She said that she loved her brother and she felt a mix of emotion toward him, particularly for killing her mother. But she testified that she has since forgiven him and understands that he was a victim of a complex illness and, she alleged, the lack of follow-up care.

Reading from her brother's words about trying, she said it was "like you're thrown to the wolves and the rest is for the seagulls."

Layers of bureaucracy questioned

Judge Warren Zimmer continues to preside over the fatality inquiry, which, unlike a public inquiry, does not seek to lay blame.

Instead, his role will be to hear from the witnesses and the recommendations of the various lawyers in trying to determine why this happened — and to then put forward recommendations to the province about how policy changes regarding health care or domestic violence can prevent future deaths.

In the initial session, Zimmer questioned the layers of bureaucracy that kept health, military and public safety institutions from sharing information about the Afghanistan veteran.

In one instance, a firearms officer in New Brunswick had said she would not have reinstated the gun acquisition licence Desmond would use to purchase the SKS 762 semi-automatic rifle he used in the shootings if she had known his military psychiatric team had just recommended he receive in-patient treatment.

Instead, she had a one-sentence note from Desmond's physician saying that he saw no reason to deny the licence. 

In another day of testimony, the counsellor who saw Desmond in the community in the weeks before the shootings said she would have recommended he return for in-patient treatment if she'd been given access to his military psychiatric records.

This collage depicts Lionel Desmond; his wife, Shanna; mother, Brenda; daughter, Aaliyah; and his military comrades. (CBC)

The 20 witnesses throughout the inquiry described how the use of different databases across government levels and departments prevented the sharing of critical information. 

It's a theme the judge routinely returned to in his questions for those witnesses and is expected to address in his recommendations, numerous lawyers have told CBC.

This session of the inquiry will sit for four weeks, but there are other sessions expected to be scheduled. 

Potential interruption

There could be a potential interruption, however, given that Rodgers, who represents Desmond's estate, recently faced a disciplinary panel of the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society. 

His former business partner Jason Boudrot was discharged for allegedly misappropriating client funds. 

While the panel said in a written decision that Rodgers neither misappropriated funds himself, helped Boudrot do so nor knew about his business partner's actions, it did find him guilty of professional misconduct by failing to protect clients' property. 

The panel has not yet rendered a sentencing decision, but the bar society is calling for Rodgers's disbarment

The lawyer said if that were to happen — or if he were to receive a suspension — he would immediately appeal and ask for a stay so that he could continue to represent the Desmond family.   

Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only)

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre



Laura Fraser

Senior writer

Laura Fraser is a senior writer and editor with CBC News and is based in Halifax. She writes about justice, health and the human experience. Story ideas are welcome at