Nova Scotia

Answers coming soon in Lionel Desmond killings, officials say

Almost a year after former soldier Lionel Desmond killed his family and then himself in rural Nova Scotia, an official response shedding light on the tragedy is near.

Lionel Desmond killed mother, wife and child in Tracadie home; advocates says inquest overdue

Lionel Desmond and his daughter Aaliyah are shown in an old photo from Facebook. Aaliyah had recently turned 10 when she was killed. (The Canadian Press/Facebook)

Almost a year after former soldier Lionel Desmond killed his family and then himself in rural Nova Scotia, an official response shedding light on the tragedy is near.

The province's medical examiner, Dr. Matthew Bowes, said he's "very close" to deciding whether to conduct a fatality inquiry, and Premier Stephen McNeil said the province will give the family some answers, regardless of what Bowes decides.

"I'm expecting that something will be happening soon," McNeil said Wednesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

On Jan. 3, 2017, the retired corporal shot his wife Shanna, 31, their 10-year-daughter Aaliyah and his 52-year-old mother Brenda, before turning the gun on himself. Desmond had been diagnosed with PTSD and post-concussion disorder after completing two difficult tours in Afghanistan in 2007.

'The family deserves to have answers'

Advocates say an inquest is long overdue.

"The family deserves to have answers and some closure," said Peter Stoffer, a longtime veterans advocate and former Nova Scotia MP. "Unless there's an inquiry, there's always going to be suspicion that the government at either level may be responsible in some way."

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

Family members say Desmond was a radically changed man when he was medically discharged, and returned home to Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., in 2015. They say his outgoing sense of humour had dimmed and, more importantly, he seemed withdrawn and in a defensive posture much of the time, as if he was still in combat mode.

Within hours of the killings, relatives came forward to complain Desmond did not get the help he needed to cope with civilian life, and they demanded a public inquiry to determine what went wrong and how to prevent similar tragedies.

'We, as a nation, can do better'

Two of Desmond's sisters, twins Chantel and Cassandra, have led a high-profile campaign calling for an inquiry. Neither woman responded to requests for interviews this week.

Bowes has the option of conducting an inquiry under the province's Fatality Investigations Act.

However, such investigations are rare in the province. The last time a fatality inquiry was held in Nova Scotia was almost 10 years ago.

Dr. John Butt, the former medical examiner for both Nova Scotia and Alberta, has said Nova Scotia should order an inquiry. And several veterans groups and individuals have also come forward to call for action, including Vets Canada and Wounded Warriors Canada.

"Our thoughts are with Lionel Desmond's family and we support their effort to learn the full details associated with this tragedy," Scott Maxwell, executive director of Wounded Warriors Canada, said in a statement Wednesday.

"It's important that this situation becomes focused less on political manoeuvring — between the province and the federal government — and more on learning from the review of this case so we, as a nation, can do better by our ill and injured veterans and their families."

'Nobody wants the answers'

The federal and provincial governments have spent the past 11 months largely avoiding the issue, said Trev Bungay, a retired soldier who at one point served in Afghanistan as the master-corporal in charge of Desmond's unit in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. Both saw heavy combat amid a rapidly growing list of Canadian casualties.

"Everybody wants to push the blame onto somebody else instead of fixing the problem," said Bungay, co-founder of Trauma Healing Centers, which offer treatment for veterans, first responders and civilians suffering from PTSD, trauma, chronic pain or disabling illness.

Cassandra Desmond, left, and her sister Chantel Desmond are seen in Antigonish, N.S., in June. Their brother, Lionel Desmond, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"Nobody wants the answers because they know the answers are going to put everybody at fault — both governments.... How many times does something like this need to happen before they sit down and talk about it?"

Bungay spent 18 years in the military, which included four combat tours in Afghanistan. Like Desmond, he struggled with PTSD.

'I spiralled out of control'

"I came home and I went through this exact same thing," he said in an interview this week.

"I spiralled out of control. I lost everything. I was an alcoholic. I was on illicit drugs. You name it, I did it. Eventually, it turned into two suicide attempts.... [But] I came out on the other end. I'm one of the lucky ones."

He established the first trauma clinic in 2014. Now there are six centres in Nova Scotia, Ontario and New Brunswick offering help to about 6,000 clients.

Bungay said the federal government has improved the way it deals with medically discharged veterans and those with PTSD, but he said it has more work to do.

130 suicides since 2010

In October, Ottawa promised to improve support for military personnel through a new suicide prevention strategy, which focuses on easing the transition from a military career to civilian life.

"Unfortunately, people had to die before any polices changed," Bungay said. "And that's exactly where we are right now."

A collage of Lionel Desmond, his wife Shanna, mother Brenda and daughter Aaliyah and his military comrades. (CBC)

More than 130 serving military personnel have taken their own lives since 2010, according to National Defence.

In October, federal Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan suggested his department didn't have the jurisdiction to conduct an inquiry into the Desmond case because it couldn't gain access to provincial medical records.

'They may be afraid'

McNeil responded by suggesting the responsibility for a probe rested with Ottawa, but this week said the province will respond in some way.

"Whatever happens, one or the other [level of government] is going to have to share information," he said.

"Once the medical examiner presents something to the [provincial] justice minister, our goal is then to go out and do something to ... bring some level reassurance to the family to show that people are hearing them, and they can find some level of what happened throughout this process."

Like Bungay, Stoffer said both levels of government are apprehensive about allowing an inquiry to dig into what really happened to Lionel Desmond.

"They may be afraid they might be ashamed of some policies and practices that were supposed to be in place and weren't followed properly," Stoffer said.

"It may be a money matter. Who knows the reasons why?... There's a lot of unanswered questions. And there's no reason why both levels of government wouldn't want to co-operate to find out exactly what happened."