Nova Scotia

Independent panel 'a slap in the face,' says daughter of N.S. shooting victim

The federal and Nova Scotia governments have ordered a joint independent review of April's mass killing in Nova Scotia that left 22 people dead. It's come as a disappointment for the families who want to see a public inquiry instead.

Families of Nova Scotia victims asked for public inquiry, but review announced instead

Darcy Dobson and Nick Beaton, who lost loved ones in April's mass shootings in Nova Scotia, say they're upset by the decision to go with an independent review instead of a public inquiry. (CBC)

Some family members of the 22 victims of the Nova Scotia mass shooting say they're deeply disappointed by the announcement Thursday of an independent review into the tragedy.

Relatives have been calling for a public inquiry, but today the provincial and federal governments stopped short of that, instead announcing there will be an independent three-person panel led by the province's former top judge.

"I'm not really happy. I really feel that a full inquiry is necessary," said Charlene Bagley, who lost her father, Tom Bagley, in the shooting.

"We all deserve the truth and full transparency and I don't feel like we're going to get that."

The review means it is up to the panel to decide whether any hearings will be held in public. All documents and information collected as part of the review will also be kept confidential.

Bagley said she can't speak for the other families, but she said she wouldn't mind those aspects being made public if it means she gets the answers she's seeking.

"I don't want all the details [of] what happened to my father to be known," she said. "But … if it helps move forward and that we can learn from this, then I would be OK with it."

Tom Bagley died in the shooting. His daughter says she wants a full public inquiry into the tragedy. (Charlene Bagley/Facebook)

The panel's report, which is due next year and will be made public, will consider the causes, context and circumstances that led to the incident — including gender-based and intimate-partner violence and the gunman's access to firearms — as well as the police response and communications.

It will also address the steps taken to inform, support and engage victims, families and other people affected by the tragedy.

The panel will be chaired by former chief justice of Nova Scotia Michael MacDonald.

The other panel members are former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan, who is currently a senior adviser with the law firm Bennett Jones LLP, and Leanne Fitch, a former chief of the Fredericton Police Force.

All three panel members are from the Maritimes.

22 people killed

On April 18 and 19, a lone gunman went on a 13-hour shooting rampage that began in the small community of Portapique and ended at a gas station in Enfield, 150 kilometres away. Twenty-two people were killed, and the gunman was shot dead by police.

On Wednesday, about 280 people marched to the RCMP detachment in Bible Hill, N.S., to call for an inquiry to be held, after months of waiting for answers.

Nick Beaton, whose wife, Kristen Beaton, was killed in the April massacre, said not getting answers these past few months has been 'hell.' He was one of almost 300 people who marched on Wednesday, calling for a public inquiry. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Nick Beaton, whose wife, Kristen Beaton, was killed in the shooting along with their unborn child, said he's upset with the decision to go with a review instead of an inquiry.

"They say they're worried about our thoughts and feelings. This upsets us more than anything."

Beaton said he and the other families are "not done fighting" until they get the answers they've asked for.

Darcy Dobson, the daughter of victim Heather O'Brien, agreed.

"We're disappointed. It's a slap in the face, for sure," she said.

"Today, [Justice Minister] Mark Furey said in his release that he didn't want to hurt the families anymore, and what you're doing is hurting us by not giving us what we asked for."

From left, the three panelists are Leanne Fitch, Anne McLellan and Michael MacDonald. (The Canadian Press/CBC News)

In a news conference Thursday, Furey said the panel members were chosen because of their experience in fact-finding and independence, in-depth knowledge of public safety, policing and gender-based and intimate-partner violence, as well as their understanding of shared federal-provincial relations and responsibilities.

Furey has said on a number of occasions that while the province was committed to a review, it would not lead it.

On Thursday, he said they reviewed all options, including a public inquiry, but this process provided the "most timely opportunity" for the earliest responses and setting up a panel.

"We heard loud and clear that people wanted early changes," Furey said, noting that it can take years to set up an inquiry and that a review wouldn't take as long. 

In response to this explanation, Dobson said: "We never asked for quick. We asked for the truth."

The review process also does not include some of the powers granted in a public inquiry, such as information provided under oath and the ability to subpoena.

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said both levels of government are "absolutely committed" to this review and its recommendations.

"This is the right approach and we believe we have the right people to do the work and they have the necessary authorities to get Nova Scotians the answers they deserve," Blair said.

Families briefed

Furey said he spoke to the families earlier this week and that he wanted to personally tell them about the review panel ahead of time.

"We must commit to caring for and thinking of them first," he said.

He said he heard from them and is aware that a public inquiry is the mechanism "that they would prefer." But, he said, after looking at all of the factors, the approach of the review and the strength of the panel gives them the authority to get families the answers they need.

Bagley, who lost her father, said the families were given the opportunity to ask questions about this during their briefing, but she said when she submitted her written question, it was reworded and not properly answered.

"I feel like if they can't be transparent even there, how am I to trust that they're going to be transparent when it comes to the real thing?" she said.

Beaton also said he wasn't satisfied with the meeting with Furey.

"Any question that we asked him, he said, 'I can't speak on behalf of the panel,' " Beaton said.

Heather O'Brien, left, and Kristen Beaton both worked for the Victorian Order of Nurses and were victims of the shootings. (GoFundMe/The Canadian Press/GoFundMe/The Canadian Press)

Furey and Blair said all agencies and organizations under their jurisdiction will participate fully in the review, including the RCMP, the Canada Firearms Program, Canada Border Services Agency, the Criminal Intelligence Service and the national Alert Ready Program.

The RCMP released a statement on Thursday afternoon saying it supports the independent review and "will co-operate fully," ensuring the panel has all "available information required."

The panel can also notify the ministers, as well as the public, if an institution or individual fails to co-operate within a reasonable time or claims they cannot due to things like solicitor-client privilege or concerns an ongoing police investigation could be compromised.

"We've empowered the panel to speak publicly at any time, whether it's over the course of their work, in accessing information or anyone interfering in the independence of that panel," Furey said.

Final report in August

The panel, however, has no power to challenge claims of privilege, and can only make note of them.

The panel will provide an interim report to the ministers by Feb. 28, 2021. The final report will be delivered by Aug. 31, 2021. The ministers will receive the reports first and then make them public.

Furey said the panel members are prepared to start work right away, but there are a few administrative matters to get through first, such as finding office space.

The cost of the review will be shared equally between the two levels of government, but there is no set budget yet.

Reaction from opposition parties

Nova Scotia's opposition parties are also calling for an inquiry instead of a review.

In a written statement, Tim Houston, leader of the Progressive Conservatives, described the review as "a complete and utter abdication of responsibility" and "cover your ass politics."

"Premier Stephen McNeil promised Nova Scotians that by waiting for months, the chosen mechanism would ensure change across the country. We now know that wasn't true," the statement said.

"Nova Scotians should be angry, not only because they have been cheated out of an inquiry that is essential to getting answers, but because their Premier and Prime Minister are attempting to fool them into thinking this direction is in their best interest. We need to know who will be held accountable for this short-sighted decision."

Also in a statement, NDP leader Gary Burrill said the decision to forgo an inquiry in favour of the review was "hurtful and disappointing."

"Across Nova Scotia, many organizations and experts, the public in general, and most significantly, the families, have properly called for a public inquiry into the worst mass shooting in our country's history," Burrill's statement said. "The government is mistaken in deciding to do something less."

WATCH | Disappointed by independent review, families of N.S. shooting victims demand public inquiry:

The federal and Nova Scotia governments have ordered a joint independent review of April's mass killing in Nova Scotia that left 22 people dead. It's come as a disappointment for the families who want to see a public inquiry instead. 4:35

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Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said a public inquiry into the Portapique mass shootings would be announced today. In fact, it is a joint independent review that is being announced. This story has been corrected.
    Jul 23, 2020 10:54 AM AT
  • An earlier version of this story said a public inquiry included binding recommendations. In fact, these recommendations are not binding. This story has been corrected.
    Jul 27, 2020 2:45 PM AT

With files from Shaina Luck

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