Nova Scotia

Veterans advocate demands inquiry into killings involving former soldier

Veterans advocate Peter Stoffer is urging the provincial and federal, governments to open an inquiry into the Jan. 3 murder-suicide of Lionel Desmond, his wife, daughter and mother.

'What happened that night on Jan. 3 screams for an inquiry,' says former MP Peter Stoffer

Shanna Desmond and her daughter, Aaliyah, were among four of the people killed in a murder-suicide at a home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. in January. (Facebook)

Nova Scotia veterans advocate Peter Stoffer says the murder suicide of Lionel Desmond and his family earlier this year "screams" for a public inquiry and urges both the provincial and federal governments to take action.

The former NDP member of Parliament, and opposition critic for Veterans Affairs, has been writing formal letters to Canada's defence minister, Veterans Affairs and Premier Stephen McNeil to demand that either the province or Ottawa launch an inquiry into the Jan. 3 deaths of the former Canadian soldier and three members of his family.

Desmond, a 33-year-old former Canadian soldier, took his own life after shooting his 52-year-old mother Brenda, his wife Shanna, 31, and their 10-year-daughter Aaliyah in the family's Antigonish County home.

A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Desmond suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

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

His sister, Cassandra Desmond, told CBC News in January that Desmond's war experience had created "a mental monster inside of my brother that he couldn't control anymore."

Stoffer has never met with the family but sent them condolences following the deaths.

Medical examiner rejects inquiry

Nova Scotia's chief medical examiner Dr. Matthew Bowes has decided against holding a fatality inquiry into the deaths that rocked the small community of Upper Big Tracadie.

"To say I was disappointed would be an understatement," Stoffer said Wednesday.

"If anything, what happened that night on on Jan. 3 screams for an inquiry, either by the federal or provincial government or a combination of both," Stoffer said.

Veterans advocate Peter Stoffer is calling for a public inquiry into the murder-suicide of former Canadian soldier Lionel Desmond and his family (CBC)

He pointed to what he describes as the "many system failures along the way that caused Mr. Desmond to react the way that he did and to only surmise that the only way out for him was to take his own life but before he did that to take the lives of three other people."

Stoffer, who served 18 ½ years as an MP, said only a public inquiry will answer whether Desmond and his family were receiving the help and benefits they needed in a timely fashion; if there were any concerns by the Department of National Defence before his medical release; and about his dealings with the province's and military's mental health services.

But the Department of National Defence has said it won't investigate the deaths, that it has no authority to investigate the lives of retired members.  

The Nova Scotia Health Authority said it has completed a review of Desmond's treatment by the province's health-care system but will not make it public.

Any warning signs?

"Were there warning signs that could have been detected by people in the know who may have been able to have prevented this from happening?" Stoffer asked.

Desmond had received mental health treatment in the past at a Montreal clinic and had been part of a joint personnel support unit, which supports ill and injured members, until his release from the military in 2015.

Police vehicles are seen outside the Desmond residence in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., on Jan. 4, 2017. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Failing to call an inquiry gives the perception that the province and the federal government are keeping information from the public, Stoffer said.

"I hope that's not the truth, I hope that's not the real reason why they're not doing it," he said. "It could also be for fiscal reasons, they want to try to save money. But I hope that's not the excuse either because if any situation ever needed an inquiry, it's this one."

VETS Canada supports inquiry

A non-profit organization in Dartmouth that helps veterans who are homeless or in crisis supports an inquiry into the tragedy.

 "We do feel that the family is entitled to some answers. Without all the details, we don't know why the decision was made to not hold an inquiry, but it is disappointing for sure," says Debbie Lowther, who co-founded VETS Canada Veterans Emergency Transition Services in 2010.

She said VETS staff and volunteers wish they'd had the opportunity to help Lionel Desmond through peer support.

"We wish we had known about this veteran before he reached that level of despair. Maybe we could have held his hand and guided him to the right resources so that he could have received the help."

Lowther believes a peer or mentor should be assigned to armed forces members when they are released to maintain a link to their old life in the military. "It is difficult for them when they take the uniform off," she said.

The demand is there, she said. VETS Canada has helped over 1,600 military and RCMP veterans across the country in the past seven years, assisting 134 people last month alone.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca