Lionel Desmond’s family testifies as fatality inquiry resumes


The two families at the heart of the Lionel Desmond fatality inquiry will 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 first session of the inquiry ended on March 2, 2020, but later sessions were delayed by 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. 

Cassandra Desmond, one of Lionel’s sisters, began testifying Tuesday morning about why her brother signed up to serve in the military.

Desmond’s sisters will speak about the lack of support the veteran’s family received from the Canadian Forces as he transitioned to living with his wife and infant daughter after a tour of Afghanistan in 2007, one of the lawyers, Adam Rodgers said.

CBC reporter Laura Fraser is live blogging the hearing:

He said that same lack of support continued when the veteran was released from a Veterans Affairs psychiatric institution in 2016, after a decade-long struggle with PTSD.

“From the sisters’ perspective, they’ll say that 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,” said Rodgers.

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)

Inquiry mandate

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 he received 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) crisisservicescanada.ca

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 www.kidshelpphone.ca

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

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