Desmond inquiry: No word on when fatality inquiry in Nova Scotia will resume

HALIFAX — Nearly seven months after the COVID-19 pandemic halted an inquiry into why a former soldier killed three family members and himself in Nova Scotia, there has yet to be any indication of when it will resume.

Provincial Justice Minister Mark Furey confirmed Thursday that work is underway to either expand the existing hearing room or find a larger venue to ensure the inquiry can comply with physical distancing protocols.

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The minister, however, could not say how long that will take.

"It's a pretty restricted space," Furey said, referring to the renovated municipal building in Guysborough, N.S., a small community in eastern Nova Scotia close to where the killings took place.

The provincial fatality inquiry is investigating why Lionel Desmond, a mentally ill former infantryman, fatally shot his mother, wife and 10-year-old daughter before turning the gun on himself in their rural home in Big Tracadie, N.S., on Jan. 3, 2017.

Furey said it would be up to the inquiry's commissioner, provincial court Judge Warren Zimmer, to decide when the inquiry will resume. Inquiry officials did not respond when asked for an update.

The inquiry started hearing testimony in January and the proceedings were suspended after March 2.

At that date, the inquiry had reached a pivotal point because there were indications federal officials involved in Desmond's case were about to testify. Though the inquiry is provincial in scope, the federal Veterans Affairs Department is taking part in the hearings.

Cassandra Desmond, one of Lionel Desmond's four sisters, said the suspension of hearings was understandable, but she said the lack of information since then is not acceptable. She said she hasn't heard anything from inquiry officials since March.

"We're ready to get on the go," she said in an interview from her home in Antigonish, N.S.

"We've been waiting and waiting . . . and just hearing nothing, and not knowing anything . . . . It would be nice if they actually got the ball rolling and would start updating us on things."

Desmond said she has heard from her lawyer that there are plans to move the hearings to a larger building in nearby Port Hawkesbury, but that information has yet to be confirmed.

Still, she disagreed when asked if the inquiry had lost its momentum after hearing 17 days of testimony, some of which raised troubling questions about the role federal officials played in handling Lionel Desmond's mental-health file.

"There's not really much we could do during the pandemic," she said.

"I can't say that we've lost momentum because, even though we're not in the hearings and things are shut down, we have been working behind the scenes. We've been getting more records and going through that."

Desmond's lawyer, Adam Rodgers, said those participating in the inquiry have received documents related to Lionel Desmond's treatment at an operational stress injury clinic in Fredericton run by Veterans Affairs.

"There are 157 pages in this disclosure, some of which appear to be medical reports that we have received through other providers," Rodgers said in an email. "That is encouraging."

Rodgers said he's heard plans are in the works to hear testimony from witnesses from within the Atlantic region, including members of the extended Desmond family and other relatives.

Any witnesses travelling to Nova Scotia from outside the region would be required to remain in isolation for 14 days under the province's health protection protocols.

Rodgers said he is worried about the loss of momentum and the implications for veterans with mental health challenges.

"Any delay means it will take more time for the anticipated recommendations to be made and then put in place, and that delay will have individual and cumulative effects on combat veterans and their families," he said.

"We also felt like there was good momentum from the first session that ended in March, and it will take some effort to get that back . . . . For the public, it may take some effort from the lawyers and other participants to re-capture the narrative."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2020

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