HALIFAX – A public inquiry into the deaths of Lionel Desmond and his family will examine the troubled Afghanistan war veteran’s access to mental health and domestic violence services — as well as how he managed to keep his guns.
A list of seven legally binding terms of reference for the judicial fatality inquiry were released Thursday, more than a year after Desmond fatally shot himself and his mother, wife and 10-year-old daughter in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.
Desmond, 33, was diagnosed with PTSD after two harrowing tours in Afghanistan in 2007.
Justice Minister Mark Furey said the Nova Scotia government hopes to learn more precisely the circumstances of the deaths, and “more importantly, how can we prevent these circumstances from happening again.”
There were concerns, however, that Veterans Affairs and the Defence Department won’t be formally compelled to testify on wider areas of federal jurisdiction about the troubled experiences of many Afghan vets with PTSD.
The rare probe will be the first in the province in over a decade. The date for the inquiry has not been announced, but it will be held in Guysborough, N.S., near the community where the deaths occurred.
The document calls for the inquiry to review whether Desmond had access to appropriate mental health services, and whether he and his family had access to domestic violence intervention services.
It also says the judge should consider whether health care and social services providers who interacted with Desmond were trained to recognize occupational stress injuries or domestic violence, and also whether Desmond should have been able to retain, or obtain, a licence enabling him to purchase a firearm.
In addition, the final report is to consider if there were any restrictions in the flow of Veteran Affairs or Defence records to provincial health personnel.
It ends by authorizing the judge to make, “any recommendations … about the foregoing matters.”
Desmond’s family members have said the veteran did not get the help he needed from Defence or Veterans Affairs.
Cassandra Desmond — who lost her mother, only brother and his entire family in the murder-suicide — said she’s anticipating an emotional rollercoaster for her family and Upper Big Tracadie.
“This is going to be a break into the reality of all this for me. For the last year-and-a-half I’ve been battling over … what went wrong and how are we going to get this inquiry done. I’ve been putting my own emotions and pain behind me,” she said.
“It’s going to be hard but at the end of the day it (the inquiry) is going to shed new light and it’s going to help another family not go what we’ve been going through.”
She anticipates she will learn in often difficult detail exactly what her older brother experienced overseas and how his increasingly debilitating mental illnesses were treated.
She is also eager to learn more about why he was released from the local St. Martha’s hospital on Jan. 2, and his access to mental health services after he was discharged from CFB Gagetown and lived in New Brunswick before moving back to Nova Scotia.
The 27-year-old said she wants to know how the Veterans Affairs and Defence programs for veterans with PTSD were actively tracking the soldier as he tried to re-enter civilian life.
“We don’t know if he was being followed here, and I find it’s important they look into that,” said the sister.
However, Ed Ratushny, a University of Ottawa law professor, said he remains uncertain over whether the inquiry will have the powers it needs to compel federal officials in Defence and Veterans Affairs to speak at the inquiry.
If the public expectation for the inquiry is to examine more widely why Afghan veterans have been taking their own lives and, on rare occasions, the lives of others, then there may be disappointment, he said.
More than 130 serving military personnel have taken their own lives since 2010, according to National Defence. Officials have not been able to determine the number of suicides among veterans, but previous studies have suggested former service members are more at risk than those still in uniform.
Ratushny said issues of mental health care that involve the operations of Defence and Veterans Affairs are not explicitly covered by the jurisdiction of the inquiry.
The author of the 2009 book “The Conduct of Public Inquiries” says, “I doubt the federal government will concede it has to answer any questions that are related to its exclusive jurisdiction.” He has argued the problem of jurisdiction could have been avoided if the two levels of government had formally agreed to conduct a joint inquiry.
Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan has pledged full co-operation with the provincial inquiry.
In an email, Marc Lescoutre, a spokesman for Veterans Affairs, said “very difficult circumstances led to this investigation and we must work together to ensure they do not reoccur.”
“The government of Canada is committed to co-operate with Nova Scotia’s inquiry. We are currently reviewing the terms of reference.”
The push for an inquiry began with family members, after they expressed dissatisfaction with internal reviews. Public inquiries are rare in Nova Scotia, which unlike other provinces doesn’t have a coroner’s inquest system that is required to hold reviews for various forms of non-accidental death.
After a series of meetings with the relatives, Dr. Matt Bowes, Nova Scotia’s chief medical examiner, took the unusual step of recommending a fatality inquiry in the Desmond case.
“The next step in the inquiry process will be the announcement of a provincial court judge and designated Crown counsel to conduct the inquiry. That announcement is expected in the coming weeks,” a press release from the Nova Scotia Judiciary said.
Due to public interest, the judiciary said it’s also possible the inquiry will be live streamed, but that would need to be approved by the presiding judge.
Furey said it’s expected the inquiry will begin later this year, but he didn’t have a precise date.