The Nova Scotia government has announced an inquiry into the deaths of a former soldier and his family nearly a year after the tragic murder-suicides sent shock waves across the country.
Dr. Matt Bowes, the province’s chief medical examiner, said Thursday he is recommending an inquiry into the Jan. 3, 2017, deaths in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.
Retired corporal Lionel Desmond shot his wife Shanna, 31, their 10-year-daughter Aaliyah and his 52-year-old mother Brenda, before turning the gun on himself.
The Justice Department said in a news release the inquiry’s terms of reference, and the judge who will oversee it, will be announced in the new year.
Desmond had been diagnosed with PTSD and post-concussion disorder after completing two difficult tours in Afghanistan in 2007. Two of Desmond’s sisters, twins Chantel and Cassandra, have led a high-profile campaign calling for an inquiry.
“There have been many questions raised by the family and members of the community relating to how this tragedy could have happened and whether anything could have been done to prevent these deaths,” Bowes said in a statement Thursday.
“I have reflected carefully on this case, I have reviewed the circumstances of these deaths, and I have had the privilege of speaking with some members of the Desmond family. I believe that an inquiry could help us to learn from this tragedy and, in so doing, I am hopeful that we may prevent future deaths in similar circumstances.”
Trev Bungay, a retired soldier who served in Afghanistan with Desmond, questioned why it took almost a year to recommend an inquiry into the horrific murder-suicides.
“It’s about time,” he said in an interview from Fredericton, N.B., adding that Ottawa and the province “wasted a lot of time blaming each other and trying to figure out whose fault it was.”
Still, Bungay said he’s hopeful the inquiry will provide some badly needed answers for the family, as well as ensure better services are in place for veterans in the future.
“At least the family can have some sort of closure. For them this has been a nightmare,” he said. “They want answers and this is how to get them and more importantly how to stop this from ever happening again.”
Such investigations are rare in the province. The last time a fatality inquiry was held in Nova Scotia was almost 10 years ago.
“Our thoughts continue to be with the family at this difficult time,” Justice Minister Mark Furey said in a statement. “I thank Dr. Bowes for his review of this matter and will be acting on his recommendation in the new year.”
Family members say Desmond was a radically changed man when he was medically discharged, and returned home to Upper Big Tracadie in 2015. They say his outgoing sense of humour had dimmed and, more importantly, he seemed withdrawn and in a defensive posture much of the time, as if he was still in combat mode.
Within hours of the killings, relatives came forward to complain Desmond did not get the help he needed to cope with civilian life, and they demanded a public inquiry to determine what went wrong and how to prevent similar tragedies.
Dr. John Butt, the former medical examiner for both Nova Scotia and Alberta, had called for an inquiry. And several veterans groups and individuals have also come forward to call for action, including Vets Canada and Wounded Warriors Canada.
Veterans’ advocate Peter Stoffer said there are several questions the inquiry will need to address.
The former Nova Scotia NDP MP said the inquiry will need to examine Desmond’s transition from military to civilian life, including gaps in services provided by Veterans Affairs Canada and the province.
“The number one recommendation would be that nobody leaves the military or for that matter the RCMP until all support systems are in place,” he said. ”The services need to be in place before the uniform comes off.”
Stoffer added that the inquiry must be open and inclusive.
“It should have access to all the information that it asks for in order to determine, if it’s possible, what happened and where lessons can be learned so that this tragedy will not happen again,” he said. ”I’m just hoping at the end of the day the inquiry will provide some of the answers the family is asking for to give them some comfort and most importantly give them some closure.”
More than 130 serving military personnel have taken their own lives since 2010, according to National Defence.
In October, Ottawa promised to improve support for military personnel through a new suicide prevention strategy, which focuses on easing the transition from a military career to civilian life.