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As the Lionel Desmond inquiry resumes, a look at what has been learned so far

HALIFAX — Lionel Desmond was a desperately ill man, and he knew it. The former Canadian soldier was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and a possible traumatic brain injury when he was released from the military in 2015.

HALIFAX — Lionel Desmond was a desperately ill man, and he knew it. 

The former Canadian soldier was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and a possible traumatic brain injury when he was released from the military in 2015. Veterans Affairs Canada was responsible for his ongoing care, but something went terribly wrong after he was discharged from a treatment facility in Montreal in August 2016.

On Jan. 3, 2017, Desmond used a Soviet-era SKS 7.62 semi-automatic carbine to kill his 52-year-old mother Brenda, his 31-year-old wife Shanna and their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah in the family's home in Big Tracadie, N.S. 

A provincial fatality inquiry investigating the killings, which is scheduled to resume Tuesday after an 11-month hiatus caused by the pandemic, is expected to hear testimony this week from Desmond's sister Cassandra and other members of the Desmond family.

Cassandra and her twin sister Chantel led a vocal campaign to establish the inquiry, arguing that their brother, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, did not receive the treatment he needed when he returned home to Nova Scotia.

During 17 days of hearings that wrapped up in March, the inquiry uncovered key evidence that is sure to figure prominently in the commission's findings and recommendations.

Among other things, the inquiry learned Desmond received no therapeutic treatment in the four months before the triple murder-suicide.

"In the first phase of the Desmond Inquiry, we learned how Veterans Affairs allowed Cpl. Desmond to leave their care and return to his family and community without any real transitional support," says Adam Rodgers, a lawyer who represents Desmond's estate and Cassandra.

"Veterans Affairs allowed him to leave the program and return to Nova Scotia without having set up any counselling or other mental-health supports." 

The inquiry also learned that Desmond was so desperate to find help that on at least two occasions he travelled to a hospital in nearby Antigonish, N.S., where he was seen by doctors in the emergency department.

Dr. Ian Slayter, a hospital psychiatrist, told the inquiry that when he spoke to Desmond in December 2016, he was unaware the former infantryman had already met with a psychotherapist contracted by Veterans Affairs. 

Slayter later produced a report saying it appeared Desmond was "falling through the cracks in terms of followup by military and veterans programs."

During his testimony, Slayter agreed when asked if federal and provincial health-care workers were operating in silos that prevented them from providing the best treatment for Desmond. 

"After returning home, and having been left to his own devices for months, Cpl. Desmond sought help from local psychiatrists and counsellors," Rodgers said in a recent email.

"These professionals did their best but were severely limited in what insight they could gain because they were not provided any records from Veterans Affairs. There do not appear to be any effective protocols in place for sharing of information when a soldier is discharged into civilian life."

Provincial court Judge Warren Zimmer, the inquiry's commissioner, has pointed to evidence suggesting Veterans Affairs did not share key information about the severity of Desmond's mental illness with one of the last health professionals to talk to the 33-year-old. 

Catherine Chambers, a therapist who specializes in treating PTSD, told the inquiry she never received any medical documents from the federal department. 

Veterans Affairs also drew fire from a family doctor in New Brunswick who had prescribed cannabis to Desmond. Paul Smith, told the inquiry that soldiers given medical discharges for PTSD were generally treated poorly by the department.

"Our PTSD soldiers are chastised," he testified on Feb. 24, 2020. "They are treated like lepers." Smith later apologized for those comments when challenged by a lawyer representing the federal government. The inquiry has yet to hear testimony from anyone representing Veterans Affairs.

On another front, the inquiry is also examining whether the Desmond family had access to domestic violence services, and whether health-care professionals were trained to deal with that kind of challenge.

Health-care workers and police told the inquiry Desmond and his wife Shanna had a troubled relationship after he left the military in 2015. There was a long-standing pattern of conflict that included calls to police. 

Only hours before Desmond killed his family, he placed a call to his new therapist to say Shanna had asked him for a divorce. The inquiry also learned that around the same time, Shanna Desmond called a non-profit group that offers support to women facing intimate partner violence. 

Nicole Mann, executive director of the Naomi Society in Antigonish, N.S., told the inquiry that an unidentified woman, whom she later identified as Shanna Desmond, had called to ask about how to obtain a peace bond, though she gave no indication she was at risk.

"She didn't speak of any domestic violence," Mann testified. "This person was not in crisis or distraught in any way." 

The hearings, which before the pandemic were held in a municipal building in Guysborough, N.S., are scheduled to resume inside a larger courthouse in nearby Port Hawkesbury.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2021.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Aaliyah Desmond’s first name.

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