Twin sisters Cassandra and Chantel Desmond lost their mother, only brother and his entire family in a murder-suicide almost six months ago, and in that time their debilitating sense of grief has largely given way to feelings of frustration, anger and a driving desire for public accountability.
The Desmond family was thrust into the national spotlight in early January when Lionel Desmond, a former Canadian soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, fatally shot his 52-year-old mother Brenda, his 31-year-old wife Shanna, and their 10-year-daughter Aaliyah in their rural Nova Scotia home.
At the time, relatives said the former infantryman, who completed two tours in Afghanistan starting in 2007, did not get the help he needed to deal with his mental illness and a post-concussion disorder after he was medically released from the military in 2015.
“How many more soldiers are going to have to take their own lives, and their families along with them, before they realize they have to focus more on our veterans,” Cassandra Desmond said in an interview earlier this week. “We are killing them mentally, but we are not helping them at all.”
The sisters are now demanding a judicial fatality inquiry, saying they have yet to receive any useful information from public officials.
Such inquiries are rare in Nova Scotia.
“Nobody wants to take the blame for anything, so they keep pointing fingers at somebody else,” Cassandra Desmond said, as a gaggle of small children scurried around her small home in northern Nova Scotia. “We deserve answers.”
As she spoke, she consulted files and a notebook that includes scores of neatly written entries that catalogue the family’s interactions with government and military officials. The sisters say they have been asking for records and reports to help them understand why Lionel Desmond killed himself and his family in January. They say they want to do what they can to prevent another similar tragedy.
However, they are furious about what they say is a lack of disclosure from the RCMP, Veterans Affairs Canada, National Defence and the province’s health authority.
“They didn’t notify us about anything,” Chantel Desmond said when asked about how the Mounties have responded to their requests, though there was a brief meeting to discuss the closure of their investigation.
“The Department of National Defence said they didn’t want to release anything until the investigation was closed, and we’re here a month later and they haven’t disclosed anything. Does that makes sense?”
The Defence Department has confirmed it will not be investigating what happened, saying it has no authority to investigate the lives of retired members.
The RCMP have confirmed that their investigation of the murder suicide was closed on May 15. But a spokeswoman said no information would be released to the public, citing privacy legislation.
Meanwhile, Veterans Affairs Canada has said suicide reviews are routinely carried out when veterans are involved, but the department’s findings are kept confidential to protect client privacy.
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The Desmond sisters say officials have routinely cited privacy concerns almost every time the pair have requested information about the grim case.
“Their own privacy, that’s what they are protecting,” Cassandra Desmond said in a strong, defiant tone. “How is it confidential when these people are deceased?”
Chantel Desmond said the family is considering legal action, but she said their priority is to have the province’s medical examiner, Dr. Matthew Bowes, call for a judicial inquiry.
A spokeswoman for Bowes had initially indicated Bowes had ruled out an inquiry, but he has since said he is waiting to see a so-called quality review from the Nova Scotia Health Authority, which has looked into how the province’s health-care system dealt with Lionel Desmond.
Bowes has also said if information is withheld or seems “at odds” with the case, he will consider the family’s views.
“I would definitely consider their feelings about this,” he said in a recent interview. “I think that is the most important thing I can do.”
The confidential internal review, which has been completed for at least a month, will not be released to the public, the authority says.
Cassandra Desmond said she has been pressing the authority to set up a meeting to talk about the document, but she said she had gotten nowhere.
Several high-profile veterans groups and individuals have come forward in recent weeks to call for more action, including Wounded Warriors Canada, Vets Canada and longtime veterans advocate Peter Stoffer, a former NDP MP. As well, a former soldier with PTSD and the wife of another soldier with the mental illness have also said more needs to be done.