‘We won’t stop’: Lionel Desmond’s family, ex-military personnel call for inquiry, changes to prevent veteran tragedies
Family, friends, members of the Canadian Armed Forces and concerned citizens came together Saturday for the Desmond Family Tragedy — A Rally for Change, a call to action to prevent tragedies in the future concerning veterans and mental health.
The event was held at the St. Andrews Community Centre, just outside Antigonish, N.S., and organized by Cassandra Desmond, sister of Lionel Desmond.
“I basically am advocating for a community of change for our mental health system as a whole for not only our veteran civilians but our civilians and our people within our nation as a whole,” Cassandra told Global News.
Lionel Desmond, a 33-year-old military veteran, fatally shot his 52-year-old mother Brenda, his 31-year-old wife Shanna and 10-year old daughter Aaliyah at their home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., before turning the gun on himself earlier this year.
Lionel’s family says he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD before the triple-murder suicide.
“The tragedy that took place on Jan. 3 that involved my family opened up the eyes of our nation,” said Cassandra.
“We labeled it the Desmond Family Tragedy but a Rally for Change because we want to make change for our community, veterans’ community, and not just our veterans and our community, but for anybody out there suffering with mental health issues, suicide, depression, anxiety. We’re all in this together you know.”
WATCH: ‘I will fix it,’ Lionel Desmond said before Nova Scotia murder-suicides
For more than eight months, the Desmond family has been asking the government to call an inquiry into what went wrong but nothing has been done yet.
“I don’t want another family to have to go through the tragedy that my family’s going through,” said Cassandra.
“We’re still talking about it, we’re still having nightmares. We can’t get over this in a short period of time, and not having answers to questions that are obviously dwelling in our minds each and every day is not helping the process of healing for us.”
WATCH: Family of Lionel Desmond now believes Nova Scotia Health Authority ‘did the best that they could’
Barry Westholm, a retired sergeant major who was involved with the Joint Personnel Support Unit, came from Ontario for the Rally for Change.
Westholm says the unit is responsible for transitioning injured and ill military members back into civilian life, and had worked with Lionel Desmond.
“There’s an enormous amount of problems to do with that unit that we saw coming, such as this, and the people in the military wouldn’t make any moves [to] reinforce that unit at all, and people like Desmond didn’t so much fall through the cracks… but were jammed into them,” he said.
Westholm says his frustration with the program reached its breaking point in 2013 and he retired in protest of the program’s inefficiencies.
“Something as tragic as the Desmond family situation should have galvanized the government, Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs,” he said. “I mean, it should have had them leaping out of their chairs, calling meetings, saying noone’s going home until we figure out what the heck happened there and we fix it.”
Westholm says the problem permeates Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and wants the government to reach out to people and get things done.
“There’s people in their basements right now — right now — that think their life’s not worth anything. They’re waiting for someone to come and show some compassion, for that human connection, right, who wouldn’t? They’re there and they’re not going to get it because the systems we have in place now with VAC are based on bureaucracy, paperwork and policy,” he said.
WATCH: Two-tiered justice system, race issues the reason for lack of Lionel Desmond inquiry: relative
Politicians from all levels of government were invited to the event — but failed to show up.
Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard did attend and said she would bring concerns raised at the event back to the veterans affairs minister.
“I came today because I wanted to support the Desmond family. I wanted to support the community and I wanted to support veterans,” said Bernard.
As for Cassandra, she vows to keep fighting for answers about what happened to her brother and hopefully, prevent another tragedy.
“We won’t stop so don’t expect us to stop.”
“I will be that voice for my brother and make sure justice is served in my brother’s name,” she said. “It took 40 years for them to get justice for Viola Desmond. It will not take 40 years for Lionel Desmond.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911. 911 can send immediate help. For a list of available mental health programs and services around Canada, please refer to the list here.
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