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Families’ optimism in Nova Scotia mass shooting inquiry ‘waning,’ lawyer says

Many families of the 22 victims murdered by a gunman in 2020 feel they have been kept in the dark about the public inquiry into the killings.

The Mass Casualty Commission hearings into the horrific 13 hours that unwound during April 18-19, 2020, begin in a week.

“I think it’s fair to say that across the board, our clients are frustrated,” said Sandra McCulloch, a lawyer with Patterson Law, which is representing several victims’ families as well as other people affected by the killings.

The commission’s public proceedings have been delayed twice. They were supposed to start in October 2021 and are now set to begin on Feb. 22.

Read more: Families of N.S. shooting spree victims ‘increasingly concerned’ about public inquiry

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The families still don’t know what will be required of them, said McCulloch.

“They’re disappointed in that we’re going into these proceedings with quite a bit of information that’s still lacking about what it is that we’re going to be doing, what their role is really going to be in these public proceedings,” she said.

“Their optimism that the process is going to produce meaningful results for them is waning, for sure.”

Lawyer Sandra McCulloch says many questions still remain about the role of the families of the victims during the Nova Scotia shooting inquiry. Patterson Law

She said the biggest issue is that they don’t know who will be engaged as witnesses in the inquiry, and whether they will be questioned under oath or it will be more informal.

It is also unclear whether Patterson lawyers will be able to question witnesses on behalf of their clients.  The lawyers have voiced “considerable objection for some time now.”

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McCulloch said the information she’s received indicates they may be able to question witnesses, but only if “we make a satisfactory case for why we should be permitted to.”

“It’s difficult to do that at this point, not knowing who’s actually going to be called as a witness,” she said.

Read more: Too much happening ‘behind closed doors’ at inquiry into N.S. shooting spree, experts say

McCulloch said a list of witnesses has been requested, but as yet, not received. She thinks there are “a couple of names that will be brought forward in some form.”

“But again, we don’t know exactly what that format will be, for what purposes people will be brought forward, and whether we will have anything other than an observer role in the questioning of those witnesses.”

‘Adding to their stress and heartache’

In a statement, Emily Hill, the senior commission counsel, said the commission has provided family members information through their counsel on a weekly basis since the fall.

“This includes drafts of the Commission’s Foundational Documents and tens of thousands of pages of information, including transcripts of 911 calls, witness interviews, security camera footage from April 18 & 19 2020, notes and investigative files, information about the police responses on April 18 & 19 2020 and more,” Hill said.

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Some of the victims of the Nova Scotia shooting. Facebook

Hill added that the commission has included the family members’ input, sought through written requests and “weeks of meetings.”

“During the public proceedings, the Commission will continue to hear from Participants regarding gaps they see in the factual record and witnesses they suggest should be heard by the Commission,” said Hill’s statement.

“A public inquiry is not a trial. Nor is it about assigning blame. Public inquiries are about change. The Commission’s work is to determine what happened and why and how it happened in order to make recommendations that will help make sure it does not happen again.”

Read more: Nova Scotia’s top RCMP officer retiring days before public hearings into killing spree set to begin

McCulloch said while there has been a “great deal” of communication with commission council, there’s been little “satisfactory progress” regarding the questions she and her colleagues have raised.

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This is adding to the families’s pain while they continue to mourn their loved ones, she said.

“This idea that they‘re somehow going to get answers, get closure to their satisfaction out of this process is certainly deflating for them,” she said. “It’s only adding to their stress and heartache, from their perspectives.”

Plagued by delays

The path to the public inquiry was long and muddled.

Very shortly after the deadliest massacre in Canadian history occurred, many questions were raised by families and observers about what the RCMP knew and how they responded,

The provincial and federal governments called for an “independent review” in July 2020, but after significant public backlash, they changed their tune and called a public inquiry just days later.

Read more: Scoping documents for ‘Nova Scotia Shootings Review’ drafted less than 2 weeks after attack

However, with so much of the details still unknown after a year and a half, the families say the inquiry isn’t what they had been fighting for.

“This has been the review that we fought against,” said Nick Beaton, in a release issued by Patterson Law. His pregnant wife Kristen Beaton was killed in the shooting.

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“We wanted the tools that a public inquiry would give us, that a review would not … all this has done is cost taxpayers millions of dollars, only to give us a review anyway.”

Click to play video: 'Public hearings for Nova Scotia shooting delayed by months' Public hearings for Nova Scotia shooting delayed by months
Public hearings for Nova Scotia shooting delayed by months – Oct 25, 2021

The inquiry has been plagued by months of delays. Public hearings were scheduled to begin in October, but two weeks before the start date, the commission said the hearings would be delayed until the end of January.

Then the commission pushed the start date back even further — to Feb. 22.

McCulloch is concerned the inquiry will be truncated as a result of the delays, which means the evidence may not be fully explored.

The inquiry’s mandate requires it to file a final report by Nov. 1.

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Read more: N.S. mass killing probe names participants including families, police, victims groups

McCulloch said she doesn’t want any more delays, but the families’ lawyers are looking for more information so they can prepare.

“There are some easy answers to some of those (concerns). Tell us who the witnesses are, and tell us why you’re bringing them forward, and in what format you’re going to bring them forward so we can take the time that we need to deal with that,” she said.

Patterson Law has submitted eight questions to inquiry counsel, many of them focused on the role of witnesses, how they will be asked to give evidence, as well as questions about so-called foundational documents being prepared for the inquiry. They have asked for access to other documents and whether lawyers for the families will be allowed to test the evidence presented to the inquiry or raise objections.

Behind closed doors

Ed Ratushny, a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa’s law school, told The Canadian Press the information requested by the law firm is justified.

“I can’t understand why the commission has not already provided it, not only to the lawyers but also to the entire public,” Ratushny said in an email.

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“Public inquiries are created because the public does not trust other institutions to fulfil their function. But the Patterson document appears to conclude that the public may be on the verge of not trusting this commission either.”

Ratushny, author of the 2009 book, “The Conduct of Public Inquiries,” said a commission of inquiry is supposed to ask the tough questions, identify where things went wrong and recommend changes.

“But right now, I just don’t see that happening,” Ratushny said. “This is a serious condemnation of the commission’s failure to disclose completely what it has done to date, how it will proceed from here and why they have waited so long to reveal all of this.”

Read more: N.S. shooting probe sought ‘balance’ in request for delays, families’ push to proceed

Global News has previously reported concerns raised by legal experts who argue too much of the commission’s work has taken place “behind closed doors.”

The commission was announced in July 2020 and began its work in January 2021. Since then, nearly all work has occurred in private sessions that the public and media can’t attend.

The commission has also been criticized for sharing draft copies of its foundational documents with interested groups, such as the RCMP, police unions and governments, without sharing that same information with the public.

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– with files from The Canadian Press

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