Desmond inquiry: presiding judge hints at key recommendation as testimony concludes

Click to play video: 'Lionel Desmond inquiry reveals cracks in Canadian veterans’ health care'
Lionel Desmond inquiry reveals cracks in Canadian veterans’ health care
Canadian veteran Lionel Desmond struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in Afghanistan. In 2017, he killed his family and himself. As Ross Lord reports, the inquiry into Desmond's case has revealed critical gaps in the system meant to help those who served our country – Jun 27, 2021

When an inquiry started investigating why Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond killed his family and himself in 2017, one of the key questions was how he got access to an assault-style rifle.

More than five years after the killings in rural Nova Scotia, the provincial fatality inquiry heard from its final witness Tuesday: the province’s chief firearms officer.

Read more: Lionel Desmond inquiry focuses on police initiatives around intimate partner violence

John Parkin, who testified at earlier hearings, faced more questions related to Desmond’s legal purchase of the semi-automatic SKS 7.62 carbine he used to kill his wife, mother and 10-year-old daughter before he turned the gun on himself on Jan. 3, 2017.

The inquiry, which started hearing testimony in January 2020, has heard the former infantryman’s firearms licence was suspended in December 2015 after he was arrested in New Brunswick under the province’s Mental Health Act.

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At the time, his wife Shanna was in Nova Scotia, where she told the RCMP she had received texts indicating the former corporal, who had been diagnosed with major depression and severe PTSD in 2011, was preparing to kill himself in their home in Oromocto, N.B.

Desmond’s firearms licence, however, was reinstated in May 2016 after a New Brunswick doctor signed a medical assessment form that declared Desmond was “non-suicidal and stable.”

“He was very open with his feelings, and he had things to live for,” Dr. Paul Smith told the inquiry on Feb. 24, 2020.

The physician said he was unaware his recommendation would carry so much weight. In fact, he said, he expected Desmond’s licence would be rejected by the RCMP or another agency. “I didn’t think I was the final decision-maker,” he testified.

By the time Smith had signed the form, Desmond was receiving treatment from medical professionals at a clinic in Fredericton, where they later determined his mental state had become so unstable he required special treatment at a residential facility in Montreal.

Dr. Anthony Njoku, a psychiatrist at the Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Fredericton, told the inquiry that Desmond was irritable, distracted, distressed and preoccupied by intrusive thoughts that forced him to relive traumatic experiences he had endured as a combat soldier in Afghanistan in 2007.

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“I thought he needed a lot of help,” Njoku testified on Feb. 27, 2020.

Read more: Desmond inquiry - Nova Scotia inquest into shooting tragedy facing complex challenges

The psychiatrist, however, said the former rifleman was actually more worried about his wife, whom he suspected of wasting money and plotting against him _ thoughts the psychiatrist described as bordering on delusions. Njoku said he couldn’t determine whether Desmond’s anger toward his wife was the result of PTSD or the byproduct of a relationship breaking down.

None of that information was shared with federal or provincial firearms officials, as the clinic was not required to do so.

On Tuesday, the provincial court judge presiding over the inquiry, Warren Zimmer, suggested to Parkin that medical professionals should be required or at least encouraged to update firearms officials when they detect a decline in the mental health of patients with firearms licences.

“I’m concerned with changes in the system that would help close those gaps so that things don’t slip through,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer said health professionals in some provinces are already required to alert authorities when patients with a driver’s licence are afflicted with mental or physical conditions that make it unsafe for them to drive.

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“There are provinces that make it mandatory, and it appears to not create any great amount of litigation because it’s a mandatory obligation,” Zimmer said, addressing concerns raised earlier by Parkin.

The judge hinted that his final report, expected this fall, will include a recommendation for legislation that would require medical professionals to provide similar information to the firearms officials, including updates on medications and intimate partner relationships and other factors.

“The important aspect of it is to get the information into your hands so that you can make a decision on how to follow up,” Zimmer told Parkin.

Parkin said that kind of information would be helpful for assessing licence applications, renewals and reviews. “It can easily happen that matters that ought to come to us slip past our office,” he said.

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At an earlier hearing, the judge noted that provincial and federal officials seemed to be operating in “silos” that prevented them from sharing key information.

For example, firearms and health-care officials in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick testified they were unaware of the extent of Desmond’s mental illness because they did not have access to his federal files.

Among other things, the inquiry is also trying to determine whether the Desmond family had access to services to help with mental health and domestic violence prevention, and whether the health-care professionals who dealt with Desmond were trained to recognize mental health and domestic violence issues.

Participating lawyers are scheduled to present final submissions the week of April 18.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2022.

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