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Desmond inquiry: focus of hearings shifts to examination of domestic violence

PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — The complex issue of domestic violence was the focus Tuesday for an inquiry investigating why Lionel Desmond, a former soldier from Nova Scotia, killed three family members and himself in 2017.

PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — The complex issue of domestic violence was the focus Tuesday for an inquiry investigating why Lionel Desmond, a former soldier from Nova Scotia, killed three family members and himself in 2017.

The executive director of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Stephanie MacInnis-Langley, told the inquiry that those facing intimate partner violence are most at risk when they are about to leave an abusive relationship.

The inquiry has heard Desmond, who served in Afghanistan in 2007 and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2011, fatally shot his wife, mother and 10-year-old daughter soon after he called a therapist and told her his wife, Shanna, had made it clear she wanted a divorce.

"Your highest level of risk in a domestic violence relationship is when you try to leave the relationship — that is across the board," MacInnis-Langley testified. "Experts will tell you that ... the highest risk is the moment you've indicated that the relationship is over."

Several witnesses have told the inquiry that Desmond had admitted to arguing with his wife as part of a long-standing pattern of conflict within their marriage. As well, he told health-care providers he had struck a table and startled his daughter at one point, but he repeatedly denied abusing his spouse.

One of the key mandates of the provincial fatality inquiry, which started hearings in January 2020, is to determine if Desmond and his family had access to domestic violence prevention services.

MacInnis-Langley told the inquiry it would be inappropriate for her to comment on the Desmond family in particular, partly because she was not familiar with their file.

Speaking in more general terms, she said victims of domestic violence tend to minimize the level of danger they are facing.

At an earlier hearing, the inquiry learned that three hours before the killings, Shanna Desmond had called a community group that offers support to women and children facing domestic violence. 

Nicole Mann, executive director of the Naomi Society in Antigonish, N.S., told the inquiry she received a call from a woman who gave no indication she was at risk.

"She didn't speak of any domestic violence," Mann told the inquiry on Feb. 25, 2020. "She was articulate and straightforward. This person was not in crisis or distraught in any way .... There was nothing alarming about the call."

Mann said the woman, whom she later identified as Shanna Desmond, calmly asked about how to obtain a peace bond, which is a type of court order used to prevent a person from committing harm.

During the call, Shanna Desmond mentioned her 10-year-old daughter, and Mann asked about their safety and if they were at risk of being harmed. "Her response to that was, 'No,' " Mann said. She also asked Shanna Desmond if the RCMP should be notified. Again, the answer was no.

During the hearing on Tuesday, MacInnis-Langley said women facing intimate partner violence are typically stoic in their resolve to remedy the situation.

"There is a bit of a bias in the public that we (as women) should be able to manage everything but Mount Everest," she told the inquiry.

"For any woman calling to ask for that kind of information — unless they're in a circumstance where police are in their living room and they are in a crisis — it would be very unusual for them to call and present anything but a methodical question and answer."

According to provincial data, only one in four Nova Scotian women who experience spousal violence report it to police, and only one in three report it to a service agency.

MacInnis-Langley said most women in abusive relationships are typically focused on ending the violence rather than ending the relationship.

"If there are children involved, if there's finances involved, if there's housing involved, leaving a domestic violence relationship is difficult," she said. 

"And we have to remember that in domestic violence relationships, the partners aren't always bad people. They're not monsters. They've got coping issues, control issues, power issues. They're not 24/7 bad people."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2021.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax

The Canadian Press