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Nova Scotia murder-suicides: 'We can't ignore the role of family violence here'


Published on January 10, 2017

A police vehicle is parked outside a residence in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. The funeral for a mother and young daughter shot dead in a murder-suicide in Nova Scotia will be held Thursday, a day after the service for their killer and his mother. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — A week after a former soldier suffering from PTSD killed his wife, daughter and mother before killing himself, a difficult and complex debate has emerged in Nova Scotia about the role of domestic violence in the tragedy.

RCMP have confirmed Lionel Desmond shot his wife Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah and his mother Brenda before turning the gun on himself in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.

The four bodies were discovered in the family home last Tuesday, and separate funerals are planned for this week in nearby Tracadie, with Lionel and Brenda Desmond's on Wednesday and Shanna and Aaliyah Desmond's on Thursday.

Family members say Lionel Desmond, 33, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after a tour in Afghanistan in 2007, and had received treatment from the military. But relatives have also suggested the former infantryman did not get the help he needed when he returned to Nova Scotia 18 months ago, despite his family's best efforts to seek medical care.

They and others have said the persistence of the debilitating mental illness — and the lack of treatment — were the main reasons for Lionel Desmond's terrible actions.

But domestic violence has emerged as a parallel narrative in the public discussion over the Desmond deaths, with some saying there are other lessons to be learned.

Ardath Whynacht, a sociology professor at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, said people naturally seek simple explanations for horrific things, but it is a mistake to attribute the crime specifically to PTSD.

There is nothing in the medical literature to suggest post-traumatic stress disorder leads to violence, she said.

"This case is an anomaly if we look at it through the lens of PTSD. But it's not an anomaly when we look at the trends in intimate partner violence ... A woman is killed by intimate partner once every six days in Canada."

Whynacht said the focus on PTSD ignores the fact that those with a diagnosed mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crime rather than perpetrators.

"As a community, we have to ask the question: Why didn't he just take his own life? Where in his life did he learn that it was up to him to take the lives of the three women he was most close to? That's not a question that we'll be able to answer by looking at PTSD ... We can't ignore the role of family violence here."

Rev. Elaine Walcott, a relative of the Desmonds and a spiritual adviser, is from a neighbouring village that is, like Upper Big Tracadie, largely African-Nova Scotian. She said shifting the blame to domestic violence will only succeed in perpetuating stereotypical images and pitting members of the black community against each other.

"It's a perspective that is extremely damaging," said Walcott.

Whynacht, whose views have sparked an intense discussion on social media, said Lionel Desmond was clearly suffering. She was quick to note that the province's mental health services need to be improved, in light of what relatives of the Desmonds have had to say.

"But at the end of the day, we have to ask the difficult question: Where along the line does a man learn to turn a gun on his wife and children when taking his own life? That is simply not a question of PTSD."

Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the debate over what caused Desmond to kill his family has become "complex, tragic and multilayered," and there was no need to pick only one cause.

"PTSD and (Lionel Desmond's) military experience, no doubt, were significant factors," he said. "But there's also a very significant domestic violence issue here ... That is a major concern that we should be talking about and addressing. Both stories need to be told. I don't think it's either-or."

Lionel Desmond's obituary said he "succumbed to the tortures of PTSD" relating to his service in Afghanistan. It described him as having a friendly demeanour and a contagious smile.

"His can-do attitude was evident while serving his unit and community. He will be remembered as an amazing son, brother, father, husband, nephew, cousin and grandson," it said.

The obituary for Brenda Desmond described her as an avid bingo player who made friends wherever she played.

"(She was) well-known for her smile, laughter, humour, and strong love for everyone with whom she crossed paths," an obituary said of the 52-year-old woman.

Aaliyah's obituary said she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and had a beautiful smile that "would light up any room as soon as she entered it."

"She loved horseback riding, skating, singing and spending time with her many cousins," said an obituary posted on an Antigonish funeral home website.

Her mother had recently started working as a nurse at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish after graduating from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

"Shanna loved to travel, dance and sing," her obituary said. "She was a completely loving, caring and honest person. She loved to try different foods and experience different cultures."

As a veteran of the Armed Forces, Lionel Desmond's estate has qualified for benefits under the funeral and burial program run for Veterans Affairs Canada by the Last Post Fund.

Meanwhile, the federal government confirmed Monday that the Canadian Forces will provide additional financial support to the Desmond family to help pay for the other funerals, using money raised at military canteens, stores and messes.

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Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press