Systemic racism and the Desmond murder-suicide

The inquiry looking into the 2017 murder-suicide of the Desmond family has been examining the roles played by PTSD and domestic violence in those horrific events. Last week, the inquiry heard from a panel of experts about the impact of systemic racism.

Shanna, Aaliyah & Lionel Desmond
Shanna, Aaliyah and Lionel Desmond

In the early evening hours of January 3, 2017, in remote Upper Big Tracadie, Nova Scotia, Lionel Desmond murdered his wife, Shanna, his daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda, then turned the gun on himself. In the wake of such a horrific murder-suicide, two dueling narratives quickly emerged to try to explain the inexplicable.

The first riffed off the reality that Lionel Desmond, a former infantryman who had served in the military in Afghanistan and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, had snapped under the weight of all he’d experienced.

As his obituary plaintively put it, Lionel Desmond had “succumbed to the tortures of PTSD.”

Plenty of experts agreed, rightly noting there were not nearly enough mental health and social services available for people with PTSD, especially veterans, especially those in rural areas such as the one where Desmond and his family lived.

The second served almost as a counter-narrative. That first version, as the Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti put it,

almost entirely erases the three victims of his crime. Indeed, it makes Mr. Desmond as much of a victim as the women he killed… In all the talk about PTSD… another set of letters has been almost completely forgotten: VAW. That stands for violence against women.

“There were four victims that day,” agreed Ardath Whynacht, a sociology professor at Mount Allison University…

… and we’re talking only about the services that could have helped him, and not, for example, services that might have helped his spouse be safer, in trying to leave that relationship and get space… 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.”

After nearly a year of clamouring from all sides for a full public inquiry, the province’s chief medical officer, Matt Bowes, finally announced plans in late December 2017 for a wide-ranging fatality inquiry into what had happened in Upper Big Tracadie with a focus on figuring out how to prevent next ones.

“There were touch points in our system,” he told a news conference. “I think it would be very valuable to look at how those things occurred and how we might, in retrospect, have done it differently.”

Since the inquiry began its stuttering, COVID-interrupted public hearings in January 2020, dozens of witnesses — researchers, first responders, health professionals — have done their best to parse the various threads that led to January 3, 2017.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the sum of all that testimony is that there is no one simple binary, either-or explanation to explain the why of what happened.

Life is complicated. There are lessons to be learned about how we prevent, recognize, treat and mitigate PTSD, but there are also important lessons about the too-many systemic gaps that still make it difficult for women and children in abusive relationships — of whatever cause — to receive the help and protection they need.

But last week, even as the public inquiry finally began to wind down its public phase, we learned of yet another gaping gap in the system — culturally specific mental health programs for Black men like Lionel Desmond.

“Those services do not exist,” Robert Wright, a sociologist who specializes in forensic mental health, trauma and cultural competence, told the inquiry. He was one of four Black experts assembled by the inquiry to explore the Desmond affair through a racial lens.

The larger problem? Systemic racism. As one of those experts, a mental health nurse named Cynthia Jordan who specializes in trauma, addictions and PTSD, pointed out:

Upper Big Tracadie, Sunnyville and nearby Lincolnville are predominantly Black communities where young Black men have long turned to serving in the military to escape poverty. Jordan also noted that the area was home to Canada’s last segregated school, which didn’t close until the 1980s.

Wright testified that the Health Association of African Nova Scotians had recommended nearly a decade ago that the province develop a specific mental health and addictions strategy for African Nova Scotians, including culturally specific training for healthcare workers, an online curriculum and the creation of a network of professionals.

Some of that happened, but then, in 2016, the government abandoned the project as soon as the pilot period ended.

While the provincial government did participate in the creation of an African Nova Scotia health strategy, the panelists pointed out that its recommendations still haven’t been publicly released “despite years of consultation.”

As Michael MacDonald, the Canadian Press journalist who has been covering the inquiry from the beginning, reported last week:

Lana MacLean, a Halifax-based social work clinician who has worked as a consultant within the African Nova Scotian community, said bureaucracy got in the way. “There have been so many organizational shuffles that it has not become a priority,” she testified.

MacLean said it was clear that in the months leading up to the killings in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., the 33-year-old former corporal and his wife were desperately trying to find help while he struggled with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, anxiety and a possible brain injury.

“Even though he was psychologically distressed, he was doing all of the work to connect with a service provider that would hopefully match his psychiatric and cultural mental health needs,” MacLean told the inquiry.

“He did his best with what he had. [But] the resources didn’t match his psychological wellness or his cultural wellness. There was just no fit.”

Cynthia Jordan… agreed. “He was reaching out,” Jordan said. “But such services did not exist in terms of how he needed the services to respond.”

Public inquiries are expensive, and they tend to go on for far longer than we would like. But the best of them — like the royal commission into the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall, Jr. in the late 1980s — allow us to shine a spotlight on all the many, diverse and complicated realities that go into a horrific event like the Desmond murder-suicide or 2020’s Nova Scotia mass shooting.

Like the Marshall commission, the Desmond and mass casualty inquiries will ultimately be judged both by what we learn from the process and also — and most importantly — what we do with what we learn.

Those juries are still out.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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