As the search for answers in NS tragedy continues, criticism of inquiry persists

As flags throughout the province fly at half-mast, Nova Scotians are remembering the lives taken in the terrifying April 2020 massacre.

After 14 days of public hearings over eight weeks, observers and participants alike remain critical of the process undertaken by the joint federal/provincial inquiry tasked with examining the tragedy.

The Mass Casualty Commission has released a dozen of its “foundational documents,” so far — the method it’s using to establish the facts of what happened over the course of the 13-hour killing rampage.

Lawyer Adam Rodgers has been following the public proceedings of the inquiry and has concerns. He’s one of the lawyers involved in the Desmond Fatality Inquiry, which begins closing arguments this week.

“I think the choice by the commission to present the evidence in these foundational documents, has been a mistake,” he says. “And they seem reluctant to admit that and to change course.”

“We’re getting some brief, incomplete foundational document presentations, rather than witnesses who were there and saw and heard the actual scenes,” he said.

So far, eight witnesses have given oral testimony at the proceedings, and Rodgers says in some cases, the selection of those witnesses raises questions.

“It’s interesting that the commission is making choices on how we hear from these witnesses,” he says.

“Of course, we hear from officers that were on the scene in Portapique, but then we’ve gone through several foundational documents and different crime scenes where it’s like, ‘okay, we need to hear from the other officers, and some that seemed to make mistakes along the way,’” said Rodgers.

“But instead the next officers we hear from are these heroic officers who ended the rampage.”

Hearing additional testimony based on what’s been presented publicly so far is something lawyers for the families have argued for.

“We need to do the investigative part of this process,” said attorney Sandra McCulloch. “And having witnesses in front of us and asking questions is part of that.”

The absence of that has been upsetting at certain points for family members who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

Nick Beaton, whose pregnant wife was killed, has been among those who have blasted the commission for omitting certain key details during his public presentations.

Darcy Dobson, one of the daughters of victim Heather O’Brien, took to Facebook on behalf of the family at the end of March with similar concerns — after Fitbit data from her mother’s device was not mentioned by the commission either.

Thursday, the head of the commission, Michael MacDonald wrapped up public hearings for the week by addressing some of those concerns.

“The presentations do not and were never intended to cover every detail,” he said. “But they were intended to assist the public in navigating the immense amount of material.”

But also on Thursday, the attorney representing the RCMP union said she supported a call from lawyers for the families, to give more details in the public presentation of facts.

“We support the proposal for more comprehensive and detailed oral presentations of the foundational document information by the commission for the benefit of the public,” said Nasha Nijhawan of the National Police Federation.

“It should be proceeding in the normal way, we’ve done that in every other commission, including the Desmond inquiry,” says retired journalist Parker Donham.

Donham says the Mass Casualty Commission is unlike any inquiry he’s covered in his career, including the Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. Prosecution, which heard evidence from witnesses over 83 days.

“I think there are problems with the process,” says Donham. “Mostly arising from the commission’s attempt to implement its mandate to be ‘trauma informed’.”

“I don’t think that’s a good reason to throw out centuries of experience in the best way to gather evidence,” he said. “And the best way to do that is to submit people to direct examination.”

“And then to cross-examination where their evidence needs to be tested or given closer scrutiny.”

He’s not convinced the inquiry will get to what he says is at the heart of it all – issues around decision-making at the RCMP.

“In the 21st century, there have been a string of very disturbing issues with the RCMP,” said Donham. “I think the RCMP is overdue for a top to bottom rethink, and so far, there’s no indication this trauma-informed inquiry is up to the task.”

Critics such as Donham say hearing testimony from top-ranking RCMP officials will be crucial for any recommendations from the commission.

Lawyers for the families say that is coming, they’re just not sure exactly when.

“We have our sights set upon asking questions of the commanding first responders, those giving directions and making decisions, we’re still eagerly awaiting those opportunities,” says McCulloch.

“We’ve been through a number of documents, we’ve only heard from a few witnesses to date,” says Joshua Bryson, who represents the family of victims Peter and Joy Bond.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that our request to hear from witnesses will be heard, and really, we certainly have a few questions for (RCMP) command when they do take the stand,” he said.

The commission is scheduled to release its interim report May 1.

When asked what that report would include, Commission Investigations Director Barbara McLean wrote a statement, which reads in part, “The purpose of the interim report is to share the commission’s progress to date and anticipated next steps, including topics to be explored further…. The interim report will not include recommendations.”

Both Donham and Rodgers would like the commission to concentrate on adding more witnesses, rather than meeting its current deadlines.

“We’d all like quick answers, but I’d rather have good answers,” says Donham. “Answers that offer promise for change and improvement.”

Leave a Comment