PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — As a Black man, Lionel Desmond struggled to find help for his declining mental health in late 2016, but there were no culturally specific programs available in Nova Scotia when the Afghanistan war veteran killed himself and his family on Jan. 3, 2017.
An inquiry investigating the deaths heard Monday that the lack of culturally competent mental health support and the lack of family violence prevention programs continues to this day, despite years of effort by a Halifax-based volunteer group known as the Health Association of African Canadians.
"These services do not exist," said Robert Wright, a sociologist who specializes in forensic mental health, trauma and cultural competence.
The provincial fatality inquiry, which started hearings in January 2020, focused its attention Monday on the role race played in the deaths of Desmond; his wife, Shanna; their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah; and Desmond's mother, Brenda — all of whom were Black.
Among other things, the inquiry has been asked to determine if Desmond and his family had access to appropriate mental health services and to domestic violence intervention services. To help answer those questions, the inquiry brought together a panel of four Black experts to explore the issue through a racial lens.
Wright told the inquiry that in 2012, the Health Association of African Canadians recommended the province develop an African Nova Scotian mental health and addictions strategy, which would include culturally specific training for health-care workers, an online curriculum and the creation of a network of professionals.
Though some of the training was completed, Wright said, the province disbanded the African Nova Scotian network in 2016 when the project ended, leaving the non-profit association to keep the initiative alive.
"It's been work that people have championed off the side of their desks," said Sharon Davis-Murdoch, director of the Health Association of African Canadians. Murdoch said she has spoken to provincial government officials several times since 2016, and she said the discussions started anew last summer when a new Progressive Conservative government was elected.
As well, the inquiry heard that the province participated in the creation of an African Nova Scotian health strategy, but the inquiry was told its recommendations have yet to be released to the public, despite years of consultations.
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, a mental health nurse who specializes in trauma, addictions and PTSD, agreed. "He was reaching out," Jordan said. "But such services did not exist in terms of how he needed the services to respond."
Jordan and the other experts testified that systemic racism was at the root of Desmond's many challenges.
She pointed out that 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.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2021.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press