Nova Scotia Justice Minister, July 23, 2020. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

There will be a public inquiry into April’s mass shooting in Nova Scotia after all.

Following significant public protest, statements from multiple Liberal MPs in opposition to an independent review, and a challenge from Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey, federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced his government is launching a public inquiry.

“We have heard calls from families, survivors, advocates, and Nova Scotia Members of Parliament for more transparency,” Blair said in a news release Tuesday afternoon.

The Government of Canada is now proceeding with a full Public Inquiry, under the authority of the Inquiries Act R.S.C., 1985, into the tragedy that occurred on April 18th and 19th. This will include the power to summon witnesses, and require them to:

a) give evidence, orally or in writing, and on oath or, if they are persons entitled to affirm in civil matters on solemn affirmation; and

b) produce such documents and things as the commissioners deem requisite to the full investigation of the matters into which they are appointed to examine.

Through these additional authorities, it is our sincere hope that the terrible tragedy of April 18th and 19th will be fully examined and that all relevant facts and evidence will be made public.

The Honourable J. Michael MacDonald, the Honourable Anne McLellan, and Leanne Fitch have once again agreed to assist in this Public Inquiry and will serve as Commissioners.

The about-face follows Furey’s statement earlier on Tuesday afternoon, challenging the federal government to make the call.

“I have heard from family members and many Nova Scotians who are opposed to a joint review of the tragic events of April 18 and 19 and would prefer a joint public inquiry,” Furey said in a news release Tuesday.

“Now, a number of federal MPs have come out against their own government’s decision to participate in a joint review.”

Nova Scotia Liberal MPs Lenore Zann, Darren Fisher, Sean Fraser, Mike Kelloway and Andy Fillmore had all come out against the government’s original decision after their names appeared on a letter in support of the review.

“If the federal MPs agree that their government should conduct a joint public inquiry rather than a review, they should take that up with the federal minister and their federal colleagues,” Furey said in the release.

“If the federal government agrees to a joint public inquiry where federal agencies including the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency, Criminal Intelligence Services Canada, Canadian Firearms Registry and the Public Alert Ready System will participate and offer testimony, I will support that and so will our government.”

Last Thursday, Furey and federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced an independent review into the April 18-19 mass killings that began in Portapique, N.S.:

The panel will be chaired by former Nova Scotia Courts Chief Justice Michael MacDonald. The other two members are former Liberal cabinet member Anne McLellan and Leanne Fitch, the former chief of police in Fredericton. All three are well-respected, but it’s an open question as to whether they can gain public trust.

That’s because unlike a public inquiry, the review panel will not have the power to compel testimony, nor will it have subpoena power. The government ministers say, however, that all government institutions (i.e., the RCMP, but others as well) have agreed to “participate fully,” and if those government institutions don’t cooperate with the review panel, the panel “may notify the public about the lack of cooperation.”

In the event that the panel needs information from non-government institutions (such as telephone companies, banks, etc), the panel does not have the power to ask the court for production orders. But the government will assist the panel in those matters.

The Terms of Reference for the review panel calls its work to be “guided by restorative principles in order to do no further harm, be trauma informed and be attentive to the needs and impacts upon those most directly affected and harmed.” In short, the desire is to not further harm victims and family of victims through the process of the review. To that end, the testimony of those witnesses will not be public.

But documents and testimony from government institutions will also not be public, although the panel has the ability to refer to such documents and testimony in its published reports.

The panel is charged with producing an interim report on February 28, 2021, and a final report on August 31, 2021 — 15 months after the event.

The decision was immediately condemned by families of the victims, women’s groups and Nova Scotians in general — with protests on Monday and a march on Province House planned for Wednesday.

Province could strike out on its own

The provincial government had the power to launch its own public inquiry under the Public Inquiries Act, as highlighted in statements by both of Nova Scotia’s opposition leaders on Tuesday.

“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston said in a news release.

“So I am urging the Premier not to wait for the participation of the Federal Government and to call this inquiry today. This would allow for testimony to be heard under oath and would grant the power to compel witness testimony.”

Nova Scotia NDP leader Gary Burrill said the Liberals were continuing to fail Nova Scotians with a lack of leadership in response to the mass shooting.

“To say today, only after a major public outcry, that they are willing to support a public inquiry if the federal government agrees to it, is a further abdication of the leadership that is needed,” Burrill said in a news release.

“The Liberal government’s continued resistance to the public inquiry that has been called for by legal experts, organizations addressing domestic violence, the public, and the families of those whose lives were lost, is both perplexing and disappointing. It is within the power of the provincial government to call a public inquiry; they should do so without delay.”

In defending the decision to hold a review, not an inquiry, during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing, Premier Stephen McNeil strongly hinted in an answer to CBC reporter Yvonne Colbert that the federal government wouldn’t agree to fully participate in a public inquiry.

“The reality is, we all know right, currently, today, we have a public inquiry going on in this province that the federal government is not sitting at the table,” he said, referring to the Desmond Fatality Inquiry.

“We want them at the table … They need to be part of the solutions so we can answer these questions for these families.”

Canadian Press reporter Michael Tutton followed up, asking McNeil whether he was saying the federal government wouldn’t agree to fully participate in a public inquiry. He didn’t answer that question directly.

“We currently have an inquiry going on in our province today where that is a fact. That often gets missed when people believe that the only way to get to the solution is an inquiry,” he said.

Furey’s statement on Tuesday puts the ball in the federal government’s court.

Opposition growing among Liberal MPs

Fraser (Central Nova) publicly stated he only learned his name was being added to a July 23 letter from the Nova Scotia Federal Liberal Caucus just before it went out. That letter, written on King’s-Hants MP Kody Blois’ letterhead, notes that the caucus “welcomes the joint-review” into the mass shooting and “applauds the inclusion” of a feminist analysis. 

In an emailed statement sent in response to a request from the Halifax Examiner, Fraser said when he learned the process would be a review, he was “immediately disappointed.” He added that shortly after becoming aware of the details of the review, he saw his name included on the letter welcoming the decision. He said he only became aware of the letter shortly before its publication. 

“I expressed my disappointment with the decision and my preference for a public process. I have come to understand that the letter was sent as a result of a serious, albeit innocent, misunderstanding of my views,” Fraser’s statement said. 

“I should have been more explicit and unequivocal in my opposition to being included in that letter, and I remain responsible for that.”

Fraser said it’s “obvious” that a comprehensive public inquiry is necessary for the affected families to heal and for communities to feel “any meaningful sense of justice.”

“If there is not trust in the process, there will not be trust in its outcome,” he said. 

Fraser continued that he is “deeply upset” by the decision to move forward with something less than a comprehensive public inquiry. He said while the members of the panel selected for the review are “of the highest quality,” the planned process lacks the “essential ingredient of public trust.”

He said he’s spoken with many colleagues, including direct conversations with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to express his “strong desire” for a public process that provides confidence to the families affected by this tragedy “that every question they have, no matter how difficult, will be answered by the time the inquiry reaches its conclusion.”

Fraser’s statement also notes that “if ever there was a moment to listen to Nova Scotians and reconsider the path being taken, it is now.”

On Tuesday morning, Fisher (Dartmouth-Cole Harbour) said on Twitter that he’s heard from — and spoken with — many people regarding last week’s joint review announcement. He said although he’s pleased the federal and provincial governments agreed to review the tragedy and subsequent response, he has been advocating for a public inquiry. 

“I believe that the decision to move forward with a joint-review was made with good intentions; however, the gravity of this tragedy demands a greater response,” Fisher wrote. 

“I’ve made my voice heard to our Government’s decision-makers on this file, and I remain hopeful that greater authority will be given to this matter, with the ultimate goal being the announcement of a Public Inquiry.”

Early Tuesday morning, Zann told CBC News that she wasn’t consulted by the federal or provincial governments before last week’s decision of an independent review was announced, despite making repeated requests for a public inquiry since May.  

On Tuesday morning, the Halifax Examiner reached out to all Nova Scotia Liberal MPs (with the exception of Zann and Fisher) to ask if they were also advocating for a public inquiry, or if they believed the joint review was sufficient. 

At this point, Fraser is the only one of the eight MPs to reply with a statement. 

South Shore-St. Margarets MP Bernadette Jordan’s press secretary replied, indicating that the query would be best answered by Bill Blair, federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

On Tuesday afternoon, Liberal MP Mike Kelloway (Cape Breton-Canso) added his name to the list of Nova Scotia Liberals opposing the review.

“As a government, I feel as though as though it is our duty to uphold the values of Nova Scotian’s [sic] and honour the families of the victims by moving forward with a full public inquiry not a joint-review,” he wrote in a statement posted to Twitter.

“I have expressed my thoughts to Minister Blair.”

Andy Fillmore (Halifax) chimed in on Twitter just after Kelloway: “My number one priority has always been to get the victims’ families the answers they have been asking for and the closure they deserve,” he wrote.

“Listening to them, it is evident to me that the best way forward is a full public inquiry.”

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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1 Comment

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  1. What a roundabout way to get the Public Inquiry everyone wanted from day 1. Well, maybe the RCMP didn’t want one. Let us ensure that the terms of reference for the Public Inquiry fully address all important issues.