From inquest to inquiry (part one)

Not long after the conclusion of the Renfrew County inquest, I flew to Halifax to appear at the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) hearings. As I stepped out of the airport into a hot, sunny afternoon, I couldn’t help but feel that my summer was being defined by the violence of men.

There was plenty of evidence to support that feeling: an inquest into a triple femicide in Ontario, at least five women killed by men in Ontario alone in a three-week period and the slowly unfolding story about Elnaz Hajtamiri, which is not likely to have a happy ending; by way of just a few examples.

What’s an inquiry?

Inquiries and inquests are similar but not identical. An inquiry is an independent process that examines issues or events, which may or may not include deaths, that have had a significant impact on the public. Inquests, on the other hand, require a death.

In an inquest, it’s a jury made up of members of the public that makes recommendations but, in an inquiry, that work falls to a team of commissioners, who are all professionals.

Both inquests and inquiries are non-adversarial and are not about determining guilt, assigning blame or finding liability. Their purpose is forward looking; to make suggestions for change to prevent something similar from happening again or to improve responses should another such event occur.

The Mass Casualty Commission

The Nova Scotia MCC was established in October 2020, by Orders in Council of both the Canadian and Nova Scotia governments to investigate the circumstances surrounding the April 18/19, 2020, mass shooting, in which the perpetrator killed 22 people in rural Nova Scotia.

The three Commissioners are supported by a team of more than 35 people: lawyers, investigators, mental health professionals, communications experts, policy advisors and community engagement specialists, among others.

There are 61 participants, both individuals and organizations, including family members of those killed, first responders, victim advocacy organizations, health and firearms institutions, police, and gender-based violence organizations.

The GBV organizations involved include Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), Women’s Shelters Canada (WSC), the Elizabeth Fry Society of Nova Scotia, the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia and more.

The scope

The Commission’s scope, framed in three phases, is dizzying:

  • To establish what happened on April 18/19, 2020
  • To explain other issues as they may relate to the mass casualty itself
  • To prepare a report with recommendations

Those “other issues” include the role of gender-based violence/intimate partner violence, access to firearms and the prior interactions and relationships of the perpetrator with police and social services.

Much of the first phase has been completed, and phase two began last week, with work on the recommendations set to begin in September. The Commission’s deadline to submit its report –including its findings, lessons learned and recommendations  — in November of this year.

So far, the inquest has cost taxpayers approximately $20 million.

The hearing space

When I arrived at the inquiry yesterday, I had to show my QR code, then go through a metal detector and have my bag inspected before I could enter the room. There were security guards and large official signs directing people to different areas in the hearing rooms.

The hearings are taking place in an enormous hotel ballroom. At the front of the room are large screens on either side of a horseshoe-shaped dais. The Commissioners sit in the centre of the horseshoe and witnesses/presenters sit on either side of them or appear virtually on the screens. Immediately in front of the dais are several rows of tables for Commission staff and lawyers. Behind them are tables for the participants, including family members. In the back third of the room are rows of chairs for the public, a formal media section and ASL interpreters.

Some days, I have been told, the room is full of participants and members of the public. Yesterday was a quiet day, with most seats empty. People also follow the proceedings virtually.

The process

In phase one, the Commissioners heard from witnesses. They presented their initial evidence in response to questions posed by one of the Commission’s lawyers. The cross-examination that followed was not what most of us expect from watching television. Rather than the lawyer for each participant cross-examining the witness, a “counsel caucus” was held in which lawyers indicated to the Commission’s lawyers what questions they wanted to ask. In an attempt to minimize overly aggressive cross-examination, the Commission lawyers determined which questions would be asked and whether it would be the participants’ lawyers or one of the Commission lawyers who asked them.

Most of the information in phase two is being presented to the Commissioners by way of roundtables, in which experts on various topics respond to thematic questions posed by a moderator, who is a member of the Commission team. The Commissioners can ask questions of roundtable members, but there is no opportunity for questions or cross-examination by the lawyers for the participants. These proceedings, as with the witnesses in phase one, are being live streamed and are also archived for later viewing online.

As the Commissioners consider what recommendations they will include in their report, they also have access to other information in the form of foundational documents, which detail key facts and events leading up to, during and after the mass casualty, as well as in research and commissioned reports covering a wide range of topics.

Having watched bits and pieces of the process virtually and observed one day in person, I can say with some certainty that the Commissioners face a daunting task in analyzing the enormous amount of information and evidence in order to draw conclusions and make their recommendations.

On Friday, I’ll write about what intimate partner violence has to do with the mass casualty of April 18/19, 2020.

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