Day: May 20, 2020

Heather O’Brien was murdered in the Nova Scotia shooting. It took the RCMP seven hours to tell her family.

Heather O’Brien was headed to wave at her grandkids when she was murdered on Plains Road in Debert, N.S., at two minutes after 10 on the morning of April 19.

O’Brien, a 55-year-old nurse, mother of six, grandmother of 12, had been working extra hours with the Victorian Order of Nurses because of COVID-19, and had not been able to see her grandkids since Easter, the Sunday before, when she dropped off baskets on all of their doorsteps.

“She was on her way in the circle to see her grandbabies, that she went every Sunday since this COVID thing started,” said her daughter, Darcy Dobson, a 30-year-old bartender. “She would talk to the kids through the windows. That’s what she did on Sunday, because we have all the babies.”

O’Brien’s six children all live within five minutes of their parents’ home in small communities outside Truro, 110 kilometres from Halifax.

As she drove down Plains Road, likely headed to Dobson’s place, O’Brien was talking on the phone to a friend and colleague, who we will call Mary, because she doesn’t want her name published.

While Dobson was waiting for her mom, Mary called with terrible news.

“Mary called and said she was on the phone with Mom. And her words to me were that Mom was coming down Plains Road when she was talking to her on the phone and she said to her, ‘I hear gunshots, Mary.’ And Mom said, ‘I’m almost to Lancaster (Crescent).’ Mom had said to her, ‘It’s OK, Mary, the RCMP are here’. And the next thing Mary heard was Mom scream.”

READ MORE: The Nova Scotia shooting and the mistakes the RCMP may have made

The phone call was the beginning of a nightmare for Dobson and her family. Her mother had been shot to death by a 51-year-old denturist in a replica RCMP cruiser and uniform who killed 13 people in Portapique the night before. After those murders, he evaded police, spent the night parked behind a welding shop in Debert and then drove down the highway where he murdered a couple in Wentworth, set their house on fire and murdered a volunteer firefighter who came to investigate the fire.

He then returned to Debert, while police sought him, and killed Kristen Beaton, 33, and O’Brien, two VON nurses seemingly selected at random, pulled over, presumably obeying the directions of a man who appeared to be an RCMP officer.

“Which leads me to believe he pulled her over, or had a spot-check type something in the middle of the road,” says Dobson.

After hearing from Mary, Dobson, terribly upset, called her brothers and sisters. They needed to find out what had happened to their mother. They remain confused and hurt that it took the RCMP seven hours to tell them that she had been murdered.

The family gathered at the home of Dobson’s 61-year-old father, a retired contractor, and went separately to the scene in groups of two, asking what had become of Heather O’Brien. Repeatedly the officers on the scene, standing there holding long guns, sent them away without telling them their mother hadn’t made it. Individual officers spoke to them kindly, but they couldn’t get an answer. The family wasn’t finally informed until about 5 pm, when they went down, all eight of them, and demanded to be told in an emotional confrontation.

A family portrait (Courtesy of the O’Brien family)

That meant that for seven hours, they were living with the vain hope that their mother had just been injured.

“I knew in my heart,” says Dobson. “I remember feeling like I knew. A part of my heart was gone. A part of me sank completely. I knew. But here I am sitting in front of my mother’s computer at her desk in her office and home, calling the hospital in Truro and thinking I have no idea if my mother is dead or alive. She could have a gunshot wound in her shoulder and be at the hospital.”

Nick Beaton, whose wife and unborn child were murdered just metres away from O’Brien, also had to wait until 6 pm to learn that his wife hadn’t made it.

“You keep hoping until you hear,” he says. “One officer told my brother-in-law that a female left the scene with chest injuries, so he raced into the Truro hospital.

“We had hope. At that point you’ll take a chest injury. Other than the alternative. I’m not a prayer. I don’t go to church. But I was down on my knees in the backyard praying that she was in the hospital and we at least had a hope.”

Beaton is frustrated that the RCMP wouldn’t tell him sooner, sparing him the agony, but he wants it to be clear that he is not blaming the constables.

“I don’t want it to be the poor bastards that were there, feet on the asphalt that day,” he says. “It wasn’t their fault. I call them the foot soldiers. I want them boys to know it’s not them. Because they’re beating themselves up. They’re talking to shrinks. I don’t want to push anyone else over the edge. It’s their bosses.”

Beaton can’t figure out why it took so long.

“I rack my brain for over six effing hours trying to understand why they couldn’t tell me. There’s no reason from what I’ve seen why they couldn’t have looked at her ID, looked at her VON ID, run her plate, confirm the address where she lived. They could have called me. There’s no reason.”

Neither can Dobson.

“We are understanding enough to say, yes this is an active homicide investigation. I try to explain to my dad yes this is an active homicide investigation. You can’t go in there. You can’t do that. I mean, at noon, when you know this guy is dead, there is enough Mounties in the province someone could have come to my dad’s front door, where he had six adult children, grieving.”

Heather O’Brien. (Courtesy of the O’Brien family)

The RCMP is not able to say why it took so long to inform the families, except that there were many victims.

“We acknowledge how difficult and distressing it is for family members when next of kin notifications are pending, and then to hear that their loved one has passed away,” said Constable Hans Ouellette in an email.

Ouellette said all notifications were completed by April 20, 24 hours after the end of the shooting rampage.

“Our Family Liaison Officer has been in regular contact with the next of kin for all victims since the incident. Given the nature of the incidents that were occurring, including many victims and scenes, next of kin notifications happened as soon as possible.”

Law enforcement sources say that the RCMP may have a policy preventing them from releasing the news to family members until someone from the Medical Examiner’s Office has certified the identity of the victim.

The provincial Department of Justice says nine people from the Medical Examiner’s Office were at the murder sites that day.

A retired senior RCMP officer who spoke on condition that their name not be published said that it appears wrong to have made them wait.

“I see no reason not to divulge the identity of those people to the family,” the retired Mountie said. “I don’t know why they would insist it would be held for eight hours. I can’t figure that out, particularly to family members, because family members are so distraught. So for somebody not to take them aside, I don’t buy into that. It’s inappropriate in my opinion.”

Dalhousie law professor Archie Kaiser says that police should be guided in their actions by the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, which states that “victims of crime and their families deserve to be treated with courtesy, compassion and respect, including respect for their dignity.”

Kaiser said that a public inquiry should eventually consider whether the force properly respected the rights of victims when it delayed informing them.

“I start with that first principle, and I think in the context of this very complicated criminal investigation and this terribly brutal crime, were the police able to bring that legislative obligation into play soon enough? And did they do it in a manner that comports with the obligations of the law? There might be many good reasons, although the RCMP should explain them clearly, why they might have to delay providing some information to the victims.”

The victims’ families are calling for a public inquiry. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has said that Ottawa, not Nova Scotia, should hold an inquiry.

Kaiser’s colleagues at the Dalhousie Law School disagree, saying the premier’s position is “an abdication of both moral and legal responsibility.”

Dobson says if anything good can come of the tragedy, it may be that the RCMP learns some lessons.

“I pray that they fucking learn something. If nothing else, they learn something because they made some horrible, horrible mistakes. I’m trying to tread lightly …  but they dropped the ball in Nova Scotia.”

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Lesotho’s new PM sworn in after resignation, murder drama

MASERU, Lesotho — Moeketsi Majoro was sworn in as Lesotho’s prime minister on Wednesday in a swift transition after Thomas Thabane was pressured to resign over allegations of involvement in the 2017 murder of his estranged wife.

Thabane stepped down on Tuesday, a month shy of his third anniversary at the helm of the tiny southern African kingdom of 2 million people. His party had turned against him over the murder case and frustration over his failure to stem corruption.

Majoro comes in at the head of a coalition with the main opposition Democratic Congress. Speaking at his swearing-in by King Letsie III at the royal palace, he paid tribute to his predecessor.

Majoro, a former International Monetary Fund staffer, will see out the last two years of Thabane’s term. Elections are due in 2022.

The new prime minister promised to quickly take on some of the country’s major challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, high unemployment, poverty and climate change in these “trying times.”

Thabane thanked the king for the opportunity to lead Lesotho. He acknowledged making mistakes in office and asked the nation to forgive him.

The 80-year-old Thabane leaves without any guarantees from immunity from prosecution for the 2017 murder of his estranged wife, Lipolelo. He had filed for divorce when she was shot dead near her home just two days before Thabane was sworn in for his second stint as prime minister.

His current wife, Maesaiah, who is also charged, has been out on bail while Thabane asked the constitutional Court to stop the courts from trying him for the crime while he remained in office.

His retirement means he could now stand trial.

Herbert Moyo, The Associated Press

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City of Toronto finally commits to physical distancing standards in key court settlement for city’s homeless people

Cathy Crowe
A crowded shelter. (Image: Photo by Cathy Crowe)

For several years before COVID-19, huge numbers of people, often in coalition, were calling for the City of Toronto to declare homelessness an emergency. They included outreach workers, members of the faith community, harm reduction workers, doctors and nurses. They acted with media releases, media conferences, protests, vigils, marches, articles in newspapers, public letters, petitions and direct action. There was and is massive public support for their actions and demands.

Mayor John Tory notoriously refused to act. So did the province. The federal government’s national housing strategy somehow leaped over Toronto, missing it entirely.

Then COVID-19 hit, and, as many have pointed out, it cracked open inequities and made them painfully visible.

This blog has chronicled this story since March 2.

Early on it was apparent that Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health was not going to order shelters to ensure the six-feet physical distancing of beds, cots and mats. Even with the city’s quasi-promise of hotel rooms for all who need it to ensure physical distancing, many of us knew the writing was on the wall. Homeless people were not being protected by a virus that would be deadly to them. In fact, the only real protection would be one person or family unit per room.

I learned an important lesson in this pandemic: Ask for help.

In March, I pushed out a desperate email to a COVID homelessness and harm-reduction group: “How about some legal entity taking on the failure to protect: no direction to city shelters and other operators around bed spacing, six feet distancing etc? We have 8,000 people in shelters of all sorts, and about 95% have no means to protect people one person per room.”

Well, Neighbourhood Legal Services came to the rescue and in no time at all six national, provincial and local legal groups came together in coalition with Sanctuary Toronto to mount a lawsuit that was filed on April 24 against the City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario.

In quick time given the circumstances, Superior Court Judge Lorne Sossin was assigned to the case; the legal coalition’s witness affidavits were prepared; expert witnesses stepped up and in video call after video call strategy was planned. A court date was set for May 27.

I am more than happy to report that the City of Toronto has now reached an agreement with the legal coalition that brought the lawsuit and commits to essential and enforceable physical-distancing standards to protect people experiencing homelessness from COVID-19. 

The agreement will bring a measure of accountability and public transparency that has been lacking in the City’s approach to dealing with the pandemic within the shelter system. The City is now required to provide regular, detailed reports about its efforts and progress in achieving and sustaining physical distancing standards that will surely save lives.  

Jessica Orkin, a lawyer at Goldblatt Partners representing the coalition, said:

“Regrettably, The City’s commitment comes only after the tragic and preventable deaths of two shelter residents, and over 300 COVID-19 cases in at least 21 sites. Ten weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, the City has finally committed to ensure that Toronto shelters meet minimal public health standards for physical distancing. The coalition will remain vigilant to ensure that the City complies with its obligations under this agreement and is prepared to take further legal steps, if necessary, to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are supported during this pandemic.”

It is deplorable that we had to go to court to achieve probably the most repeated and basic public health measure we have heard since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic: physically distance six feet or two metres.

The terms of the agreement are:

  1. The City is required to use best efforts to “achieve without delay and thereafter sustain” two metres between beds and end the use of bunk beds across the City’s shelters, respites and overnight drop-ins.  
  2. The City is required to provide shelter to all shelter system clients by making available such beds as is necessary to achieve physical distancing standards across the shelter system.  
  3. All individuals who received any support services from the City’s shelter system since March 11, including those now in encampments who left the shelter system because of fears of COVID-19, are included within the scope of the City’s obligations under the settlement. 
  4. The City will report regularly on its progress until it reaches and sustains compliance for two months.  

The agreement was reached between the parties on May 15 and was formalized May 19. In exchange for the City’s commitments as contained in the agreement, the coalition agreed to adjourn its injunction motion, which had been rescheduled to be heard by Justice Sossin on June 8, 2020.   

Several of the coalition members speak to the ominous circumstances that led them to take part:

“Since the pandemic began, we have been worried about our community members who use shelters and sleep on the streets. Finally, two months later we have a commitment from the City that shelters will follow the same public health guidelines required everywhere else. That is a positive outcome from this lawsuit.” — Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director of Aboriginal Legal Services.

“BLAC became involved in this litigation because, we see every day through our work, the dire levels of poverty in the Black community and the resultant housing insecurity, homelessness and our community’s disparate reliance of the shelter system. While we recognize this agreement as step forward, we also see that this issue — housing insecurity and homelessness — is part of an even broader systemic issue related to anti-Black racism in the city and province.”  — Ruth Goba, executive director of the Black Legal Action Centre.

The final settlement can be found here.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.

Image: Photo by Cathy Crowe

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