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  • Writer's pictureMichael Gorman

Nova Scotia establishing committee to review deaths in custody

Committee is third created following changes to the Fatality Investigation Act

Brad Johns is Nova Scotia's minister of justice and attorney general. (Robert Short/CBC)

Nova Scotia's justice minister is establishing a committee to investigate the deaths of anyone in the custody of the provincial correctional system.

Brad Johns said the committee is being asked to start with two recent deaths. He said he was concerned about the age of one of the victims, but there was nothing else about the medical examiner's reports that triggered the decision to create the committee.

"When people are in corrections and they're in the care of the province, there really is a duty to ensure that they receive proper care," Johns said in an interview.

"And if somebody passes away while they're in our responsibility, while they're in the [province's] care, I think there needs to be a review done."

Johns provided no details about the cases being reviewed. A 27-year-old man named Peter Paul died at the Cape Breton Correctional Facility in Sydney in January. His family says he died by suicide. Meanwhile, family and friends of Sarah Rose Denny, 36, say she died in March after contracting pneumonia at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside.

The deaths-in-custody-review committee will be chaired by Dr. Matt Bowes, the province's chief medical examiner. Johns said Bowes would be empowered to select the other committee members, but they must include a Crown attorney, primary care physician, RCMP officer, members of the Mi'kmaq and African Nova Scotian communities, and a retired senior correctional services official.

Johns said the aim of the reviews will be to provide due diligence and, if it's determined that something went wrong, learn how to make the system safer.

The committee will make recommendations to the minister, which will be made public. Privacy-related legislation means the subjects of examinations can't be identified.

Johns is also hoping the investigations will provide information for the families of people who die in custody.

Information for families

"When somebody passes away in correctional services, the families, too, are traumatized," he said.

"They have a lot of questions and I think that having, you know, an independent look gives everybody a sense of assurance that things were done the way that they should have been done — or that they weren't. And then it provides opportunities for people to take the actions that families may want or need to take."

The committee is the third created by the provincial government following changes to the Fatality Investigations Act ,which was introduced by the former Liberal government and passed in 2021 by Johns's government. When the Liberals introduced the changes, they resisted calls for a committee to review deaths in custody.

Committees are already in place to review the deaths of children in the care of the province and deaths related to domestic violence. Johns said neither of those committees has had to be called into action since they were created.

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