Courage and determination can win enforcement of the Westray Law

More than 3,000 CLC Convention delegates marked the 25th anniversary of the Westray Mine disaster by paying tribute to the 26 miners who lost their lives in the 1992 explosion, and by hearing from the family of another fallen worker.

Delegates stood in silence as CLC President Hassan Yussuff read the names of the 26 Westray victims, and recalled the words of Justice K. Peter Richard who led the public inquiry into the disaster, who said he had uncovered “a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, and neglect.”

Despite years of police investigations and a public inquiry, no one was ultimately held responsible for the 26 miners’ deaths. The United Steelworkers lobbied for years and won changes to the Criminal Code so that employers could be convicted of criminal negligence. But since the Westray Law was enacted in 2004, it has led to just a handful of criminal charges and only one prison sentence — despite the thousands of workplace deaths and serious injuries that occur year after year.

Winning enforcement of the Westray Law was the focus of the family of Olivier Bruneau as they took the stage, welcomed by delegates with a standing ovation. Bruneau was just 24 years old when he was killed by falling ice in an Ottawa construction pit on March 23, 2016.

His common-law spouse, Katia St-Jacques, told delegates how she’d met Olivier in high school, and how they’d started their love story a few years later. They had bought a house in 2014 and were planning for the future.

“We were ready to build our own family. Olivier would have been a great dad,” she told delegates. “We thought we were invincible and we had many plans for our lives. Everything crumbled when I received a call from the hospital that morning.”

Olivier’s father, Christian Bruneau, told delegates how weeks before Olivier was killed, another worker had been injured by falling ice. The builder, Claridge Homes, told a Ministry of Labour inspector there would be a strict “no entry” policy imposed to keep workers safe.

But the site wasn’t closed until after Olivier was killed on March 23rd.

“Complacent enforcement of the law resulted in Olivier’s death,” said Bruneau. “The law is clear. No ice.”

“It’s as if workers’ fatalities have become the norm – as if it is now considered normal,” he said.

Bruneau said the federal government’s April 28, 2017 announcement that it would work with the Canadian Labour Congress and with provinces and territories to ensure better enforcement of the law was a “great achievement.”

“Besides leadership now showed by the Government of Canada, courage and determination are the two most important ingredients in the enforcement of Westray,” he said.

Delegates were encouraged to sign the CLC’s Remember Westray petition calling on provinces and territories to better enforce the law.

“We need your support,” said St-Jacques. “Together we can change things.”

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