Through their tears, the families of sawmill workers killed in separate B.C. blasts in 2012 called for accountability Monday, drawing attention to a little used decade-old law that makes it easier to convict employers when someone is killed or injured at work.
The pleas came during a moving National Day of Mourning ceremony on the banks of the Fraser River to honour workers killed on the job – two widows and a sister speaking of unbearable pain due to what they said is a lack of accountability in the tragedies.
For about 20 minutes, the sounds of passing tugs, nearby traffic and the waves of the river were the only sounds that interrupted the speakers as about 100 people listened intently to their stories of grief.
“My husband died brutally. He was in an unsafe workplace. No one is being held accountable for his death,” said Maureen Luggi, the widow of Robert Luggi, referring to the Crown decision not to lay regulatory charges in either the Jan. 20, 2012, Babine Forest Products mill blast in Burns Lake or a similar blast at the Lakeland mill in Prince George in April of that year.
Issues identified at an inquiry into 26 deaths at the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster in Nova Scotia led to a 2004 federal change to the Criminal Code that imposes a “legal duty” on employers to take steps to prevent bodily harm to workers. It is supposed to make it easier for employers to be charged with criminal negligence.
In Burns Lake, Mr. Luggi died when the Babine sawmill blew up. His death, said Ms. Luggi, came at the end of a day in which it seemed as though he, inexplicably, seemed to be saying goodbye to everyone in his life as if he knew this was his last day alive.
An “unexplained deep loneliness” prompted Ms. Luggi to call her husband that afternoon, and he told her, for the last time, that he loved her. He called his mother and told her he loved her. He called his eldest son and encouraged him to keep working out, thinking positively and praying. He drove his daughter and grandson home, and texted his wife to say the sound of the child singing in the back seat made him so happy. He made dinner for the couple’s youngest son. And then he went to work and was killed.
“We were all unaware he was saying his goodbyes to each of us,” Ms. Luggi, occasionally weeping, told the ceremony.
Ms. Luggi said it was “horrific” the Crown did not lay regulatory charges against Babine, and called for a public inquiry into the case. She also saluted a WorkSafe Accountabily Act proposed by NDP MLA Harry Bains that would dedicate a Crown prosecutor to such files and impose mandatory police investigations of all workplace fatalities and serious injury cases.
In addition, she called for the use of the Westray law. “Its application in this case would mean the people that were responsible for keeping this mill open would face prosecution,” she said after her speech.
But the law has rarely been used, and convictions are rare. However, labour leaders have said police and prosecutors lack the expertise to pursue employers under the Westray bill.
Were the bill used, Ms. Luggi said she would be able to get on with her life without having to fight for justice for her husband and others.
Joanna Burrows also spoke to the gathering. She lost her husband, Alan Little, in the Lakeland sawmill explosion that killed one other worker and injured 22.
Before her husband’s death, she said, she had never heard of a National Day of Mourning. “We want the enforcement of Bill C-45. Stop the killing,” she said, concluding her speech.
Lucy Campbell’s brother, Carl Charlie, was killed in the Babine blast. He had had that day off, but took a shift at the last minute.
Like Mr. Luggi, Mr. Charlie did things on his last day alive that now seem prescient. Ms. Campbell said he went to visit his elderly parents. “He told them, ‘Make sure that you eat. Make sure that you take care of yourself,’ and ‘Stay warm,’ because it was minus-40 that day of the explosion.” Ms. Campbell said “I believe that a public inquiry and the enforcement of Bill C-45 will help bring closure, but pointedly added, “It will not bring [my brother] back.”
Jobs Minister Shirley Bond issued a statement that acknowledged the loss of families, but offered no specific response to their concerns.