In the final week of the B.C. election campaign last May, Premier Christy Clark donned a blue hardhat for a tour of the construction of the new Babine Forest Products mill. Surrounded by news cameras, she signed her name in a patch of wet concrete, taking credit for helping the community of Burns Lake rebuild after a fatal explosion in 2012 levelled the old sawmill.
This spring, Ms. Clark expects to return for the official ribbon-cutting, “because,” she says, “it was a decision of the provincial government that enabled that to happen after the tragedy.”
For returning workers, it will be a celebration muted by the memory of those who are absent – Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi Jr. who died in the inferno, and those who were too badly injured to take up their old jobs.
For the Premier, there is a tougher assignment awaiting her, if she goes. The Premier has been asked to come to Burns Lake by Mr. Luggi’s widow, to explain her refusal to hold a public inquiry after the Criminal Justice Branch declined to lay charges against the mill’s owners. The families say they’ve been denied justice, despite an investigation that blamed the owners for what was deemed a preventable explosion.
To date, Ms. Clark’s government has fallen back on the argument that it has no grounds for a public inquiry.
Lawyer Len Doust was asked “whether a public inquiry could result in a reconsideration of the decision by Crown counsel not to approve the regulatory charges for prosecution.”
On that narrow question, he concluded that it would not be a proper subject for review.
But what if the question were broader? The Babine deaths did not occur in isolation. On average, 130 people die on the job in B.C. each year. Yet, 10 years after the Criminal Code was toughened to make it easier to convict employers when someone is killed or injured at work, no one in B.C. has been charged for criminal negligence for a worker’s death under what is known as the Westray bill.
It took a provincial public inquiry into the 26 deaths at the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster in Nova Scotia to produce change. Because of the issues identified in the inquiry, the Criminal Code now states that “Everyone who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from the work or task.”
Labour leaders in B.C. say the problem is that police and prosecutors here don’t have the expertise to pursue employers under the Westray bill, formally Bill C-45.
It took just two days for RCMP investigators to conclude there was no criminal wrongdoing in the Babine sawmill explosion. They quickly handed the file off to WorkSafeBC officials. The agency found the operators of the sawmill were well aware of shortcomings in managing sawdust, which fuelled the devastating blast after it was sparked by equipment in the mill. “The explosion and fire that destroyed the sawmill constituted a preventable incident,” WorkSafe’s report concluded.
It is now left to the inquest, to be headed by chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, to look for answers for the Babine deaths. But that inquest won’t look at questions related to the lack of criminal charges in workplace deaths.
New Democratic Party Leader Adrian Dix plans to visit Burns Lake this week to meet with the families to discuss what the terms of reference should be for a public inquiry. The opposition has retained legal counsel to help draft the proposal.
“I’m still hopeful that the government will listen,” he said. “We will continue the pressure.”
In the next few weeks, the Criminal Justice Branch will announce whether regulatory charges will be laid against the owners of Lakeland Mills, where a similar, deadly explosion occurred in April, 2012. Given that the branch turned down charges in Babine because it concluded WorkSafeBC botched the investigation, there is every chance it will not lay charges in the second case, investigated by the same agency.
If the process fails to yield a case for prosecution, again, Ms. Clark’s next visit to Burns Lake will be much tougher to manage as a cheery photo-op.
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