The families of four men killed in sawmill blasts in northern B.C. say they cannot fully participate in a coroner's inquest after the provincial government rejected an appeal to allow them legal representation.
Although the request is unusual – the province says there is no precedent for a publicly funded lawyer for individuals in a coroner's inquest – the inquiry is also atypical.
In 2012, a sawmill in the community of Burns Lake exploded, killing Robert Luggi Jr. and Carl Charlie, and injuring dozens of workers. Weeks later, a similar blast consumed a Prince George sawmill, killing Alan Little and Glenn Roche and injuring many more. Investigations by WorkSafe BC concluded the blasts were preventable, triggered by an unsafe buildup of sawdust, but the agency failed to persuade the Crown to lay charges against the mills' owners.
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe is leading a single inquest into both incidents, to be held next March in Prince George. And because it is unusual to hold an inquest on more than a single incident, her office will for the first time broadcast the hearing for the small, mostly First Nations community of Burns Lake.
The widows of three of the workers and the sister of one of the victims wrote to Premier Christy Clark last month, asking for the government to provide funding for a lawyer to represent their interests at the inquest. "This is an essential and fundamental request – a prerequisite to our full participation," they wrote.
Ms. Clark did not respond, but instead her office handed the matter to Ms. Lapointe's office. In her response, the chief coroner assured the families that she will represent the interests of the deceased, and promised that her lawyers will make sure their questions are raised at the inquest.
But participants, under the Coroner's Act, are responsible for paying their own legal fees or other expenses. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said it would not be appropriate to intervene in an independent coroner's inquest. "The lawyers appointed by the coroner are there to ensure all the relevant questions are raised at the inquest," she said.
First Nations leaders on Monday called on the Premier to reconsider.
Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit said the cost of participating creates a significant barrier, especially for the families and survivors from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, three hours away from Prince George. "These are extraordinary incidents, the lives of four people gone, numerous workers injured in exceptional circumstances – you would think the government could provide support to those families who are grieving."
Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, called the response "disgraceful. … I know the families in these two sawmill explosions have been so diligent to ensure this issue is properly investigated, and the provincial government has completely frustrated their efforts to see a full measure of justice."
Maureen Luggi, whose husband Robert Luggi Jr. died in the conflagration, said she is not sure she will attend the Prince George hearings, and his parents will not be there. "This has caused us so much heartache," she said. "The people here in Burns Lake won't have access to the inquest. It's unacceptable. The B.C. Liberal government has just insulted our families and disrespected us again."
Lucy Campbell, whose brother Carl Charlie was killed at the same mill, said she had hoped the Premier would find a way to help the families. "It's another shattering letdown," she said. She said it will be difficult to travel to the inquest, much less hire a lawyer. "My family doesn't have any money, Carl was the breadwinner in our family."
Shane Simpson, the NDP labour critic, said the families will likely be the only parties at the inquest without their own lawyer. "Every decision the government has taken has diminished the families' confidence in the process," he said.