High Officials Must Answer
but People Will Have to Remain Vigilant

High Officials Must Answer, Too,
Say Critics

By Cathy Nicoll

This article appeared in
The Daily News
Halifax, Friday, 19 December 1997

NDP Leader Robert Chisholm says the MacLellan government is making "the right noises" about cleaning up the Departments of Labour and Natural Resources in the wake of the Westray Inquiry Commission report.

But, he said, people will have to remain vigilant to make sure it follows through on commitments made in response to the Westray report's 74 recommendations.

"While I can't be overly critical of the words, I have to be skeptical of the commitment," Chisholm said yesterday, noting the government has been lax in the past on following through.

He said he's concerned that the government isn't holding senior officials accountable for their actions leading to the Westray mine explosion in May 1992.

"What the Commissioner (Justice Peter Richard) clearly said in his report was that there was a lot of the responsibility right up to the top for this happening," said Chisholm.

"Nobody goes to work to lose their life.
They go there for a paycheque,
not to be killed."
Don Downe

"But yet – here we go again – no politician or no senior officials are being held accountable; it's the people who are in there trying to carry out the instructions of their masters. I don't excuse them, believe me, I don't excuse them for that, but at the same time, Richard indicated that in fact there was a clear philosophy there."

He said there was a "culture" in the departments that allowed the lackadaisical attitude to worker safety to take root, and that the jobs were needed at "almost any cost."

Also, Chisholm said, even new regulations and rules won't protect workers if the departments don't have enough staff to enforce them.

Tory Leader John Hamm agreed it's unfair to only hold lower echelon officials responsible for what was a systemic failure.

"I think the time for one to hide behind another is gone, and I think everyone who had a hand in this has to accept the responsibility," he said. "That was a preventable accident and we must not lose sight of that."

Transportation and Public Works Minister Don Downe wouldn't say whether senior officials in the Departments of Labour and Natural resources will face discipline or lose their jobs as the result of harsh criticism in the Westray report.

Downe said both departments will undergo a "solid review from top to bottom."

Hamm said he was pleased to hear Downe apologize to the families on behalf of the government – even though Downe was not directly involved. Two weeks ago, Hamm apologized on behalf of his party, which was in power at the time the mine opened and subsequently blew up.

Families of the dead miners were generally pleased with the government's response – delivered just 18 days after the massive Westray report was released – but they were disappointed there was no mention of compensation.

Isabel Gillis of Antigonish, whose husband Myles was killed in the blast, said the government has left families no choice but to sue.

Hamm said the government should pay compensation to the families.

"Now that it has clearly been pointed out that as well as corporate responsibility there is political responsibility – both on the political and bureaucratic sides – then one could easily draw a parallel to the failure of responsibility in institutions in the 1970s and '80s that housed our young people," said Hamm, referring to sexual and physical abuse in government-run reform schools. "I don't think that's a broad leap."

More Than 92 Lawsuits in Progress

Downe, who chaired the cabinet committee that responded to the Westray report, said there are more than 92 legal files against the province.

"The bottom line here is that this is a matter between the lawyers of the families and, of course, the Department of Justice. That's really the process they should follow there," he said.

Downe said the government is bringing forward a "framework for safety.

"If we get nothing else out of this report, the issue here is safety. Nobody goes to work to lose their life – they go there for a paycheque, not to be killed. So, what we've been able to do is bring forward safety – it should be a priority. It should be in the minds of politicians, in the minds of inspectors, in the minds of the corporate community and it should be in the minds of the individual workers," he said.

"You can have all the regulations and all the legislation in the world, but if you don't have the right attitude, the right chemistry, and the right ability of individuals through the whole thing, it doesn't work."

Go To:   Westray Scrapbook Fifty clippings about the Westray coal mine disaster
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First uploaded to the WWW:   1997 December 20