Weasel Talk and Slippery Dodge

For Leaders, Not Lawyers

This editorial appeared in
The Chronicle-Herald
Halifax, Saturday, 20 December 1997

Give Russell MacLellan's government its due for responding quickly, thoroughly and seriously to the Westray inquiry.

But the families of 26 dead miners are still owed something more: a plain, no-weasel-words acceptance by the province of its share of responsibility for the 1992 mine disaster.

Kudos, first, to cabinet for accepting and beginning to implement all 74 recommendations made by Justice Peter Richard.

These run the gamut from disciplining officials who didn't do their jobs (firing two mine inspection officials, suspending three engineers), overhauling mining regulations, ordering an outside review of health and safety inspection, developing guidelines for ministers' and deputy ministers' responsibilities, re-examining corporate accountability, and separating responsibility for mine regulation from the conflicting one of mine promotion.

Unveiling the response to families in Stellarton, Transportation and Public Works Minister Don Downe, chairman of cabinet's Westray committee, also did much to capture the measure of the moment in human terms.

Making a long-awaited apology on behalf of the province, he said his government "will do the right thing" and "do our best to make sure this type of tragedy doesn't happen again."

Unfortunately, Mr. Downe went on to demonstrate that this government (which wasn't in power when the mine blew up) hasn't figured out what the right thing is in terms of taking real rather than rhetorical responsibility.

Mr. Downe made it clear the government is not accepting any legal liability by apologizing. And the carefully lawyered wording of his sorry ("I apologize for any role government may have played") reflected that slippery dodge.

Twenty-three families are suing the province, the federal government, equipment makers and Westray's defunct owner, Curragh Inc., for damages. But Mr. Downe sidestepped the issue of compensating them out of court, saying this was an issue for lawyers.

It certainly is not. It is an issue for leaders - a chance to show they have learned something about responsibility from the Westray report.

What is this weasel talk that government "may have played" a role in the tragedy?

The inquiry report is clear that government negligence, lassitude and incompetence DID play a key role in the failure to prevent a preventable disaster.

Justice Richard says point blank that "this disaster would not have occurred if there had been compliance" with regulations on cleanup, stone-dusting and ventilation. The government failed, not may have failed, to fulfil its duty to ensure this compliance.

Justice Richard urges us "not to lose sight" of "a clear 'hierarchy' of responsibility for the environment that set the stage for 9 May 1992."

The primary responsibility, he says, falls upon Westray management. But second and third in line are the Labour Department ("its mine inspectorate must bear a correlative responsibility for its continued failure in its duty") and the Natural Resources Department ("with its 'hands-off' attitude, its general indifference to the quality of mine planning and its lassitude about any safety responsibility.")

If this isn't liability, what is? If this catalogue of failures doesn't create a responsibility to compensate victims' families, then what conceivable act of negligence could we hold our government accountable for? How bad would it have to get?

The plain-as-your-nose answer is the government cannot, morally or legally, wriggle out of compensating the Westray victims' families.

Yes, it can drag its feet and increase the cost to everyone of losing this fight. But lose it will.

And it will lose most if it chooses litigation. That way the price will not just be more money, but more shame, more bitterness, more distrust.

Mr. Downe himself told the families "the entire system from top to bottom failed the miners." If he meant that, and if the government really means to do the right thing, it will not fail these weary people again by dragging them through court on a case it deserves to lose.

Go To:   Westray Scrapbook Fifty clippings about the Westray coal mine disaster
Go to:   Main Westray Coal Mine Disaster page
Go to:   Westray Public Inquiry online transcript of testimony
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First uploaded to the WWW:   1997 December 21