Still Failing the Westray Miners

Nova Scotia's disgraceful cabinet decided
to nickel-and-dime former Westray miners

Still Failing the Westray Miners

The Cabinet Scurried into Hiding

Painstakingly Lawyered Absurdity

This editorial appeared in
The Chronicle-Herald and The Mail-Star
Halifax, Tuesday, 13 January 1998

It has only been 43 days since Justice Peter Richard laid bare the corporate greed and the political indifference which caused the Westray disaster, killing 26 men and bringing financial hardship to many mining families.

But already the provincial government's ardour for righting Westray wrongs is cooling.

A case in point is cabinet's decision to nickel-and-dime former Westray miners by not paying a severance award until it sells the assets of the bankrupt mine.

Two weeks ago the Labour Standards Tribunal said 117 miners were owed 12 weeks' pay because the disaster which shut down Westray was avoidable. Last week, 33 non-unionized workers said, rightly, they deserve the same treatment.

The miners can claim the tribunal's $1.2-million award against remaining Westray assets – a few million dollars worth of equipment – seized by the province. But after 5½ years of waiting, they have asked cabinet to settle up now, rather than delaying until assets are sold.

Given the circumstances of Westray – a disaster that was in large part of government making – that was a reasonable request. Many Westray families are still trying to overcome the financial consequences of a disaster that government negligence allowed to happen.

Here, then, was a ready opportunity for the MacLellan government to demonstrate both humanity and a real sense of accountability.

Instead, it has scurried behind the skirts of its lawyers' gowns.

Cabinet couldn't agree to settle the severance award before liquidating Westray assets, we are told, because that could set a precedent for other bankruptcies.

Well, yes, it might set a precedent. But the precedent would be one of government dealing fairly and honourably with people it has injured. That's a precedent our politics needs, in spades.

But as far as the vague concern that this settlement would expose the province to future pressure in run-of-the-mill bankruptcies where it ends up with the assets, we don't believe it. The province's obligation to the Westray miners stems from its negligence in the inspection of the mine, not from its control of the mine assets.

In any case, any legal uncertainty could have been addressed by issuing a formal declaration of the special circumstances under which the miners' severance was being settled.

But that would probably come too close for cabinet's comfort to taking real responsibility for this disaster. For even though Westray was a previous government's foul-up, and even though Transport Minister Don Downe has apologized for the province, the MacLellan cabinet has resisted any admission of legal liability.

This was taken to the point of painstakingly lawyered absurdity in Mr. Downe apologizing "for any role government may have played" in the tragedy. Less than three weeks earlier, the government's own inquiry found it was at fault – was, not may have been.

The message from all this is dishearteningly familiar.

Taking responsibility, in our political culture, remains an assignment for government speechwriters. It is not to be confused with paying actual damages to people injured by government.

Converting sympathy into something tangible is a matter for government's hard-nosed legal talent. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

To sum up the Westray lesson, then, victims of government in Nova Scotia are entitled to the best rhetorical sympathies that public-sector public relations can provide.

But if they want more than that, they can sue – as the families of the dead miners are still being forced to do.

There is a phrase for this. "All help short of relief" might have been coined for cabinet's approach to Westray's victims.

And "sorry is as sorry does" is the test it has flunked. Even partial payment of the severance would have been a show of good faith. That cabinet could not even do this much is disgraceful.

Forty-three days ago, we said the Westray report cried out for "a serious reassessment of the meaning of public responsibility."

Like the miners, we're still waiting.

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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