On May 9, 1992, a lethal build-up of methane gas led to the explosion of the Westray Coal mine in Stellarton, Nova Scotia.
The explosion killed all 26 miners working underground and forever scarred the communities of Pictou County. Since that time, family groups and the United Steelworkers union (USW) have worked together to honour the memory of those lost and to push for enforcement of the “Westray Law,” a section in the legal code that holds managers and corporations criminally responsible for injuries or deaths on the job.
May 9, 2017, marked 25 years since the Westray disaster and the USW, along with family members, elected officials and other unions gathered to commemorate the tragedy and continue the campaign to enforce the law.
The strength of the community and coalition that formed following the explosion is remarkable. From that horrible event emerged a group determined to make a difference. Determined is an important word for the Westray Families Group. After suffering such heartbreaking loss, withdrawal is completely understandable. But the families and their allies chose another route. They were determined that there would be “No More Westrays.” And at the 25th commemoration event, the word “Determined” was heard again and again. The commitment to change remains strong.
25 years after the fateful explosion that killed an entire shift of workers, former Westray workers were joined by family members, many of whom had left the Nova Scotia community over the years, friends, supporters from as far away as B.C., media, students, government representatives and others, for a day filled with prayers of remembrance, tributes and a pledge to never give up the struggle for justice. And like they have been since the days before the disaster, when Westray miners were signing union cards hoping to end the unsafe working conditions, Steelworkers were there.
The evening prior included an event at Stellarton Town Hall where the USW presented recognition awards to the municipal councils of the communities that make up Pictou County. When the union began it’s “Stop The Killing, Enforce The Law” campaign, it was these communities that were the first to sign on and endorse what the Steelworkers were calling for. What began in those small towns soon spread across the country with councils representing big cities like Toronto and Vancouver to small, rural towns like Chase, B.C. and Eriksdale, MB all endorsing the campaign.
The day began at 6:45 a.m. with a procession to the Memorial Park and a short program. Later, at the Museum of Industry, local high school students participated in an event that was live-streamed. There, USW Canadian National Director Ken Neumann announced a $2,500 scholarship to be awarded to a student in the Stellarton area, who is completing high school and pursuing post-secondary education.
The afternoon featured a book-signing at the New Glasgow Library. Author Tom Sandborn read a passage from Hell’s History, which tracks the Westray story from “the predictable path to disaster” to the current enforcement campaign.
Back at the Westray Memorial in the evening, those attending the service led by Reverend Glen Matheson were accompanied by local Fire Fighters, the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Honour guard and the Union Fire Club Pipes and Drums along with RCMP and regional police. A performance by the miners’ choir Men of the Deeps ended with the late Nova Scotia singer Rita McNeil’s classic ballad about coal miners, “Working Man.”
“We fought for the inquiry in the mid-1990s,” Stephen Hunt, USW District 3 Director said. “And we lobbied long and hard on Parliament Hill for the Westray Law to prosecute companies that take workers’ lives for granted. And today we are still fighting to have the Westray Law better enforced.”
The dream job became a nightmare
“This was a dream for all of these young men,” said Darlene Dollimont-Svenson who lost her husband in the explosion.
The mine opened in 1991 and many who worked in the fateful mine in Nova Scotia felt lucky to land a well-paying job. Workers lined up for their first shifts, thinking of the better lives they would build for their families.
“They had new homes, new cars, friends and a 25- or 30-year life to retirement … And those men needed to go to work. And if they spoke up about what was going on (at the mine) there were profanities from the management … and they were sent packing.”
Many Westray workers knew the tunnels were dangerous. Darlene remembers miners sitting in her living room talking about the safety problems — four days before the explosion would kill many of them.
What were Westray miners discussing in the days leading up to the explosion? “They discussed the danger of the coal dust,” Darlene said, noting managers had been repeatedly warned to take steps to deal with this well-known hazard.
The family of Glenn Martin remember him wanting to earn enough money to fix the siding on his house.
Sara’s father Mike MacKay was 38 he died in the Westray explosion.The sudden loss of a parent is devastating, and the explosion affected Sara deeply. “I didn’t have the same closure with my father’s death that I think I would’ve had if I had a gravestone to go to, or a coffin to see, or even a body to see.”
Sara credits the tight knit community of Pictou County for helping her stay grounded. “Our community that we live in held us in their hands like a cocoon,” she said.
“People got together and just held us for a moment in safety and security and warmth and love. And my family will never forget that. I will never forget that…. We felt love and we still feel love. That’s why I’ll always be here.”
Richard concluded Westray management and its owner, Clifford Frame, were ultimately responsible for conditions at the mine, and he also blamed bureaucrats who tolerated poor safety practices.
Stephen Hunt, western Canadian director for the United Steelworkers, said the union has been fighting to make companies more accountable for their actions when workers are killed, injured and fall ill at the workplace.
“In this case, the predictable path to disaster, as Justice Richard called it, was so predictable and so obvious,” said Hunt, who testified at the inquiry.
Legacy: Westray Law
Families and the labour movement gathered after the disaster and decided to honour the lives lost and fight for changes to the criminal code of Canada.
“That woke us up. Twenty five years later, we’re still fighting the fight … Greed does not trump life. And the Westray mine was pure, unadulterated greed — and that took lives.”
The Westray Bill became law in 2004, giving police and prosecutors new rules for attributing criminal liability to corporations and their representatives when workers are injured or killed on the job.
It has been used in criminal prosecutions several times, but there have been only a few convictions.
The United Steelworkers run a campaign called “Stop The Killing: Enforce the Law.” We are calling on municipalities, provincial governments and the RCMP to educate and train frontline staff and crown attorneys on how to use the Criminal Code of Canada to hold killer managers and companies responsible for death and injury.
He points to the recent reopening the Donkin Mine in Cape Breton as an example of why we need to be vigilant. The company is owned by billionaire American coal baron Chris Cline and was to be managed by an official who was linked with a “Westray-like” disaster in West Virgina.
“You should probably be alarmed,” says Parsons.
Despite studies showing that unionization dramatically improves safety in coal mines, the Nova Scotia government is actively undermining unionization. The Liberals recently passed a law to appease mine operators declaring strikes illegal for workers in extractive industries. The law is designed to save companies money by undermining the ability of miners to organize and bargain for better health and safety standards underground. “We’re desperate enough to erode workers’ rights to woo big businesses.”
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