LU 258 members and family members attended the Day of Mourning ceremonies in New Westminster this year to honour workers killed or injured on the job or who have died as a result of occupational disease.
Labour activists, family members, local politicians and observers gathered across Canada at dozens of venues in late April to honour workers who have been killed or injured on the job or who have died as a result of occupational disease.
In British Columbia, services took place at various locations over a number of days as the annual Day of Mourning fell on a Saturday this year. Most labour-organized events took place on Saturday, April 28, including a solemn service at the New Westminster Quay that featured guest speakers, a lone piper and the New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services Honour Guard.
Organized by the New Westminster & District Labour Council, the Vancouver & District Labour Council and the BC Federation of Labour, guest speaker Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, noted this year is the 20th anniversary of the Westray mining disaster in Nova Scotia that killed 26 workers when an underground methane explosion took place. Since then, the labour movement has worked very hard to push parliament to pass federal legislation, the Westray bill, that holds employers criminally liable for failing to take steps to protect the lives of their employees. If used as intended, significant inroads could be made at protecting workers health and safety and lives could be saved.
The lasting fallout
Two of the guest speakers at the New Westminster Day of Mourning event recalled their own personal suffering as a family member left behind when a worker dies on the job.
As a young teenager, Mike Davis recalled the day in 1981 when his father Don didn’t come home from work because he, along with three of his workmates, were killed in a workplace accident that saw a platform suspended on the side of a tower being constructed in downtown Vancouver crash to the ground, sending the four carpenters working on the platform plunging 36 floors to their deaths. With anger in his voice, Mr. Davis condemned authorities whose responsibility lies in ensuring workplace safety — the Workers Compensation Board, now known as WorkSafeBC — and still describes that day as the worst day of his life.
The “Bentall Tragedy” is still recalled and commemorated on an annual basis at ceremonies conducted by the BC Building Trades Council in downtown Vancouver.
Hospital Employees Union member and First Nations activist Trudy Spiller eloquently recalled her own personal suffering and described the lasting effects on her and her two children of the workplace death of her husband two decades ago. This tragedy was recently compounded when she received the news in January her brother, Art Loring, was working with his son logging in the forests outside Terrace when he was struck by a falling tree. His son rushed to his aid, but Art died while waiting for help to arrive.
Trudy described not only her own personal loss, but the whole community’s loss, as her brother was a well known and immensely respected First Nations activist from the Terrace area, a member of the Gitxsan tribe.
Renee Saklikar, a local poet and writer, recited a very moving poem about the three Abbotsford farm workers who were killed when the overloaded labour contractor van transporting them to work that day in 2007 careened out of control, resulting in their deaths and injuring the other 14 passengers.
After the speeches, mourners solemnly stood while the lone piper played. A procession then marched to the base of the cenotaph where they placed individual roses to honour those who gave their lives in the line of work.
According to statistics from WorkSafeBC, 142 “fatality claims” were “accepted” in 2011. The actual numbers indicate 186 workers were killed on the job or died from occupational disease in British Columbia last year. Since 2001, when the BC Liberal government was elected, the Workers Compensation Board has undergone a name change, removing “Workers” from its branding, regulation has been gutted and there are fewer safety inspectors. Most recently, Grant’s Law has been watered down and Minister Kevin Falcon has been honoured with the “Golden Scissors” Award by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business for cutting “regulatory costs” to business, including WCB premiums. Teachers are facing million dollar day fines for going on strike while employers were fined $320,000 for the deaths of mushroom factory two workers, with three other workers left permanently disabled in a vegetative state. Business has been permitted to “self-regulate” and injuries, deaths and illnesses continue to escalate for BC workers.