Mr. Speaker, before I begin my remarks, I would hope that the Chair would indulge me and the House, just in keeping with personal and professional accountability, and allow me to advise the House and the Chair that I sent a letter to the Prime Minister's office after hearing the Speaker's ruling today. I wish to just read that letter:
I wish to unreservedly withdraw the allegation of improper conduct that I made in the House of Commons earlier this week.
Turning to Bill C-284, I commend the hon. member for Churchill for bringing the issue forward. I will begin by stating that the Progressive Conservative/Democratic Representative Coalition will give its initial support to the bill. We certainly believe this continues to be a timely and important issue, one which should be placed before the justice committee. I believe there is a willingness on the part of the department and the minister herself to permit that to happen.
I can say with a great deal of sincerity and emotion that this hits very close to home. In fact the place where I grew up is a neighbouring community to Plymouth, where the Westray mine rests and where the bodies of those 26 men continue to rest underground.
May 9, 1992, the day that the Westray mine in Plymouth, Nova Scotia blew up killing 26 men, is a day that the people of Pictou county, in fact the people of Canada, will not forget.
Although we have concerns about the way in which the bill has been drafted in terms of its scope, we certainly support seeing the bill, this issue, continue through the process and to the justice committee for proper review. It will take far more than criminal code amendments to deal with this issue in a proper fashion. As the parliamentary secretary quite properly stated, this is a complex issue. It is an issue involving provincial jurisdictions; it is an issue involving provincial legislation.
Bill C-284 speaks of the need to bring about greater accountability on the part of corporations. It includes acts or omissions, and rightly so, because of what happened in the case of Westray, which was encapsulated in a report tabled by Mr. Justice Peter Richards after hearing numerous testimony.
His report “The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster” highlighted the acts of omission on the part of provincial safety inspectors and mine managers in making legitimate and real attempts to prevent a situation that was known all too well to those miners, many of whom escaped by the simple fortune of not being in the mine that day. I knew some of those men whose names were read into the record by the hon. member for Dartmouth. In fact, as a summer student with Satellite Construction, I had worked on the site of the Westray mine during its construction phase.
Criminal negligence and in particular manslaughter by criminal negligence is perhaps arguably one of the most difficult sections of the criminal code to prove. It involves proving the intention. It involves proving the mens rea. Particularly when the mens rea is an act of omission, this is a very difficult criminal matter to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
The bill is very similar to a private member's motion which I presented. It was the first private member's motion that I was permitted to submit upon being elected to the House in 1997. That motion, Motion No. 455, and later Motion No. 79, was passed and received overwhelming all party support to proceed to the justice committee.
That motion dealt specifically with the amendment of the criminal code and all appropriate federal statutes in accordance with recommendation 73 of the Nova Scotia public inquiry into the Westray disaster and was specifically focused at holding corporate executives and directors accountable for workplace safety.
Mr. Justice Richards' report was a direct message to this and all federal governments that there is a responsibility that rests on the Parliament of Canada to take steps to ensure workplace safety.
The issue is seen, understandably, as being predominantly under provincial jurisdiction, but human safety is something that all legislatures have to take responsibility for.
I have some concerns regarding the reverse onus of the legislation, yet the need for workplace safety overrides that concern. There is a pressing if not urgent need to delve into this issue.
Those who are in the corporate world, who sit on boards of directors, who sometimes take very little hands-on control of the day to day running and operations of businesses would be encouraged, I would suggest compelled, to show greater concern and insight into what is happening in those businesses to ensure that elements of safety exist, to ensure it is a priority for those corporations lest they be found to be criminally responsible when horrible disasters occur such as what occurred at the Westray mine.
That tragedy in Plymouth, Nova Scotia reminds us that all corporations in that world should hold concern for their employees as among their top priorities. They have to see them as people and not only look at the bottom line in terms of financial gain.
As was previously mentioned, other jurisdictions have dealt with this issue and legislated in this area, Australia and Great Britain to mention a couple. I want to take a moment to express again, as I have before in the context of this legislation, my sincere thanks and the thanks of the people of Pictou county to the draegermen and the emergency response teams who arrived on the scene in the aftermath of that explosion. They put their own safety at risk and entered the mine shaft in the vain hope of rescuing survivors of that explosion.
The attempt to locate the 26 men who died in that mine underground remains a testament to the bravery and selflessness of those workers. Many of those draegermen came from Cape Breton, an area which has endured more than its own share of mining tragedy. The people of Pictou county will never forget the assistance that was offered.
I might add that many of those emergency response workers from the local area and the province of Nova Scotia again rallied to the cause in the Swissair disaster off the coast of Peggy's Cove. Once again those individuals deserve our bottomless thanks for what they did and the quality of mercy they showed during that troubled time.
Pictou county has a long and rich tradition of coal mining. The Pictou coalfield has been mined for nearly 200 years, yet there has always been danger in the mining and in the thick and gassy coal seams that are found there. The Foord and Wimpey seams in particular are notorious for their volatility.
As the need for coal diminished, Westray was the only operational underground coal mine in Pictou county at the time of the explosion in 1992. Management's disregard for worker safety combined with the workers' need to keep their jobs seemed to cause a sense of urgency in keeping the mine going. There were financial pressures that were brought to bear as well. What a heartbreaking tragedy it was in terms of the loss of lives. If that mine were operating today, the economic advantage would flow to an area that is very economically depressed. That remains part of that tragedy. If that mine had been properly managed, I would suggest it would still be operating.
Turning back to this bill, and my previous motion, this is an attempt by the opposition, by all members of parliament, to remind the government and ourselves that we must do everything in our power to ensure there is workplace safety. We have to be engaged actively with those in the labour community to ensure we are doing our utmost to protect workers on the job.
There is a need for safety in mining but also in farming, manufacturing, fish plants, in all areas where danger lurks in any occupation. Too often death and injury in the workplace, in the fullness of time, is discovered to have been avoidable.
It is a daunting task to try to enact legislation and to put into law provisions that would protect and encourage those in the industry to abide by legislative initiatives to ensure safety. Yet a criminal code provision, a law that would help ensure accountability, is one such way to do so, leading to higher levels of accountability among executives, CEOs and management in companies. It certainly is a worthwhile exercise for us.
Those who make decisions in the workplace that affect workplace safety need to be held accountable. The bill speaks of fines. It speaks of greater corporate activity in terms of knowledge. It speaks of executives being actively engaged in the workplace over which they preside. It would create offences and penalties for the corporate sector.
After eight years in office the Liberal government has a mandate to address the issue. It has the mandate by virtue not only of private members' bills and motions but of this report and the fact that the problems continue to exist day to day. The tragedy of September 11 increased the need for security in all sectors but the situation in the workplace is omnipresent.
During the public inquiry into the Westray matter the criminal prosecution proceeded through the courts all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The prosecutors in the case had a very difficult time presenting evidence due to procedural interference. This highlights the need for amendments to the criminal code.
We look forward to having the opportunity to revisit this debate in the House but more so in committee where we will hear from stakeholders and individuals who can advise us how to improve workplace safety nationally.