moved that Bill C-284, an act to amend the Criminal Code (offences by corporations, directors and officers), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I rise today to begin the debate on Bill C-284, an act to amend the Criminal Code of Canada concerning offences by corporations, directors and officers.
The bill has been a long time coming before parliament and has been known by many names: the corporate responsibility act; the workplace safety act; the corporate manslaughter act; and the corporate killing act. However most people still call it by its original name, the Westray act.
People call it the Westray act in reference to the tragic Westray mine disaster in Stellarton, Nova Scotia on May 9, 1992. On that day 26 miners died when a methane gas explosion tore through the Westray mine. Those 26 deaths, like so many deaths and injuries that occur in the workplace, could have been prevented were it not for the company management practices that deliberately and systematically refused to comply with health and safety regulations.
Mr. Justice Richard's inquest into the Westray mine disaster was very clear on this point. It was the wilful decision of the mine managers to ignore and indeed encourage violations of safety regulations that led to the fatal gas explosion. The miners themselves tried to complain about the unsafe working conditions but their complaints were ignored and they were threatened with dismissal unless they kept quiet.
The Westray case exposed a major hole in our criminal law system which the bill addresses. Right now the law simply does not allow our justice system to hold company managers criminally accountable when they show the kind of heinous disregard for human life shown by the Westray mine managers. The bill amends the Criminal Code of Canada and creates new provisions to hold corporations, their directors and managers accountable in such cases.
The Westray tragedy has been called the worst case of corporate mass murder in Canadian history. It has even been the subject of an acclaimed National Film Board documentary which was screened last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Yet despite all this, not a single criminal charge could be laid against the managers who were responsible for what happened. Local crown attorneys tried to lay charges but concluded that they could not get a conviction under existing laws.
In the report from his inquest, Mr. Justice Richard wrote that this was a weakness in our system that should not be allowed to exist. He went on to recommend that:
The Government of Canada, through the Department of Justice, should institute a study of the accountability of corporate executives and directors for the wrongful or negligent acts of the corporation and should introduce in the Parliament of Canada such amendments to legislation as are necessary to ensure that corporate executives and directors are held properly accountable for workplace safety.
Unfortunately the government so far has not responded to this recommendation. I am sure that this lack of response is what prompted the hon. member for Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough to introduce Motion No. 79 in the last parliament. His motion reads as follows:
That, in the opinion of this House, the Criminal Code or other appropriate federal statutes should be amended, after consideration by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, in accordance with recommendation 73 of the province of Nova Scotia's public inquiry into the Westray disaster, specifically with the goal of ensuring that corporate executives and directors are held properly accountable for workplace safety.
I commend the hon. member for Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough whose constituency includes the town of Stellarton, home of the Westray mine, for his tremendous work on the motion in the last parliament. Thanks in large part to his efforts, it was made votable and passed in the House on March 21, 2000.
While Motion No. 79 was working its way through parliament, the hon. member for Halifax, who is also the leader of the New Democratic Party, was also working very hard on the issue. She introduced private members' Bill C-259 to amend the criminal code as recommended by Mr. Justice Richard. I am proud that I had the honour of seconding that bill. When Motion No. 79 made its way to the justice committee after being passed by the House, the justice committee considered both the motion and Bill C-259 and issued a unanimous report which recommended the following:
That the Minister of Justice and the Department of Justice bring forward proposed legislation in accordance with Motion 79, agreed to by the House on March 21, 2000 and the principles underlined in Bill C-259 for consideration by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
The government had 60 days to respond. Unfortunately before this time limit had elapsed the Prime Minister dissolved parliament for the general election and both the hon. member for Halifax's bill and the hon. member for Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough's motion died on the order paper without resolution. What did not die, however, was the urgency of the issue and the determination of those of us who believe passionately in workplace safety to close this huge loophole in the criminal code. That is why, following the election, the hon. member for Halifax resubmitted her bill and I introduced my own version of it as well, with higher fines.
This issue is very important to me personally and to my constituents in the Churchill riding where many people are employed in heavy resource industries like mining and forestry, where health and safety is literally a matter of life and death.
Injury and death on the job is an ongoing problem in Canada. The statistics are shocking. On an average work day three Canadians are killed on the job.