Mr. Speaker, I am happy on this occasion to have the opportunity to speak briefly in the final reading stage of the so-called Westray bill, Bill C-45, that is now before the House.
I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute, where I think tribute is owing, to those Canadians who have worked long and hard to bring the bill to the point where we in fact will have a vehicle to hold criminally accountable corporations, their officers and executive members who knowingly put at risk the lives of their employees.
I think credit must first and foremost go to the families, the survivors of the Westray miners, 26 of whom lost their lives in my province of Nova Scotia over a decade ago, and to the surviving miners who had been employed at Westray but, fortunately, were not working in the mine on the occasion when this tragic disaster occurred.
Second, credit is owing to the trade union movement and, in particular, to the United Steel Workers of America which made a commitment that was not required in law and not a commitment it had entered into in any contractual way but in fact a commitment to help the Westray miners organize. A vote had been cast by the Westray miners but because the ballots were counted after the 26 deaths occurred, it turned out that the Westray miners had sought to be represented by the United Steel Workers of America.
The mine closed but the steel workers never faltered, never hesitated. They poured their heart and soul, blood and guts into pressing for the kind of changes in law, the changes in health and safety practices in Nova Scotia and across the country, that would ensure never again would there be an occurrence permitted in this country such as what happened at Westray.
Credit must also be shared with those who have lost their lives and others who have advocated on behalf of workers who lost their lives or lost their health or lost limbs in workplace accidents, who have also understood the need for changes in the Criminal Code to make it possible to establish corporate responsibility and accountability and, where appropriate, corporate criminality when employers act in grotesquely irresponsible ways that endanger the lives of their workers.
I want to underscore the tragedy of the government having taken so long to reach this point of bringing the legislation forward by mentioning 21 year old Lewis Wheelan. He was employed by Ontario hydro to clear brush. In Nova Scotia we call it Power Corporation. Through what was a horrendously irresponsible set of circumstances, for which the employer was responsible, this young man initially suffered a serious workplace injury and became a triple amputee. He struggled valiantly to rehabilitate himself but in a double tragedy and a double irony he lost his life during the recent Ontario hydro power outage.
His father wrote to me a few days ago expressing concern about the possibility that the bill would die on the Order Paper as a result of premature prorogation or the recessing of this session of Parliament. I do not think we should leave it to chance. We should ensure that the legislation is effective.
Had the legislation now before the House been in place in May 2001, when Mr. Wheelan's son suffered his severe workplace accident, the employer, Great Lakes Power Corporation, a subsidiary of Brascan Corporation, would have found itself in the criminal courts facing the kind of sanctions and ultimate justice that are in the bill.
It is too late for Lewis Wheelan and the other Lewis Wheelans of the world who have lost their lives over the last 10 years in what might have been preventable workplace accidents or injuries and ultimately workplace fatalities but let us not delay further the full implementation of the legislation.
I have been concerned, and I know others have been concerned from the beginning, about whether the legislation is as far-reaching as it needs to be. We do not know whether the bill captures all of those intended by the recommendations of the judge who presided over the Westray inquiry. Departmental officials have insisted that those concerns are unfounded and they have been adamant that executives, officers or CEOs of corporations who might engage in criminally irresponsible activity as it relates to the lives of their employees will be fully covered under the legislation. I hope those assurances are based on solid ground.
There also has been a concern about whether the definition of organizations is one that is entirely appropriate and whether there is any possibility that inadvertently those who would be least expected to be held responsible for workplace injuries or fatalities might find themselves being blamed and others in fact finding themselves getting off scot-free. We have been given assurances that these concerns are, if not ill-founded, that there is a remote possibility that those concerns are on solid ground.
For that reason, I and the New Democratic Party caucus are prepared to indicate our support for the legislation. It may not give us the most stringent possible measures but in this instance it is certainly an improvement over the disgraceful situation as it relates to holding employers fully responsible for criminally irresponsible actions in the workplace.
I again pay tribute to those who have worked to bring this about. I think some credit also needs to go to the justice committee. Sometimes it is not evident to the general public that parliamentary committees working under the umbrella of Parliament, in this case the parliamentary committee on justice, get the job done. It is true that sometimes committees are hopelessly bogged down, paralyzed or engaged in dismaying partisan manoeuvring in the eyes of the public but in this case some credit has to go to the chairman of the justice committee, the member from the Fredericton area and two other members of the committee for ensuring that this necessary legislation has now reached this stage in the completion of the parliamentary process.
The bill was first introduced by me in a private member's bill and died on the Order Paper. It was then introduced by my colleague, the member for Churchill, and died on the Order Paper.
It is much appreciated that enough members of the House saw the necessity of moving forward. The justice committee had a genuine and sincere debate on whether it was necessary, once the government sponsored its own legislation, to have a full array of witnesses come before the committee yet again. Given the urgency of getting on with the legislation, we appreciate the cooperation at the justice committee to recognize the possibility that bringing forward a whole series of witnesses all over again was perhaps unnecessary and, in any case, could jeopardize the importance of the legislation being enacted before the House faces the possibility of prorogation.
To all those who have contributed, I send a heartfelt expression of appreciation. In the final analysis, to those who have paid with their lives in preventable workplace deaths, accidents and injuries, it is hoped that this, in the future, will allow family members to say that lives and limbs were not lost, that people did not sacrifice their health without there finally being an appropriate response from the federal government to do what it could to prevent such fatalities and tragedies in the future.