moved that the fifth report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, presented on Wednesday, June 7, 2000, be concurred in.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to move concurrence in that report and by way of background to indicate exactly why I am doing that. I have very real concerns. I know those concerns would be shared by other members of the justice committee, and certainly by other members of my party.
In June of this year the justice committee met to discuss a private member's bill dealing with the Westray mine disaster. The justice committee considered that bill. A motion was moved by me. A great deal of work was done by the hon. member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough. There has been a great deal of work done on this bill by the leader of my party, the hon. member for Halifax, and by the hon. member for Churchill in Manitoba. This issue is not just an Atlantic issue. It crosses all lines. There has also been a great deal of work done by the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, our justice critic.
At the justice committee there was a rare and I think unique feeling when the committee determined that the justice department should bring back to the committee a bill giving substance to the spirit of the report filed after the Westray disaster.
There are rules that determine when the minister can respond to that motion from the justice committee. There is no requirement for an election for another year and a half. I am concerned, and I know my concern would be shared by other members of the House, that if an election were called and the House did not proceed to its full mandate this most important issue would die on the order paper. We would have to begin all over again in a new parliament, seeking to give life and legislation to the spirit of the report of Justice Richard and to bring justice to the families of those involved in the Westray mine disaster.
I do not need to repeat the history of that unfortunate day in Nova Scotia and, indeed, that unfortunate day in Canada. I will for the record indicate the brief facts.
As many members who have followed this debate will know and as many members who have led and allowed their names to stand as movers and supporters of this bill will know, it was on May 9, 1992 that the Westray mine exploded, killing 26 miners. The coal mine in Pictou was officially opened eight months earlier. Federal financial assistance was approved which permitted the project to proceed. There were very real questions surrounding the operation of that mine.
After the explosion on December 1, 1997, and after five and a half years of work, a four volume report was produced from the Westray mine public inquiry, entitled “The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster”. The report was scathing. Comments have been made by myself and by other members who have spoken in support of some kind of legislation that would prevent the same kind of thing from happening again.
I will quote, as I have before, from the words of Mr. Justice K. Peter Richard. He said “the Westray story is a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency and of cynical indifference”.
The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management. In this disaster there is no question that these labourers went underground into a situation where they ought not to have gone and they paid with their lives. There is no question that if this act had been done by an individual there would have been a charge of homicide. Because it is a corporation and because of all kinds of legal implications coming from that, justice has never been achieved.
In his report, Justice Richard recommended very clearly that there be a new criminal offence that would impose criminal liabilities on directors and other responsible corporate agents for failing to ensure that their corporation maintained an appropriate standard of occupational health and safety in the workplace; that there be a criminal offence of corporate killing.
We know the statistics. We know that almost 10,000 workers die every year as a result of their work and possibly because of corporate negligence. We know that three workers are injured every day on the job site. From the time the justice committee met in June until today, how many months, how many lives how much corporate irresponsibility have taken place? No mechanism exists in the criminal code for the courts to deal with this in the way that Justice Richard envisioned as a result of the Westray mine disaster.
I know that members from the United Steelworkers were at the justice committee hearing. They have done a tremendous amount of work on this bill. They have provided background notes. They have had legal counsel work on the bill. Everyone who was in the room the day the justice committee met was impressed with the spirit of co-operation from all parties that asked the Minister of Justice to bring forward legislation. It was a most amazing day. This crossed party lines. The member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough worked very closely with us on this issue. The chair of the justice committee was moved by the testimony he heard from families who had been affected by the Westray mine disaster. Coming out of this was a moment when partisanship was put aside in the name of justice.
We face the prospect of losing, if not today perhaps in the next week or two, the momentum and the opportunity to have legislation brought forward if parliament prorogues and an election is called.
Today I am rising to remind the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Labour and members of the House of the importance of this legislation. It has been literally years in the making. It has taken the blood, the sweat and the tears of the families of the Westray miners to bring it this far. It has taken the perseverance of the United Steelworkers. It has taken the putting aside of partisanship by members of parliament.
I would like to hear from the minister, either tomorrow or when the House resumes on October 16, some indication that before an election is called—and I have indicated that there is no need for an election call—the legislation will be brought forward immediately to be given passage in the House in whatever form it takes to get it on the books and into the criminal code so we do not lose this opportunity.
I have concerns about that from a number of perspectives. As a lawyer who has dealt with the criminal code and as someone who has been interested in justice for a long time, I have a very real concern that when we have a report that makes a strong recommendation and it is not acted on, then the administration of justice falls into disrepute. Respect for the justice system is a cornerstone of any civilized society.
We now have a situation that cries out for justice. We have done the studies and have finished the report. We have agreement from the parties. We have to give life to that if the public, and especially the workers of this country, is to have respect for the justice system.
I also have concerns about it because I come from a coal mining community. The member who seconded my opportunity to speak today, the member for Bras d'Or—Cape Breton, comes from a coal mining community. In fact, it was the coal miners in our community who went into the Westray mine to retrieve some of the bodies of the workers and who put their own lives at risk for their brothers in the mine. Those people have contacted me and the member for Bras d'Or—Cape Breton and have asked whether there is going to be legislation. They wanted to know if we were going to give life to this legislation so that workers who go down into the mines and workers who put their lives at risk in terms of labour every day would be protected.
Will there be some accounting at the end that says the corporation can be held liable for gross mismanagement, for negligence or, and this is where we take a further step, for malice aforethought, for deliberate actions, knowing that they can result in the loss of life?
I and other members have heard from our constituents and from people across the country who want this legislation passed. I do not think I exaggerate the urgency of bringing this legislation forward in the name of justice, in the name of the Canadian people, in the name of the workers of the Westray mine who lost their lives, and in the name of those people who came before the committee and testified in the most moving way.
I remember when the brother of one of the miners who was killed sat at the table and told his story of his quiet, dignified search for justice. It moved everyone in the committee to the point where we could put aside partisan differences and say that something needed to be done.
What we need to do is amend the criminal code so that corporate executives and directors are held accountable for workplace safety. This is not something foreign. This has been done in other jurisdictions. Such legislation exists in Great Britain and Australia, and there is a movement in the United States to review it. It is not something that is unfathomable or that has never been done in another jurisdiction. It exists.
There is an opportunity to examine other pieces of legislation. We have done that. I can cite chapter and verse of other legislation in other countries that makes it an offence for corporations to knowingly put the lives of their workers at risk in order to maximize profit, open a mine or make sure that the last shipment of goods gets on the train.
What price do workers in the year 2000 have to pay for corporate profits, and not even for corporate profits sometimes, but just to make sure that the order book is full and the work gets out?
In the Westray mine disaster, the corporation knew there were faults in the mine and knew that the equipment was not working safely, but it put great pressure on the non-unionized workers to go into the mines every day, and the workers went.
Some people have said that the workers had a choice and that they did not have to go. When I hear that I think about all the workers who go out to work every day in order to feed and clothe their children, pay their mortgage and be courageous citizens. That is their priority. They put their lives and safety at risk in order to work. To say that they have a choice, especially in the part of the country that I come from where the unemployment rate is high and the opportunity for work is minimal, is not so easy. To choose not to work is not so easy.
On the Atlantic coast, whether it is in fishing, mining, forestry or farming, we have a history of that kind of dangerous work. The first time I spoke to this bill I talked about what it was like growing up in those communities. What we know from growing up in Nova Scotia is the sound of the whistle when there is a disaster in the mine. We know what it means for the men and women on the fishing boats in the north Atlantic when we look out at the horizon and the storm clouds gather. We know what it is like in the steel mill when there is a catastrophe. We grew up knowing these things.
Accidents can happen as a matter of chance, but when they happen because a corporation has determined that the lives of its workers are not a factor in determining the balance sheet, then it is time for us to say that it is a crime. It is time for us to say that when a corporation knowingly determines to send men and women possibly to their deaths and it has the means to prevent that and does not, it is time for us to say that it is a crime.
I rise today on this motion because we said that in the justice committee. We sent it to the minister and asked for a bill to be brought back that would make it a crime for those directors and corporations to kill their workers.
We know we will hear it again today in question period and there will be some banter back and forth about when there will be an election. The Prime Minister may say that we will be in our seats on the 16th, 17th or 18th, but there may be an election call after that. Everybody has his or her own reasons for an election call. I am not afraid of it and am prepared to fight it. However, when we have important pieces of legislation in the making let us not put those pieces of legislation at risk.
I urge the Minister of Justice, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Labour to issue a public statement.
They do not have to because they have a few days before they have to report back to the justice committee. However, in the name of decency, in the names of the members of the justice committee who brought forward a unanimous report and of the witnesses who testified, I ask them to indicate within the next two days whether they will bring forward to the House legislation giving life to the commitment made by the justice committee, by the steelworkers and by the families of the miners who went underground and lost their lives. Anything less is negligence and arrogance on the part of the government.
We know this legislation is needed. That is not contested. We know this legislation is important. That is not contested. We know the legislation can be brought into effect. That is not contested. Why wait? Let us do it. We will have other legislation pushed through the House before an election call. The government has no hesitation about pushing through its EI changes. The government may have no hesitation to put through its health accord. In the name of decency, let us bring forward a bill that we can all agree needs to be enacted and give life to the Westray legislation.