Earlier this summer, Farley and Claire Mowat lent me a book they had really loved -- Twenty-Six. The author, Leo McKay, Jr., was born and raised in Stellarton, Nova Scotia. His first novel, Like This, was nominated for the Giller Prize. This one should have been. The title “Twenty-Six” is a reference to the number of miners killed in the Westray explosion. Twenty six men lost their lives.
There has probably never been another industrial disaster in Canadian history as unforgivable; where loss of life was so largely due to the greed and negligence of the owners and operators, as the Westray mine.
What MacKay was able to do was bring the story to life as fiction. The key characters are not based on actual people, but the facts of the mine – the fact that the methane monitors were shut off, that explosive coal dust was allowed to accumulate throughout the mine, that workers’ concerns were dismissed -- were all true.
Have we learned the lessons from Westray? There was a judicial inquiry. There were recommendations to remedy our legislation so that criminal negligence of employers could result in jail time. That has not been done. There were recommendations to allow compensation for loss of life (beyond the limitations of the Workers Compensation legislation) in cases where the level of negligence extended to the criminal. That has also not happened.
Reading Twenty-Six re-awakened my sense of rage that a nineteenth century mining disaster could happen in recent times. To ensure it never happens again, we need to dust off the recommendations of Mr. Justice Peter Richard and push to see them implemented.