On June 30, Charles Caccia, the federal minister of labor, related to the Mining Society of Nova Scotia certain dismal facts. He told its annual meeting at a Cape Breton lodge that on average over the past decade, disabling injuries at the mines of the Cape Breton Development Corp. (Devco)—a Crown corporation, incidentally, not some rapacious private operator—were three times what they were in British coal mines and six times what they were in the United States. If mere bodily harm were not enough to tweak anyone’s interest, he also said that, at least partly due to those disabling accidents—his actual words were that they “must account for a significant amount” of it—productivity per 100 workers employed was less than onequarter the U.S. average. So it was not just a case of the odd limb going astray, but (perish the thought in a time of economic adversity) that we were suffering commercially as well.
If it was the labor minister’s intention to bring public attention to bear on a scandalous condition, he went about it in the wrong way. He should have leaked his comments as an ostensibly confidential report. We of the media love leaks. Not only would a wave of publicity have followed, but Cape Breton would have enjoyed a boom providing food, drink and lodging for media crews arriving to investigate the scandal. Having chosen to deal with it openly, he achieved nothing. In Nova Scotia the Cape Breton Post did not even staff him; its reporter, having covered other speakers at the meeting, left before Caccia spoke. Four days later the Post did run an eight-inch story at the bottom of page five, summarizing Caccia’s remarks from a text of the speech delivered to the newspaper office by Devco. The nearest metropolitan paper, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, gave the story an upbeat lead, relegated the bad stuff to paragraphs eight and nine, and let it go at that with no follow-up. The rest of the nation’s papers reported the speech perfunctorily, if at all, and the CBC’s flagships of television and radio, The Journal and As It Happens, found nothing in the mutilation of Canadian miners to distract them from their task of keeping the world safe from Ronald Reagan and the forces
of repression in Nicaragua.
People in the newsroom of one of the London populars once were fond of describing a newspaper’s role pompously as being to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If that is even slightly apt, what Caccia was talking about was clearly news. When the national minister of labor says that in 1981-1982 the number of workdays lost to occupational accidents and illness in the mines of a Crown corporation averaged three weeks per employee per year—about as much time as most people get off in annual vacations—it at least bears looking into.
This is particularly the case given two things. He was talking in mid-1983, nearly 4 V2 years after 12 miners died as a result of an underground explosion and fire at Devco’s No. 26 colliery at Glace Bay and more than three years after a commission headed by Roy Elfstrom, then a federal labor department official, criticized both Devco and Labor Canada for allowing bad safety practices to exist. The report also said that “the attitudes and environmental conditions that made this explosion and previous fires almost inevitable” were fostered by, among other things, fear of the loss of employment. In other words, in Cape Breton, where jobs are always hard to come by, miners accepted unnecessary risks at the coal face over the risk of the colliery closing. True, Caccia said that the accident record had improved between the year of the fire and 1981-1982, evidently the most recent year for which he had figures. But it was still of that improved 1981-82 that he said that the accident rate was six times worse than in the United States.
Second, it is surprising the speech did not trigger editorial interest because another of his illustrations was that “workdays lost in Canada due to workplace injuries and illness exceed in certain years by 2:1 the workdays lost due to strikes and lockouts.” Editorial pages have been known to tut-tut about our strike record, and it is true, according to United Nations figures, that we are right up there at the top of the tree ahead of the United States, in relative terms, in days lost, and ahead absolutely of such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands. If our record of workplace injuries is even worse, shouldn’t an editorial eyebrow be raised?
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