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“Hi there,” began the breathlessly chatty, early February email from someone named Emily from something called Veritas Communications.

Emily was just writing to let me know “Seretha W. of Hammonds Plains, N.S., recently received $20,000 from Dr Pepper Canada to be put towards her education goal of obtaining a Master of Nursing degree. As part of the $100,000 Dr Pepper Tuition Giveaway, five ‘One-of-a-Kind’ Canadians were selected to receive tuition grants to help them achieve their education goals.”

Emily helpfully pointed me to a compilation YouTube video I could check out to see the delight on the faces of the winners as a swarm of Dr Pepper employees descended on their doors with smiles, balloons and oversized cheques.

What had the winners done to justify their $20,000? They’d submitted a one-minute video “explaining why and how they wanted to pursue further education.”

Dr Pepper, of course, is a soft drink marketed by Canada Dry Mott’s, a subsidiary of Dr Pepper Snapple, “one of the leading refreshment beverage businesses in North America.” So when did the good Dr Pepper get into the education scholarship business?

The week before I received Emily’s email, my Facebook feed had lit up with the unrelated but related news that Halifax-based Souls Harbour Rescue Mission had just won one of five $100,000 prizes in the sixth annual Aviva Community Fund competition. If I’d missed it on Facebook, it was also broadcast live on Canada AM.

This competition, sponsored by Aviva, the insurance company, allowed community groups to submit “ideas that would have a positive impact on the community. Those are then voted for online, with the top vote-getters being awarded prize money.”

Souls Harbour had received 20,000 votes, the third most in the country. I knew that because friends, who were championing Souls Harbour, had been hijacking my Facebook feed for months to urge everyone to get out and vote (you could vote daily) in the preliminary round, the semis, the finals…

Souls Harbour seems a more-than-worthy cause. Its founders, a reverend and his wife from Saskatchewan, opened their soup kitchen in 2011, and serve 90 hot meals a day, 25,000 a year. Their $100,000 prize, they explained, will allow them to upgrade from “a home kitchen, one fridge, one stove,” to a purpose-built commercial kitchen.

So… all good?

Well, not really.

Far be it from me to suggest corporations shouldn’t show social responsibility or provide community benefits. They should.

But it is worth asking why private companies seem able to do what our governments no longer can. And to wonder whether we really want decisions about important social concerns — who deserves financial help with their education, which among the many important and needy social service providers, should get inevitably scarce funds — turned into bread-and-circuses online popularity contests and corporate marketing campaigns masking as charity?

How did we get to this sorry pass?

Well, for starters, consider how corporate tax rates have declined year over year, decade over decade, starving governments of revenues to provide help to the needy and worthy.

Consider too that Canada lost $80 billion to tax evasion in 2011, with almost a quarter of Canadian direct investment overseas that year ending up parked in one of the world’s top tax havens, not coincidentally beyond the reach of the tax man.

Or consider that, thanks to tax loopholes, Target’s CEO not only walked out the door of the failed retail giant with a $70-million personal severance package (equal to the total severance for Target’s other 17,600 employees!) but also won’t pay tax on the first 50 per cent of it. Thanks to a loophole that exempts CEOs from tax on half the income earned “cashing in company stock… received as part of their compensation,” Canada loses one billion dollars a year.

That would fund a lot of scholarships. Or soup kitchens.

And the decisions could then be based on something more meaningful than product-placements, one-minute videos, or online voting.

Just sayin’.

 

This column originally appeared in the May-June 2015 issue of Atlantic Business Magazine.

Betty, my trusty backyard barbecue — barbecues should have names — has officially become one more innocent victim of 2015, Halifax’s Winter Without End… joining my car’s front windshield (ice-cracked), front fender (ice-whacked) and underside (salt-slimed, rusting).  But I digress…

I only discovered its demise after the winter’s geologic layers of snow and ice had finally melted away from the back deck, revealing not only mountains of buried blue bags full of perfectly preserved cereal boxes and pop cans, but also one sadly expired barbecue.

Last fall, I’d intended to clean the grill, disconnect the tank and find some sheltered spot for Betty to weather the weather. I didn’t. It wasn’t the first winter I didn’t. That may have been the problem.

At any rate, the snows came, and came, and came. The barbecue disappeared. Snow snaked inside, melted, froze, melted, corroded.

Unaware, I unwisely bought steaks so we could celebrate the return of something approximating spring. But when I went to light the grill, I noticed the too-many holes, the rusted pipes — sure signs that lighting this might be a mistake.

Time to replace Betty.

I will confess I have an irrational fear of assembling barbecues. I cannot count the springtime hours of my middle age I wasted wondering where random Part XY went, or how come there were two ABs when the instructions only called for one, or why the instructions were not in any English I understood.

Luckily, I have finally passed the life stage where I feel compelled to prove I can do it myself.  I can’t.

So this time, when I told the clerk I’ll take that one, I added quickly: “assembled, please.”

I’m glad I did. As I admired Barb, my gleaming new, fully put-together, stainless steel meat maker, I smugly examined the Assembly Manual’s “exploded diagram,” full of its myriad parts and pieces. I re-read the un-instructions: “The top of the front brace (CG) can be identified by two clips located on the top left, and right side of this part, as shown in B… WARNING: This part may have sharp edges. Wear protective gloves when assembling.”

Not me.

Not this time.

Happy… spring!

So here’s the one-term wonder question. Why did Darrell Dexter’s New Democrats, who won so convincingly in Nova Scotia in 2009, lose even more convincingly in 2013?

For NDP partisans, that question is more than academic. As they gear up to choose a new leader next February, they must divine what went so right we elected Nova Scotia’s first-ever NDP government but then so wrong it became the province’s first majority government in 141 years to go down to humiliating, even-the-leader-loses-his-seat defeat after just one term.

Enter, stage left, Howard Epstein, the former Halifax Chebucto NDP MLA. In his new book, Rise Again: Nova Scotia’s NDP on the Rocks (Empty Mirrors Press), Epstein — the (not just) self-acknowledged smartest member of caucus never invited to Dexter’s cabinet table — offers his own damning assessment.

Epstein dismisses the conventional leader-centred view that the NDP won in 2009 not only because Rodney MacDonald’s tired, tattered Tory government defeated itself but also, critically, because Darrell Dexter presented a “moderate and therefore not threatening alternative” voters trusted.

Epstein — never one to doubt the wisdom of his own thinking — calls the latter proposition “profoundly mistaken.”

Epstein says voters were looking for the NDP to be “profoundly different,” by which he means much more progressive on economic and social issues. When Dexter’s government showed itself to be a pale imitation of the same-old same old, voters turfed it for the real thing.

Epstein believes Dexter and his acolytes created a false divide between what they considered incrementalist pragmatists — themselves — who understood how to win and exercise power, and traditional left-leaning party members, “who would rather be right than in power.”

For his part, Epstein argues optimistically the party can be both ideologically pure and electorally successful.

I’m not so sure.

But that doesn’t mean I think the best option is incremental pragmatism in pursuit of power either.

Politically, the NDP has done its most important work — from promoting social welfare to standing for civil liberties— when speaking up for principle without attempting to engineer electoral advantage.

We could use a party more concerned with principle than power… but one that doesn’t delude itself into believing purity of principle will lead to electoral power. There lies disappointment.

Do you know how many of the donations to winning candidates in the 2012 Halifax municipal election came from companies “involved in development?”

Do you know how much money your district councillor received from this dog’s breakfast of “involved” developers, construction companies and real estate firms, each with self-interests in sundry proposals, projects and permits that may affect your neighbourhood and your city, which will ultimately be voted on by the people you elect — and they pay for?

I do.

Thanks to a CBC Nova Scotia news investigation and its accompanying burrow-down-the-data interactive database, I now know development-related corporate donations totalled a stunning one-third or more of all campaign funds received by 10 of Halifax’s 16 municipal councillors. Four councillors, in fact, raked in more than half of their elect-me budgets from the development industry’s verdant lawns.

There are a couple of lessons here.

The first, most obvious one is that we need legislation to control how much anyone — especially those with vested interests in council’s decisions — can donate to wannabe municipal politicians.

In February, council agreed to ask staff for a report on reforming what is currently an essentially  lawless, limitless world of municipal campaign financing.

That report is expected in June.

But thanks to the CBC’s work in making the information easily accessible and searchable, we can ferret out the information we need as citizens to better understand the issue, and ask the right questions of staff and our elected representatives.

That’s the second lesson. We still need journalism — especially publicly funded, public interest journalism  — to do the hard  work to make sense of our world.

No other current news organization has the mandate — or had the resources — to do the kind of digging, public service journalism the CBC  consistently does.

Or did.

Last month, the CBC eliminated 11 more positions in Nova Scotia. Across the network, 140 jobs in local news operations disappeared. By 2020, the public broadcaster says it will shed 1,000-1,500 more people.

The world isn’t getting simpler. It’s getting more complicated. We need more, not fewer journalists.

Marco_munn_photo

Marco Navarro-Genie

“The business of government is not to prop up businesses,” harrumphed Marco Navarro-Genie, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), the Halifax-based right-wing think tank that rarely encounters a government program (or government for that matter) it does not think should shrivel up and die. “The real point,” he continued, “ought to be whether government should be engaged in doling out public money to money-making industries.”

Navarro-Genie was ruminating on the debate over the Liberal government’s plan to eviscerate the provincial film tax credit and wipe out the province’s film and television industry.

But let’s expand this interesting discussion, shall we?

Marco, meet John, and John…

John Risley

John Risley

First, there’s John Risley, the billionaire president and CEO of Clearwater Fine Foods, all-round capitalist curmudgeon and — not coincidentally — chair of the AIMS board.

Then there’s John F. Irving, member in good standing of that Irving clan, a director of J. D. Irving, owners of the Halifax Shipyard and — not coincidentally again — AIMS past chair.

John F Irving

John F Irving

Given Navarro-Genie’s concern about “doling out public money to money-making industries,” there must be some interesting conversations around the AIMS board table.

J.D. Irving is the money-making, hand-over-fist 2012 recipient of more than $300 million in public largesse ($260 million of it forgivable) to gear up for the federal shipbuilding contract.

One can argue whether the investment was necessary, or wise. One cannot doubt the “money-making” Irvings asked the then-NDP government to “prop up” its business.

Let us also consider John Risley, who — never one to miss an opportunity — piled on in the film tax credit debate, declaring the McNeil government “cannot afford to be subsidizing any industry to this extent.”

Except, of course, when the industries are his. Social media has gone giddy this past week calculating just how often Risley has tapped government money trees for millions in direct grants and/or loans, indirect funding for scientific research and here’s-our-resources-for-your-profit giveaways.

And Risley calls the film tax credit “nuts”?

What is nuts is the stunning hypocrisy of the likes of AIMS, John Risley and Marco Navarro-Genie.

Last week’s provincial budget shows how governments can be tough-talking, penny-pinching wise and what-were-they-smoking, real-world foolish, both at the same time.

Exhibit A: the evisceration of Nova Scotia’s film tax credit.

Finance Minister Diana Whalen

Finance Minister Diana Whalen

Finance Minister Diana Whalen argued the credit was too generous, went to filmmakers whose films weren’t shot in Nova Scotia and to companies that didn’t owe provincial taxes. (Earth to Diana: you need new advisors who understand the industry.)

While cutting the tax credit may magically make the books appear closer to balance, it will also help dismantle the yellow brick road to prosperity the government claims it’s building.

The industry not only employs more than 2,000 highly-skilled, well-paid, tax-paying workers, but it also spreads its financial, filmic fairy dust over other sectors: it rents hotel rooms, vehicles, security guards, offices, studios, locations; it spends at supermarkets, building supply outlets, furniture stores, clothing retailers, even second-hand shops…

In 1993 when the credit was introduced, Nova Scotia’s film and TV industry was worth $6 million; last year, $150 million.

The government says the credit costs taxpayers $24 million a year. Under Whalen’s new formula, that outlay will ostensibly shrink to $6 million per year — but probably closer to zero as every footloose producer flees to jurisdictions offering more generous rebates.

It’s already happening. Two producers considering filming in Nova Scotia apparently changed their minds after Thursday’s budget. DHX, the Nova Scotia-born-and-based international entertainment conglomerate, says it will shut down its animation facility — 155 jobs — and may move its head office. 22 Minutes, Mr. D., Haven all appear prepared to wave goodbye too.

If so, Whalen’s prediction of a surplus budget in 2016-17 may turn out to be as real as a Hollywood fantasy.

So too any hope (See: the Ivany Report, the future, etc., etc…) of keeping those smart, well-trained people here in Nova Scotia.

As local film industry veteran Keith Currie lamented to Metro’s Stephanie Taylor: “Once again, we’ve managed to take the best and brightest and force them to go down the road.”

All that to pretend to save $18 million — out of a budget of $10 billion.

Penny wise.

Pound nutty.

WhatLiescoversmAs this weekend’s historic Summit of the America’s wraps up —with Cuba finally at the table — here are three short, sort-of-related excerpts from What Lies Across The Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.

Felix Rodriguez:

  • Rodriguez, the former CIA agent credited with orchestrating the murder of Che Guevera, was in Panama for the summit. His presence provoked anger among many Cubans. If you want to understand the feelings many Cubans have toward him, consider this accidental encounter between Gerardo Hernandez, the leader of the Cuban Five, and Rodriguez at a Miami shopping Centre in 1997.

Posada and the Panama Plot:

  • In 2000, Luis Posada, the most notorious of the Cuban exile terrorists, was arrested at another summit in Panama. Thanks to Fidel Castro — and Cuban State Security!

The Miami River Incident:

  • Speaking of plots against Fidel — there were many — here’s a reminder of the work the Cuban Five did in Miami in the 1990s, and their success in heading off yet another dangerous plot without endangering life themselves. (Compare and contrast with the Posada plot above.)

At what point does lawyerly risk-taking in the public interest become crass ambulance chasing?

Before we consider today’s case — personal injury law firms hovering over last week’s late-night crash landing of Air Canada Flight 624 — let’s layer in some context.

In 2013, the Halifax law firm McInnes Cooper won an $887-million class action law suit on behalf of disabled veterans and their families. For 30 years, successive federal governments had clawed back their benefits. The law firm took on Ottawa’s bottomless pockets. Its lawyers rang up 8,500 potentially un-billable hours — $3.2 million — over six years to hold the government to account.

They won, and were rewarded for their effort.

But they could as easily have lost it all.

So too with Wagners, another Halifax law firm. It spent 16 years fighting provincial governments for compensation for hundreds of physically and sexually abused children at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. Besides providing “total free” legal services during those years, the firm spent $500,000 to pursue the case. Its lawyers eventually won $34 million in settlements for the victims and were awarded $5.78 million in legal fees.

Those cases would never have been heard — and justice done for powerless victims— if those law firms hadn’t taken a risk.

How does that compare to Flight 624?

Well, Air Canada has already ponied up $5,000 to each of the 133 passengers for their inconvenience. Everyone understands that is both proactive PR and an opening gambit. The airline will inevitably pay more. How much is the question. The answer will be determined, in part, by the success of now competing law firms eager to represent the passengers.

“Eager” because this is a win-win. The airline will settle, likely out of court. The law firm will get a good payday.

But do such cases — and settlements — serve the public interest? Or simply make us a more needlessly litigious society?

Ray Wagner, whose Wagners law firm also wants to represent Flight 624 passengers, insists such law suits force public safety improvements.

I doubt that. Change will be spurred, as usual, by the results of the ongoing Transportation Safety Board investigation.

All the rest — in this case at least — is about money.

I’m delighted to report I’ve been nominated for four Atlantic Journalism Awards for my writing in 2014: Best Magazine Article, Best Profile, Best Feature Article and Best Commentary. All of the finalist pieces appeared in St. John’s-based Atlantic Business Magazine, which itself earned seven nominations. You can read the complete list of the nominees here. The awards will be presented at a dinner in Halifax on May 9, 2015.

For those who may be interested, here are links to each of my nominated articles:

Hard… and soft as Harry  Steele 

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Photo by Marvin Moore

Atlantic Magazine: Best Profile Article

Harry Steele is happy to chat, he tells me (“let’s have coffee”), but he isn’t particularly interested these days in pontificating about the state of the world, business or otherwise, or being interviewed for publication yet again.

He’s now in the fullness of his 86th year—“I celebrated my 85th in June”—and he’s no longer deeply involved in the day-to-day business of Newfoundland Capital Corporation, the holding company he formed back in 1980 and which has since mutated and morphed into various, almost always successful corporate investment personas: airlines, oil and gas, trucking, coastal shipping, container terminals, newspapers and, now, radio broadcasting.

The reality, Harry Steele is quick to point out, is that he hasn’t been the president of NCC for more than 20 years. He stepped down as the company’s CEO 12 years ago and now, though he is still the nonexecutive (the emphasis is his) chair of the Board, he is more than happy and confident to leave the decisionmaking, and the talking, to his son Rob.

“You should talk to younger people,” he tells me. “I don’t have anything new to say.” (More)

 Spilled Secrets: The Richard Oland Murder Mystery 

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Atlantic Magazine Article of the Year

Maureen Adamson showed up for work as usual that sunny summer morning. She inserted her key in the street-level door at 52 Canterbury Street, a refurbished 19th century, three storey, red-brick office building in the heart of historic downtown Saint John, New Brunswick. The door was unlocked. Curious. It was always kept locked.

The door led up a set of stairs to the second floor offices of Far End Corporation, the investment firm owned by Adamson’s boss, Richard Oland, for whom she’d worked as a secretary for 30 years. When she reached the entrance to the offices, she discovered that that door, which was also always kept locked, was ajar too.

Adamson pushed it open, glanced around, saw what she saw and immediately bolted back down the stairs and into a print shop located on the ground floor. (More)

Closure

Photo by Laura Hubbard

Feature Reporting: Print

 

It wasn’t his fault. Rob Thompson was just a bit player in the 1992 Westray mine disaster that took 26 lives. But today, nearly 22 years later, his own small role in that tragedy, not to forget the fact he never got to testify about what he knew in any public inquiry or court case, as well as the reality that what he remembers differs in small, but he believes crucial, ways from some of what others testified to, continues to haunt him 

At the time, they were just one more set of numbers, one more set of test results. Rob Thompson, 26, was a junior lab technologist for SGS, a Swiss-based independent contractor hired to provide onsite, laboratory services for the operator of the new Westray coal mine in Plymouth, N.S. (More)

What would you do to un-Harper Canada

Commentary: Any Medium

For as long as I can remember, Canadian politics has been a pleasantly diverting if meaningless game of rascal tossing. We pick one set of rascals to govern us and toss the last set out. After a while, those no-longer new rascals run amok. Can you say sponsorship scandal? Brian Mulroney? Need we say more? So we kick those rascals out, and let the old lot back for another kick at the governing can. Occasionally, we say a pox on both their sorry houses and elect enough neither-of-the-aboves to make things interesting without fundamentally altering anything significant.

When one rascal party replaces the other, the new government rarely revisits legislation the previous group passed. That’s because, until recently, all parties shared a traditional, transcendent understanding about who we are as a people and what we are as a country. (More)

Photo by Laura Hubbard

It wasn’t his fault. Rob Thompson was just a bit player in the 1992 Westray mine disaster that took 26 lives. But today, nearly 22 years later, his own small role in that tragedy, not to forget the fact he never got to testify about what he knew in any public inquiry or court case, as well as the reality that what he remembers differs in small, but he believes crucial, ways from some of what others testified to, continues to haunt him 

At the time, they were just one more set of numbers, one more set of test results. Rob Thompson, 26, was a junior lab technologist for SGS, a Swiss-based independent contractor hired to provide onsite, laboratory services for the operator of the new Westray coal mine in Plymouth, N.S. — Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc. He worked 12-hour shifts, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., four days on, four days off. Every hour on the hour, he would conduct yet another test to check the quality of yet another sample of coal. Sulphur content… ash yield… BTUs… The results mattered. If the numbers showed the coal was premium grade, it would command a higher price for the mine’s owners.

Thompson had found himself working at Westray in his hometown of Plymouth more by accident than design. He’d grown up on his grandfather’s small family farm. “I had a normal childhood,” he recalls. “I did all the things I should, and all the things I shouldn’t.” He attended the local school, which was across the street from his house. It is not lost on Thompson today that the school is where authorities staged their press conferences after May 9, 1992.

Thompson left home in 1983 to attend nearby St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish where he studied geology and chemistry. “At the time, I didn’t have a plan,” he admits, but he’d heard “rumblings” about the possibility a new mine would soon open in Pictou County. “It just seemed like a good career to get into.” After graduating in 1987, he bounced around a bit, got married, and had a child. Then, “a guy I went to school with was friends with someone in the coal company,” he says. The new Westray mine, announced to much fanfare on the eve of the 1988 provincial election, opened officially in the fall of 1991. Thompson began work at the SGS lab on April 15, 1992.

Two weeks later, on April 29, 1992, a provincial mine inspector named Albert McLean toured Westray’s underground labyrinth. After he saw the amount of coal dust, a fine, extremely combustible powder created from the coal as it’s mined, McLean cited the company for violations of the Nova Scotia Coal Mines Regulation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Although McLean’s report that day didn’t note the actual levels of coal dust underground (the miners themselves would later report seeing drifts up to half a metre thick on the floor in some sections), he issued a series of orders, including one instructing the company to immediately begin spreading stone dust to reduce the risk of an explosion and a second ordering management to develop and file with the department a sampling and testing program to ensure the level of coal dust in the mine never exceeded the 35 per cent allowed by law. He gave the company 15 days to comply.

Rob Thompson never saw McLean’s orders, which were posted in the miners’ changing room. But on May 6 at around noon, his boss, Robert O’Donnell, the head of the lab, asked him to run a different test. This one was to determine the percentage of coal dust in a series of samples Trevor Eagles, an engineer-in-training at Westray, had scooped up from four different sections of the mine. The samples, Thompson remembers, looked like “a fine, black talcum powder.” Thompson conducted these tests in between his other tests and then telephoned the results to Eagles. Thompson read off the numbers, 23 per cent ash, 33 per cent ash, 41 per cent ash and 39 per cent ash, hung up and went back to his business.

They were still just numbers to him.

An hour later, however, “four or five guys from the [main] office showed up to confront my boss. I can’t say for sure who showed up at the lab,” he admits today. “I was so busy with everything else that I didn’t have time to process the people doing the complaining.”

Standing off to one side, Thompson remembers asking the lab’s senior technician what was going on.

“They’re here about the results of that test you did,” the tech told him.

“How bad were they?”

“Real bad.” It turned out that any result below 65 per cent was considered explosive; meaning every sample Thompson had tested was a bomb waiting to be set off.

Eventually, O’Donnell called Thompson over to his desk. “Let’s go downstairs and we can walk everyone through how the test was done.” Thompson did as he’d been asked. “They accused me of doing the test wrong,” he remembers. “They left in a huff .” After that, Thompson went back to doing what he was doing. “I assumed the problem would be dealt with.”

A few hours later, at around 6:30 p.m., half an hour before the end of an extra shift he’d taken that week, two guys he’d grown up with, Robbie Doyle and Larry Bell (“I coached Larry in baseball”), stopped by the lab to shoot the breeze before they began their own shifts down in the mine. They talked about nothing in particular, Thompson recalls. He did not mention the results of the tests he’d run, or his encounter with management. It didn’t seem important. At 7 p.m., he headed home. He was looking forward to spending time with his wife and child.

Just over 58 hours later, at 5:18 a.m. on May 9, 1992, a spark, probably from a cutting tool ripping into hard rock, ignited a cloud of methane gas and coal dust somewhere deep in the bowels of the mine, triggering an earth-rending explosion that ripped through the mine’s underground tunnels, even shaking homes and shattering windows on the surface in New Glasgow, nearly six kilometres away. By the time the earth stopped convulsing, 26 miners were dead. Rob Thompson’s friends Robbie Doyle and Larry Bell were among those lost.

Eight years later, in 1997, Nova Scotia Justice Peter Richard, who headed up a public inquiry into the disaster, described what happened at Westray as “a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency, and of cynical indifference [caused by] a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect… The Westray story concerns an event that, in all good common sense, ought not to have occurred.”

Cold comfort for those who died. Cold comfort, too, for many of those who survived. Including Rob Thompson.

The problem hadn’t been dealt with. Rob Thompson knew that the moment his brother-in-law called, shortly after 7 a.m. on May 9 to see if he’d been working at the mine that day. Should he have said something to Robbie Doyle and Larry Bell that night back in the lab, he asked himself later? Would it have made any difference? In his more logical moments, he doubted it, but logic offered no solace.

A week and half after the explosion, Thompson was called back to work. The owners of the Westray mine also had a licence for a strip mine in nearby Stellarton and, in spite of — or perhaps because of — the disaster, needed to ramp up production to fill its contracts. “It was surreal,” Thompson remembers today. “Morally, it didn’t seem right. There were 26 dead, 11 bodies still in the mine and it was almost as if it never happened.”

Almost. The first thing Thompson claims his boss, Robert O’Donnell, instructed him to do the night he returned to work was to throw out “the split,” the untested remainder of those coal dust samples. After Thompson said he thought it was wrong to throw them out, he says O’Donnell didn’t touch them. At the end of his shift, his wife picked him up. They drove to the nearest RCMP detachment. Thompson went inside. Two hours later, he came out to tell his wife to go home. He wasn’t done yet. “I was there for four hours giving my statement. I told them everything I knew.”

By the time he went back to work that night, “everything had been locked down. There was a Mountie monitoring everyone who went in or came out of the place. I knew I was done. They’d figure out soon enough who leaked.” Three weeks later, at the end of his shift, “they gave me my pink slip. My services were ‘no longer required.’”

He was done with Westray. But Westray was far from done with him.

“My name is Robert Thompson,” began the email that landed in my inbox on August 14, 2013. “A long time ago I worked at Westray…” After more than 21 years, Thompson had decided he wanted, needed, to set the record straight. Why?

“A little to clear my name, I guess,” he tells me when we finally sit down to talk. “No, that’s not quite it. I want to get the focus back on what happened. That mine should have been shut down on May 6. There was an opportunity to say, ‘Stop and let’s fix the problem.’ But it didn’t happen. It’s a heavy burden to carry for me when the excuse they used for doing nothing that day was that I didn’t do the test correctly.”

Why did those in authority attack his test results instead of the coal dust problem? And why did those who did testify mis-state crucial details about the date when he did those tests?

He acknowledges “it could be that what I had to say wasn’t that important.” There was more than enough evidence to show the Westray mine had become a ticking time bomb in the weeks and months before the explosion, and that there were dozens of other, better reasons for that.

Thompson’s last contact with officials from the provincial government came in late September 1992 when the Department of Labour’s lead investigator told him, off the record, that “even he didn’t trust the people he was working for. Not a good note for me to end things on.”

“It was tough after,” Thompson acknowledges today. After he lost his job, “they told me I was ‘surplus to needs’”, his wife had to find work to support their growing family, which now included two more children. Thompson stayed home to look after them. Later, he signed on as a lobster fisherman. “It was as far away from mining as I could get,” he says. “I felt a lot of guilt. I didn’t become a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or anything, but it did speed up the breakdown of my first marriage. I spent the rest of that decade running away from Westray.”

In 1993, Thompson took a job as a milkman, delivering to stores and homes in his area. That job ended with a car accident in which the driver of a car, which had pulled out in front of him, was killed and Thompson’s milk van totaled. “I said, ‘That’s it. I’m done. I can’t do it anymore.’”

What made everything worse was that Thompson never had the opportunity to talk publicly about what had happened that day in the lab.

Soon after the explosion, Thompson had been invited to fly to Toronto to take part in a CBC Fifth Estate program about the disaster but, after talking it over with his parents, he declined. “They said, ‘Don’t do it.’ My dad was like, ‘keep your mouth shut. Let it slide.’ They were worried about how it would look, that it could be made to look bad for me. It was all pretty raw at the time.”

Thompson wasn’t called to testify at Judge Richard’s public inquiry. Why not? “That’s something I always wanted to know,” he says today, “I attended a few days of it but, by then, I was in the midst of my divorce.”

He was on the witness list for the criminal trial of Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, two senior Westray managers who were charged in 1995 with 26 accounts of manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death. But that trial got bogged down in legal wrangling and prosecutors eventually dropped all charges.

So, at the end of the day, Thompson has never spoken publicly about the coal dust test he conducted on May 6, or what happened in the lab later that day. “I had a small part in it, and I don’t feel that was ever given proper consideration.”

During the inquiry, Trevor Eagles, the junior engineer who gathered the samples and to whom Thompson reported the results, did testify. But Eagles told Judge Richard he got Thompson’s test results on May 7, a day later than Thompson says he reported them. “You can find it online,” Thompson tells me of Eagles testimony. “Day 76.” He’s read it often.

That discrepancy has eaten at Thompson over the years. It might simply have been a slip of memory, but Thompson frets that the difference could also be significant. If company officials had had the test results on May 6, as Thompson claims, it means they had 24 hours more in which they could have — should have — taken action to bring down the levels of coal dust, perhaps even averted what was already a looming disaster.

That’s probably wishful thinking. As Justice Richard put it in his report: “It was clear from the outset that the loss of 26 lives at Plymouth… was not the result of a single definable event or misstep… Management failed, the inspectorate failed, and the mine blew up.”

Perhaps more significantly, Richard makes the case that no one would have needed a lab report to know the level of coal dust inside the mine was dangerous. “Mine management was aware of this problem, but failed to respond to complaints by employees or to the orders of 29 April 1992 from the Department of Labour.”

The inspector, Albert McLean, was actually at the mine site again on May 6, the day Thompson says he tested the samples. “What if,” asked Judge Richard, McLean “had returned underground to evaluate the company’s progress in complying with the several oral and written orders issued during the inspectors’ visit of 29 April 1992?”

Richard, in fact, posed a half-dozen rhetorical what-if questions in his report “to underscore the proposition that the Westray story is, indeed, a “‘complex mosaic’ that defies simple cause and effect, blame and punish.”

At an intellectual level, Rob Thompson understands all that. But it still rankles. “If I had been allowed to testify,” he says, “then we would have discovered the true timeline. Either [Eagles] would be right or I would be. I’m right.”

Why has Thompson decided to come forward now, so many years after the events? “Everything else in my life is sorted out,” he explains. In 2000, he went back to school to study drafting. Today, he’s a senior rebar detailer at Steelmac, a reinforcing steel manufacturer in Antigonish. He’s remarried. “My personal life is great. I have a great wife. My kids are grown; they’re happy… This is the thing that’s still on my to-do list.”

I’d asked Thompson to ask the RCMP for a copy of the statement he gave them back in May 1992. His statement, along with his logbook could help confirm his version of events. But he hasn’t had any luck. It was a long time ago and the files are hard to track down. “I’ll try [the RCMP officer] again this week,” he tells me. Although he worries the police are trying to put him off, he admits: “It might just be me being paranoid. I’m sure it is only that he is very busy with current files.”

In the end, the details probably matter less than Rob Thompson’s need to bear witness to what he saw. “I didn’t sleep well last night because I was thinking about this whole affair,” he writes. “I was at dinner last night and sat at a table with Robbie Doyle’s parents. They are good decent people who didn’t deserve to bury their son because these people weren’t capable of doing their job to make that place safe.”

That, in the end, is what Rob Thompson wants, and needs, to say today.

 

Originally published in Natural Resources Magazine, March-April 2014.