WATERLOO — The National Day of Mourning, an annual ceremony to grieve for workers killed or injured on the job, was more sombre than usual on Monday in Waterloo.
Nick Lalonde, 23, of London fell to his death last Oct. 11 while doing masonry work at a Waterloo condo site. Three months later, Chris Crawford, 33, a sheet metal worker from Kitchener, died when a roof collapsed while he was helping built a Target store in Mississauga.
“We meet again and again and again — so sadly — to honour those wounded and murdered at the workplace, to mourn for our dead and fight for our living,” Rev. Oscar (Oz) Cole-Arnal, a Waterloo anti-poverty activist and ordained minister, told the crowd of about 150 workers, union leaders and politicians.
“But the only way to really do it is to speak the truth without sugar-coating. The reason for all these deaths … is a direct result of corporate greed, the hunger for profit under such despicable rhetoric and obscene language as ‘the cost of doing business,’ ‘austerity,’ ‘collateral damage’ … These kinds of words are obscene because they hide the fact of corporate greed attacking the poor and vulnerable. And our wounded and dead at the workplace are among those.”
Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran paid tribute to the two construction workers.
“More work needs to be done and I thank you all for being here today and for your continued work in ensuring no more lives are lost, no more injuries occur and no one else is hurt at their workplace,” she said.
Kim Valliere, health and safety co-chair with the Waterloo Regional Labour Council, said employers must be held accountable.
“We can never stop fighting for the health and safety of workers. Workplace killing is a crime and it must be treated as one. It should be very clear to everyone — if you kill a worker, you will go to jail.”
Seventy-three people died in Ontario workplace accidents in 2012, Kitchener-Waterloo NDP MPP Catherine Fife told the crowd at the Workers’ Memorial outside Waterloo City Hall.
“When you add those who succumbed to occupational diseases, that number rises to 367,” Fife said. “That’s more than one worker for every day of the year. We can and we must do better. No one should have to worry about whether or not they’re going to head home to their family after their shift.”
Elizabeth Witmer, chair of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), said 243 people in Ontario were killed at work or died from occupational diseases in 2013.
“When I told my husband last night about that number — 243 — he was absolutely flabbergasted,” she said.
“Today we are reminded of the terrible human, social and economic toll that illnesses, injuries and fatalities can take. One death will always be one too many.”
A vigil for Crawford was set for Monday night in Victoria Park.
Although the annual Day of Mourning pays tribute to people killed or injured on the job, politics was in the air Monday.
After Witmer spoke, Cole-Arnal took Witmer’s WSIB to task.
“The reality is the (Mike) Harris administration brought it in, the Harris administration still keeps it alive. So whether you’re politically elected or politically appointed, when you still support the upper elite and use a ‘pre-existing condition’ to deny (benefits to) workers, then you are responsible for the problem.”
Witmer, a former Kitchener-Waterloo Conservative MPP, was appointed by the Liberals to the WSIB in 2012 and makes $188,000 a year.
Standing about six metres from Witmer, Cole-Arnal called on the crowd to sing the union anthem Solidarity Forever.
“And honestly I’d like to ask all the people here, unless you believe in what we’re singing, don’t sing,” he said.
Witmer didn’t sing immediately but was mouthing the words at the end of the song.
The NDP’s Fife criticized the governing Liberals. Fife began investigating workplace safety after Lalonde, who wasn’t wearing a harness, fell from the roof of a building that had no guardrails. The labour council has asked police to investigate the death.
“Very quickly I came to discover that a fall-prevention training safety standard that the government had committed to putting in place by 2011 was not yet established,” Fife said. “Not only that, there didn’t seem to be a plan to make it happen. This was in spite of the fact that eight workers lost their lives in falling accidents between June and November 2013. Nick was the ninth.”
Fife said she quizzed the government during question period and launched a petition. In December, the Liberals announced the training standard was enacted.
“It shouldn’t take shaming the government into doing the right thing,” Fife said.
There was an awkward silence for 13 seconds when the labour council called on a representative of Kitchener-Waterloo Conservative MP Peter Braid to address the crowd. No one came to the podium.
“OK, maybe someone’s running a little late today,” Valliere told the crowd.
Asked later about no one from Braid’s office showing up, Valliere said, “It is what it is.”
Liz Seymour, Braid’s executive assistant, said later that the no-show was due to “strictly a miscommunication.” She said Braid spoke at last year’s ceremony but couldn’t make it this time.