BY ROGER ANNIS
MONTREAL - Two managers have walked free from charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence stemming from a coal mine explosion in Nova Scotia three years ago that killed 26 miners.
On June 9, Judge Robert Anderson of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court took the unusual step of lifting charges against Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, the former manager and underground manager, respectively, at the Westray mine.
The trial began February 6 in Pictou, Nova Scotia, only a few miles away from the shattered mine.
Family members and friends of the 26 victims were devastated by the decision. "There's no justice system in Canada. Not a bit," declared Robert Bell outside the courtroom. His son died in the explosion.
The pretext the judge used for his decision was that government prosecutors failed to disclose several pieces of evidence to defense lawyers. He acknowledged he could have adjourned proceedings to permit disclosure of the evidence or declared a mistrial and cleared the way for another trial.
Since the explosion, the families and friends of the victims have waged a public campaign demanding that criminal charges be laid against the company and that a public inquiry be held. They have been stalled by the courts, police, and government every step of the way.
Unsafe and illegal practices in the Westray mine were widely reported in television and newspaper documentaries after the explosion. The revelations included threats and intimidation used by mine managers, including Parry and Phillips, against miners who protested unsafe conditions. There was no union in the mine.
"We have researched recent court decisions," Kenton Teasdale, a spokesperson for the Westray families group, said in an interview, "and the precedents are very clear. A stay of proceedings is a last resort only, when no other remedies are possible. We believe that a delay of proceedings or a mistrial were clear options available to the judge. "The judge cited two missing pieces of evidence. We acknowledge that there were problems of disclosure, but there was no irreparable damage. Everything in substance was revealed."
There were 1,400 items of evidence registered at the beginning of the trial.
"In our view," said Teasdale, "the Department of Labor is very suspect in all of this. They stand accused of negligence in their inspection duties prior to the explosion. But at the same time, they are responsible for the proper furnishing of evidence to the trial."
The Westray mine was destroyed in a powerful methane gas and coal dust explosion on May 9, 1992. It had opened less than one year earlier amid considerable controversy because of the long history of methane gas explosions in the coalfield where it was located.
The mine project was aggressively promoted by capitalist politicians, including then prime minister Brian Mulroney and Nova Scotia premier Donald Cameron.
An appeal by government prosecutors of the judge's decision has been set for November before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia government is proceeding with a stalled public inquiry into the explosion. The government refused to call one in the weeks following the blast, but finally bowed to pressure. In November 1992, the provincial supreme court axed any inquiry until criminal charges were tried. The court said an inquiry could compromise the rights of the accused mine managers.
At the first day of the hearings on July 12, the head of the criminal investigation of the Westray explosion announced he would not provide any information to the inquiry. Staff Sergeant Chesley MacDonald of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said it might jeopardize the rights of individuals who may still face criminal charges if he were to testify.
Roger Annis is a member of Local 841 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada in Montreal.
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