Joe MacKay will never forget the explosion at the Westray mine 30 years ago today.
Underground explosion in Plymouth, NS, killed 26 miners. One of them was MacKay’s brother, Mike.
“He loved his bikes, including a chopper that he thought of as the world,” MacKay said. “He loved his family. His children meant the world to him.”
Mike MacKay was 38 years old. He was the father of two young children.
Like the other men who worked at the mine, he had only been working there for nine months after it opened in September 1991.
A spark from a coal-cutting machine ignited a leaking methane gas in the mine shaft that had mixed with coal dust to cause the explosion.
The bodies of 11 miners were never found. Among those buried was MacKay.
“The only relief I got is that my other brother was supposed to go to work at the mine that night and he changed his mind and canceled his shift,” Joe MacKay said. “If it wasn’t for that, he would have been there too.”
On Monday at 6 pm, there will be a march beginning at the Bluenose Curling Club and ending at the Westray Miners Memorial Park, where there will be a memorial service and a celebration of life.
There will be an outreach program for high school students that will take place during the day and will focus on the impact the Westray disaster had on workplace safety standards in Nova Scotia.
Many Pictou County high school students will participate in person at the Museum of Industry in Stellarton. Other students in the province will be able to join a live broadcast.
“We’re going to have about 40 high school kids come and hear from different speakers about the history of the mine and what their rights are when it comes to occupational health and safety,” said Danny Cavanagh, president of the Federation of Labor. from Nova Scotia.
Before the blast, employees, union officials and government inspectors had raised a number of safety concerns. The incident resulted in changes to legislation on how to establish criminal liability of corporations for workplace deaths and injuries.
Commonly known as the Westray Law, Law C-45 came into force in 2004.
“Sadly, in the first 10 years of that bill becoming law, no charge of criminal negligence was filed,” Cavanagh said. “I don’t think the bill is doing what it is intended to do and we still have work to do on that.”
The families of the dead miners have launched a $30 million lawsuit against the province of Nova Scotia. But the Nova Scotia Supreme Court threw it out, ruling that the province was protected from lawsuits under the Workers’ Compensation Act.
The company that operated the mine, Curragh Resources, was initially charged with 52 non-criminal charges for operating an unsafe mine. The company went bankrupt in 1993.
The charges were then dropped after a Nova Scotia judge criticized the way they were laid out. The case went back to trial but was dismissed again. The Supreme Court of Canada then ordered a new trial.
Charges of criminal negligence and manslaughter had been brought against mine managers Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, but came to nothing when the Crown suspended proceedings, saying there was insufficient evidence to warrant a conviction.
Clifford Frame, the founder and CEO of the Curragh, refused to testify in a public inquiry, as did Marvin Pelley, the former chairman of Westray. The investigation had no federal powers, which meant the subpoenas could not be enforced outside of Nova Scotia, leaving company officials safe at their Toronto headquarters.
In the months after the disaster, Joe MacKay was one of the people who pushed for the development of a memorial site. Trees were planted in the park, one for each of the 26 victims.
The names of the victims appear in rays of light that shine from a miner’s lamp at the monument in the center of the park.
MacKay says that May 9 will be a day that he will always be reunited with his little brother.
“If I’m still alive for the 40th anniversary, I’ll be there for that one too,” said MacKay, now 73. “This is something the family believes in doing and it makes us feel a little bit closer to our people.” .”