Westray: What If?

On Monday, we paused to remember the 26 men who died 30 years ago, when the Westray coal mine exploded in Westville, Nova Scotia.

Westray is one of the low points in Canada’s history of patronage-driven job creation schemes and the failure of government to regulate corporate profit-seeking.

Remembering those men—eleven of whom are buried still in the ground under the highway between New Glasgow and Antigonish—calls us to vigilance about workplace safety at its most fundamental and material.

The aftermath of that disaster is a low point also in Canada’s capacity to hold corporate agents responsible for profiting at the expense of human beings and the natural world. It is worth remembering, too, one-time Nova Scotia Premier Donald Cameron sprinting out of the provincial inquiry into that disaster, laughing and saying, “What a bunch of fools,” interpreted by reporters as a shot at them but, who knows? Possibly directed at the families and trade unionists who were struggling to hold the mine’s operators and the should-have-been regulators accountable.

Westray coal mine, Plymouth, N.S.

Westray coal mine, Plymouth, N.S.

Is there anything new to say about Westray? Maybe not. But that hardly matters when everything that has already been said is at risk of falling out of memory.

It’s worth remembering, too, that a crucial political cause of the Westray disaster was Donald Cameron’s zealous campaign to “reform” the old patronage-based politics exemplified by John Buchanan (“the last of the cornball politicians” as Prof Agar Adamson once called him) into a new kind of stripped-down, free-market liberalism, but without any clear plan for replacing old forms of regulation with new ones. A farmer, and former Cabinet minister, Cameron distinguished himself during his leadership campaign by claiming to break with the old “clientist” or patronage patterns. As journalist Jeffrey Simpson put it in his 1988 book Spoils of Power: The Politics of Patronage, though Cameron was a “rock” impeding a steady flow of patronage, his electorate expected patronage to continue:

They had always hounded their elected officials, and even drove some politicians to despise their greed. But no politician, whatever his private thoughts, had ever challenged what the voters took to be the ordained order of politics. Like some of his predecessors, Don Cameron hated blatant patronage; like none of them, he remained true to his convictions. Confronting the hostility of his own supporters, wrote Simpson, Cameron recoiled but did not yield.

Donald Cameron

Donald Cameron (Source: NS Legislature)

In their 2000 book, The Savage Years: The Perils of Reinventing Government in Nova Scotia, Peter Clancy, James Bickerton, Rodney Haddow and Ian Stewart suggested that as a candidate at the leadership convention “Cameron nailed his colours to the causes of tackling the fiscal crisis and ending patronage hiring and contracting. He talked of privatizing state corporations, lifting regulatory burdens and accentuating political accountability.” Cameron was premier from March 1991 to June 1993. He presided over the privatization of Nova Scotia Power and tried to rationalize Nova Scotia universities from six into one. As well:

In his two years as premier, Cameron reformed many traditional party practices. Admittedly, Cameron’s somewhat authoritarian personality ensured that internal party democracy would not flourish under his stewardship; one disgruntled Tory poll captain in the premier’s own constituency complained that Cameron only had time for Conservatives who behaved “like his trained seals.” Nevertheless, Cameron did attempt to make the Conservative party more inclusive; as he noted in his resignation speech: “The stupidity of discrimination is something I feel very strongly about.” To that end, Cameron not only refused to sign the nomination papers of David Hendsbee, thus ensuring that the Tories would run a black candidate in [the predominantly black community of] Preston, but also appointed two non-elected women to his cabinet in the vain hope that they would “take major roles in the government of Nova Scotia.”

Cameron also, according to Ian Stewart, curtailed patronage in the selection of provincial judges, legislated the disclosure of election contributors, and developed a more open tendering system for government contracts. However, in the 1993 election campaign it was revealed that, among other patronage-based spending patterns, “almost three-quarters of the previous year’s road-paving budget had been expended in Conservative ridings.”

The Westray deaths brought sudden attention to the public funding and failure of safety regulation of the mine’s operators, Curragh Resources, headed by Clifford Frame. Many (again, see The Savage Years) saw this as proof that Cameron’s anti-patronage stance was at best posturing.


Cameron was a transitional figure, shifting Nova Scotia politics from Buchanan’s Keynesian paternalism towards a neo-liberal reduction in all government regulation.

At the provincial inquiry into the disaster, Cameron expressed his individualistic belief that people are fundamentally responsible for taking care of themselves: he attacked the workers themselves in a concerted effort to downplay the regulatory failure that had been fostered by his government’s determined support for Westray’s corporate managers.

Here’s a short excerpt from Donald Cameron’s testimony at that very good—and very sad—provincial inquiry:

Cameron: Well, Commissioner, I guess my problem with that is that I called two or three people last night to ask them, just to do a little sampling, if they ever heard this [i.e., that the workers were engaging in unsafe practices in the mine] and they said no. And my concern with this issue is that we don’t want to look at the truth. It’s much more fun blaming someone else and then, especially, it’s a much better story saying, “Well, the reason we’re blaming other people is that the political people interfered, and that’s why they didn’t do their job.”

Who was it that changed that meter? Was it the inspector? Was it the regulators? Was it Don Jones [director of mines with the Department of Natural Resources] or Pat Phelan [DNR manager who oversaw monitoring of the mine]? Was it the politicians?

Worker installing rock bolts, Westray Mine, 1990

Worker installing rock bolts in attempt to prevent rockfalls, (Source: The Fifth Estate) Westray Mine.)

Who was pressing the reset button so the machine wouldn’t shut down this safety device? Was it the inspectors? Was it Don Jones  Was it Pat Phelan? Was it Politicians?

Who was shutting of the dust collectors, which was a safety device on the machine? And we had testimony of that too.

My concern is that we dealt with those things, but they’re simply lost in this other story that we want to create about this whole project. I mean, if we truly want to find out why that mine blew up, I think this is pretty important evidence. It’s vitally important evidence.

The fact that they would shut the vent tubes off with black plastic in an area they didn’t think they… that it was necessary, wouldn’t that allow methane to accumulate? The fact that Mr. [James] Dooley [Westray Mine Overman] testified that the last shift before the explosion that he was in the mine, that he found an opening in the barrier, six to eight inches long and one to two inches wide, wouldn’t it…wouldn’t you or I go and get a piece of plywood and cover that up, knowing that the methane was coming out at over three percent? And those things are important because somehow when that flame lit at the continuous miner and went up on the roof and the men were running, it went to an area that it could explode.

You know, I don’t see why we can just—because we don’t like to hear these things, that we can sweep them under the carpet. And I resent people, when they say that this is blaming the victims, the victims….

Commissioner: I want to make it per…

Cameron: …are the people that died.

Commissioner: I want to make it perfectly clear, Mr. Cameron, when you use the term” we” that you are not including me—

Cameron: No, I will—

Commissioner: …because I am not part of that “we.”

Cameron: No, I wouldn’t do that, Commissioner.

Commissioner: No, okay. I’m here quite independent of the “we.”

The final report of the inquiry, The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, is dedicated to the memory of the men who died in the mine. Neither any single worker, politician, or regulator was individually responsible, the inquiry found. Justice K. Peter Richard emphasized that the Westray coal mine disaster was a collective, not an individual failure (viii).

Brian Mulroney, Elmer MacKay, Donald Cameron

Brian Mulroney, Elmer MacKay and Donald Cameron. (Source: The Fifth Estate)

This conclusion from Justice Richard contradicts Premier Cameron who seems to have seen himself as a great reformer trapped in a corrupt and backwards culture. He certainly helped to set the stage for the disaster and behaved outrageously at the inquiry. But in a way, he was right: the Westray disaster was “caused” not by him, personally, but by a collective, cultural failure… and that failure was in letting the neo-liberal ideology of cutting bureaucracy strip those men of the regulatory protection that should have kept them safe.

The Westray disaster was “caused” by an ideological change that Cameron convinced Nova Scotians to tolerate, if not universally embrace. In a footnote, Justice Richard reminds readers that former premier Cameron, “having no expertise in coal mining equipment, cannot be faulted for accepting the opinion of the general mine manager. What he can be faulted for is obstinately maintaining and defending that opinion in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” Cameron’s failure was in believing that corporate experts should be free to ply their trade without government interference. And Nova Scotians’ failure was to accept Cameron’s neo-liberalism.


One way to remember the men who died in the Westray coal mine 30 years ago is to revisit The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster,

As an encouragement in this direction, here is Justice Richard’s mournful speculation about what might have happened if the mine’s management had cared enough to meet basic industry standards, if regulators had been supported with the political will to enforce the already-existing mining and safety legislation, and if the workers had managed to unionize “in time.”

What If?

In the opening statement to this report on pages vii-ix, I comment that the Westray story is a “complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, and neglect.” It seems fitting that I ought now, in this conclusion to the Report, revisit this comment and relate it to the extensive evidence that has been summarized in the preceding pages. The following questions are posed, in a somewhat rhetorical manner, to underscore the proposition that the Westray story is, indeed, a “complex mosaic.”

What if—Clifford Frame, as Westray’s chief executive officer, had acknowledged that the motivation for mine safety begins at the top? What if he had sent a clear message to Westray management that a safe working environment was paramount?

Westray Monument, Plymouth, NS

Westray Monument, Plymouth, NS

What if—Gerald Phillips, Roger Parry, Glyn Jones, and other Westray managers, with a clear directive from the chief executive officer, had conscientiously directed compliance with the Managers’ Safe Working Procedures?

What if—the Coal Mines Regulation Act had been applied and enforced by the inspectorate of the Department of Labour? Would it have made a difference if the executive director of occupational health and safety had even read the act?

What if—the public servants at the Department of Natural Resources had fulfilled their legislative responsibilities and determined, before issuing mining permits, that the mine plans submitted by Westray assured “safe and efficient” use of the resources and then followed up to determine that Westray was mining in accordance with those plans?

What if—the Westray miners, at the certification vote on 5 and 6 January 1992, had voted in favour of the application of the United Mine Workers of America to represent them as the bargaining agent under the Nova Scotia Trade Union Act?

What if—Department of Labour inspector Albert McLean, while at Westray on 6 May 1992, 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?

Indeed, What if?


Susan Dodd

Susan Dodd interviewed many family members of men who were killed in the Westray coal mine disaster while the Inquiry was in process, and then again shortly after Justice Peter Richard’s report came out. The “Westray Families” are an ongoing inspiration. The words on the sculpture they put up in honor of the men they lost speaks of them, too Their light shall always shine.