Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe entered the fray Monday over the accountability issue surrounding the Burns Lake mill fire fatalities.
The B.C. Liberals have been under fire for weeks about the refusal to call a public inquiry into the fire and explosion that killed two sawmill workers and injured 20 more two years ago.
WorkSafeBC did a major investigation into the fire. But when its report was submitted to Crown counsel, government lawyers rejected laying charges because the case wasn’t handled properly.
One of the issues is whether the mill was operated correctly, given the fact that exceptionally dry sawdust from milling beetle-killed lumber was a safety hazard.
WorkSafe presented some evidence that it wasn’t. But the Criminal Justice Branch said much of it couldn’t be used, because the investigation didn’t follow the rules required for probing a regulatory or criminal offence. It was treated more as a compliance inspection.
That means the mill might eventually get an administrative penalty, but no other sanctions will be imposed. It left the hard-hit town unsatisfied. Several survivors visited the legislature last week and told harrowing stories of the disaster in pressing the case for a public inquiry.
Premier Christy Clark rejected the call, saying a subsequent report from her deputy minister, John Dyble, showed the way for improved processes.
Lapointe held a news conference to explain her role in the next steps and said the coroner’s inquest will go a long way toward answering the town’s concerns.
Her remarks had the effect of defending the government’s decision not to hold an inquiry. But she made it clear she was acting on her own. The office is statutorily independent and she said she consulted no one before addressing the media.
“I’m very conscious of the fact the coroner’s service is independent of government and needs to be seen to be independent of government.”
She said she was concerned about the view that important questions weren’t going to be answered.
“I know they will be answered and I wanted to provide reassurance that most definitely there will be a thorough public review of all the circumstances.”
Lapointe will take the unusual step of conducting the inquest herself, rather than delegating it to a regional coroner. It will start next fall.
She made a strong case that an inquest is a good venue in which to get to the bottom of what happened at the mill. It will be an open, transparent, fact-finding process where witnesses will have to answer all questions. The jury will be composed of people familiar with how sawmills work, something allowed for in the cases of workplace fatalities.
Lapointe said the normal rules of evidence don’t apply to testimony, so there will be very broad questioning, and participants’ answers can’t be held against them, “so there is much more openness.”
The inquest will thoroughly review everything to do with the explosion, including the provincial standards in effect, who ensures they’re followed and whether they are sufficient.
“For some reason, there is the notion that accountability must include punishment,” she said. “We do not find fault but there is definitely public accountability… . The jury can certainly point out where there are deficiencies.
“They don’t find legal fault, but if there are deficiencies in practice, that certainly comes out in the inquest and recommendations can be made to address the deficiencies.”
She said it’s the best venue for public accountability, “in the sense there is no impediment to people answering fully and frankly; they don’t have to keep their own self-interest in mind.”
But the inquest isn’t likely to touch on why charges were not approved, or the problems in how the evidence was collected. NDP critic Harry Bains said a big piece of the story about who was directly responsible for the fire, “who failed,” will be missing.
“The issues are much deeper than what will be discussed at the inquest.”
No one will be led away in handcuffs after the inquest. But anyone who’s seen how quickly a public inquiry room fills up with $400-an-hour lawyers, and how they drag on for months, can take some small comfort in Lapointe’s views.