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Labour Views: National Day of Mourning honours the dead by defending the living

Each year, on April 28, workers and their families come together at National Day of Mourning ceremonies across Canada, to mourn workers lost to workplace illness and injury.
Each year, Canada records roughly 1,000 workplace deaths. Black Press file photo

Each year, on April 28, workers and their families come together at National Day of Mourning ceremonies across Canada, to mourn workers lost to workplace illness and injury.

And each year, Canada records roughly 1,000 workplace deaths. There were over 27,000 accepted claims for time off due to workplace illness or injury in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available.

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Let me be clear: these numbers are unacceptable. Yet every year, the number of workers injured, made sick or killed at work increases. For all the advancements we’ve made around occupational health and safety in Canada, somewhere, something is falling short.

Here in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, we lost two workers last year and there were 691 accepted claims for time lost. Both deaths last year occurred in remote work camps. Far from home and exposed to dangerous situations. Nevertheless, all workplace accidents are preventable including these.

Every time I drive by the fire hall in Yellowknife, I glance at the memorial to two firefighters who lost their lives at work in 2005. For many in town, I am sure that memorial doubles as a stark reminder of why we have the right to refuse unsafe work and why we take extra precautions when it comes to safety. That includes those working in that very fire hall today.

These workers deserved to go home at the end of their workday. Their families should have been able to hug them as they walked through the door, instead of getting the call no one ever wants to get, and hearing that their loved one wouldn’t be coming home.

According to the 2022 Report on Work Fatality and Injury Rates in Canada published by the University of Regina, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut had the highest injury fatality rates in Canada (7.1 deaths per 100,000). This number is nuanced as we are a small sample size and have government funded harvesting programs which don’t appear in the statistics of other jurisdictions. However, as a community, I believe and know we can do better than this. People in the North have always looked out for one another. It’s time we focus more on workplace safety.

We know that workplace incident investigations are still not treated with necessary urgency or importance. Canada’s unions have long called for all cases of workplace death to be investigated as criminal, until it can be determined without a doubt that there was no wrongdoing. We will keep pushing for workplace incidents causing serious injury or death to be investigated for possible negligence, to ensure those responsible are held accountable.

However, Canada’s unions also want to ensure that workers are supported and feel empowered to stand up for their health and safety rights at work. We want to ensure that workers are equipped with the proper knowledge and tools to safely do their jobs and to call out infractions when they see them. The most powerful tool to make work safer is a health and safety committee with educated and empowered workers protecting their fellow workers and holding employers to account. Employers must resource and respect these committees.

Workers should never be in a position where they feel the need to perform unsafe work or risk losing their jobs. Occupational health and safety is a collective responsibility and Canada’s unions are committed to standing behind workers in knowing their rights, using the tools and defending our hard fought health and safety wins.

We will continue to educate and empower workers to stand up to employers who would risk workplace safety in order to cut corners and save a few dollars. We will honour those who died or were injured at work by defending our rights and fighting for the living.

Please take a moment of silence at noon this Friday in memory of those we have lost and those who’s losses we can prevent. There are ceremonies being held in Yellowknife, Fort Smith and Iqaluit. If you are interested in attending, please contact us at the NTFL for more information.