Reflection on the Westray Mining Disaster

(This was a piece written after the tragic collapse of the coal mine in Westray, Nova Scotia, Canada on May 8th, 1992 which killed 26 miners)

The tragic loss of the failed human venture in Plymouth, Nova Scotia is just being realized and the rationalization of why it ever happened is about to begin. Conventional wisdom suggests that the search for the perpetrators of this disaster will be the approach. Obviously there must be someone to blame: the politicians who lobbied for the venture; the developers who, when encouraged, took the risk of orchestrating the project. But will we ever look beyond the obvious and find the real culprit: an approach to economic development predicated on job creation, business support and based on natural resource extraction and manufacturing which provide conventional jobs for people in economically-depressed areas. It is this flawed approach to development which must be put on trial if we are to avoid other Westray disasters. 

Throughout Atlantic Canada there are other examples of tragedies resulting from our traditional approach to development -tragedies of broken lives, failed businesses, social disorder and despair. The deaths are not as visible as those at Westray but they are as sad.

Consider Cape Breton. Since 1984 one billion dollars has been spent to support business ventures, most of which have long since disappeared, leaving empty buildings, wrecked careers and shattered hopes.

Consider Baie Verte, Newfoundland. The asbestos mine there has gone through several close-downs and start-ups. In excess of $50 million has been provided to a number of outside interests to continue digging a hole in the ground. The enterprise was carried out despite the realities that asbestos markets were declining and that the asbestos product itself was banned in many sectors.

Consider Canso in Nova Scotia and Burgeo in Newfoundland. Here funds were provided for the diversification of the fishery, but in the face of those who wished to re-create the status quo, both communities traded off diversification for imagined-stability – and, as Burgeo soon learned, another short-term fix.

All these efforts were examples of a traditional approach to development which is costly and ineffective; they solidified in the minds of the people of the regions that they somehow were deficient and responsible for the failures. An unfortunate message that emerged was that we in Atlantic Canada are less capable than those in other parts of Canada of developing a prosperous economy. The reality is something other.

Imagine if the same amounts of funding were applied to re-orienting and educating people to evaluate properly their abilities and their environment, to discovering alternative work and enterprises in their own communities (or, for that matter, elsewhere).

Unfortunately this approach is not deemed a “practical” reality. What is presented are solutions to the “job issue” – the main problem of the day; what is required is research into and an understanding of a deep-rooted condition. What the people of the regions are offered is participation in “consultation sessions” where comments are dutifully recorded and then regurgitated by consultants or bureaucrats. Plans are designed and programs developed which, again, are imposed upon people.

Why we refuse to look at our past history – learning from our successes and failures – is beyond explanation. Why we continue to perpetrate the same mistakes and generate the same dead-ends for people is beyond comprehension. What is most evident is that we review the past, connect it with the present and plan strategically for the future.

A study of the Westray Disaster has to suggest a process of soul-searching with respect to the present thrust of our community development. More advanced and more prosperous developing countries in the world have learned that real development begins with Human development. They have learned that resources have limited value until they are developed to the point where someone else wants them and will provide something of greater value to possess them. The someone who develops the resources is key.

The developer obviously has to encounter some risk in order to take advantage of an opportunity – the amount of risk usually being in direct proportion to the investment. In areas like Westray where risk is abundant, fiscal support is provided to help alleviate the risk. But this support is applicable only to capital costs not human development. In effect, we provide money to overcome risk-aversion rather than to generate knowledge – hoping all the while that the money will work and the risk will disappear. In most cases, money only lessens the fear; the risk remains. The reality is that true risk-aversion will come only from knowledge.

We must begin the process of developing the real resource of Atlantic Canada – the people. Just imagine if a portion of the $100 million government investment into Westray had been utilized to develop new techniques into mining potentially dangerous sites – techniques that would be safer, more cost-effective, more expeditious. The value of the resource might have been increased, society might have been presented with a new technology, a tragedy might have been avoided.

Miners have vast amounts of experience and knowledge which, if coupled with the skills and technologies of the scientist, might produce all kinds of innovations in the industry. Why not pay miners for their knowledge? Why not develop programs that improve on our present technologies by utilizing local knowledge and scientific information thereby creating new processes for resource extraction and new technologies for sale?

This approach might be used in the fishery and in other industries. The principle is the same: Government support should be focused on Human Development rather than on capital construction.

Obviously there are those with more ability, imagination and insight who can build on this suggestion. The point to be made is that justice will not be served in this process if the only outcomes of the Westray Disaster are failed political careers and the elimination of certain entrepreneurs. The hard reality is that the new players who move to the political stage will in all likelihood continue to encourage companies to come here and access support funds to carry on their business ventures – ventures which are doomed before they begin.

The tragedies will not always be as visible as the one in Pictou, but they will be no less affecting: the exodus of people from rural areas, the perpetuation of a dependent-culture, lost dreams and social unrest.

If the legacy of the Westray Disaster is only the assigning of political blame and not a re-evaluation of our development policies, then the deaths of the 25 men will have been in vain.

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