National Day of Mourning on Manitoulin attracts small crowd

Joanne Wade lays a National Day of Mourning wreath in memory of her 22-year-old son, killed in 1999 while driving a truck across a level crossing with poor sightlines. photo by Michael Erskine

AUNDECK OMNI KANING—A small but sombre crowd gathered in the Aundeck Omni Kaning community centre on April 28 for a ceremony to observe the National Day of Mourning for those killed and injured in the workplace.

The ceremony opened with a prayer recited by Sharon Montgomery of Kagawong.

Charlotte Commanda, acting on behalf of Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation Chief Patsy Corbiere, welcomed the assembled mourners to the community. Chief Corbiere was unable to attend due to a funeral in the community.

Ms. Commanda also relayed a statement from Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. Ms. Hughes’ message passed on her regret at not being able to attend the event, but that “I am with you in spirit.” The MP’s missive extended her “deepest gratitude to those who keep this day.”

Manitoulin Legal Clinic Executive Director Mike Shain, one of the province’s leading advocates for injured workers before the Workman’s Compensation Board appeals tribunal, provided remarks that set the context for the day’s proceedings.

“Driving into work gives you time to think,” he said. “I can’t believe a year has passed since we gathered here. Has anything changed? No. How come? Why not? The same number have been killed, perhaps more, everyday tragedy has happened. The numbers simply continue. Those numbers should be alarming us all…but they don’t. We have to ask why?”

Mr. Shain questioned whether as a society we have “become too busy to give a damn, are we as a society uncaring? Is making a profit a superior motive to live by? I don’t think so.”

The reason, he surmised, is that “as a people, as a country, we only see the problem in the abstract. It is not touching us on an emotional level.”

The parade of daily statistics contained in the mass media, the images of those killed in conflicts, in murders and in industrial accidents inures us to the very real suffering that lies behind those numbers. Not until an evocative image cuts through the ennui, such as that of the two-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned while fleeing that country’s civil war, a conflict that had been underway for years at that point, with millions fleeing the violence that had already killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people, that we are galvanized to take action, he noted. “Our response here in Canada up to that point was… nothing. Until we saw that one iconic photograph. Then, as a people, we made a change.”

Mr. Shain admitted that his original plan for his Day of Mourning remarks involved reciting the litany of statistics of those killed and injured but that perhaps “it is time for a change in strategy, to get away from the numbers.” He noted that he sees injured workers every week, how they have been driven into poverty and depression through workplace injuries and that “things don’t seem to be getting better.”

He proposed that change will not come until people stop seeing the numbers and “see the fathers and the mothers, the sons and the daughters, the people whose future no longer exists, only then will society react.”

Master of ceremonies Colin Pick introduced Joanne Wade, the mother of a 22-year-old worker whose life was tragically cut short by a workplace accident that could have been prevented had a simple barrier been put in place at a railway crossing. A crossing that had been the site of several close calls in the recent past, and despite her constant entreaties to the mayor and council of that community, it was only the subsequent deaths of three teenaged boys at the same crossing that a barrier was finally installed.

Ms. Wade pulled the assembly into her world in the minutes, days, weeks and months following the day a police officer came to her house with the news.

“People can’t see your pain,” she noted, because the turmoil is going on inside, the depression provides few outwards and leaves no physical marks. When she received the news of her son’s death “I screamed, I hollered so loud all of Little Current could hear me,” she recalled. As an RN she was used to dealing with death, she said. “All of my career dealt with death and dying.” She even presided over courses and seminars on dealing with grief and palliative care. “I had all the books.”

Following her son’s death she faced a deep personal crisis. “What was I doing up there? I knew absolutely nothing. I was totally unprepared, totally unequipped, living in uncharted territory. I couldn’t stay focussed, couldn’t remember anything,” she said. “I couldn’t stop asking, ‘why did my son go before me?’ Parents aren’t supposed to go before their children.”

Ms. Wade said that she lost the will to live. “I was not going to kill myself,” she said. “I just did not want to go on living. I had a lot to live for, I had two lovely daughters.” In order to deal with the pain, she chose not to deal with it, but threw herself into her work. “I became a workaholic,” she recalled.

It was then that Ms. Wade discovered and became involved in the organization Threads of Life. “That is when I found hope,” she said. The organization, founded in 2003, has as its mandate the support of those who have lost family members to workplace accidents and has grown from a small local support group to a national and international non-profit organization. “We now support 2,400 families across Canada,” she said. The Threads of Life are not only reactive, however, they also act proactively in lobbying for change and creating awareness. The group raises funds through their annual Steps for Life. More information on the group can be found on their website threadsoflife.ca.

Following Ms. Wade’s remarks, family members of those lost to workplace accidents lit a candle of remembrance and laid wreaths in their memory.

Speaker Gary Hrytsak spoke on the work of the Manitoulin Injured Workers Group, under whose auspice the National Day of Mourning ceremony took place. He provided a short history of the development of Ontario’s workplace health and safety legislation, ranging from the early days when Montreal and Toronto stood at the top of the list with the Black Hole of Calcutta as the worst regions for workplace injuries in the world up to the present day, concluding “it’s your life, don’t leave work without it.”

A list of names of those who have been killed or injured in the workplace was read aloud by Ms. Montgomery while standing behind the memorial candle and wreaths following the lighting and wreath laying ceremonies. Those names included: Richard DeMartin (May 8, 2002), Jason Chenier (2012), Maurice Lachapelle (April 15, 2013), Ritchie Shelly, Al Schaffernichtl William Shelly, Norman Debassige (1981), Shirley Shelly, Harry Breyer (1991), Jim McDonald, Brent Wade (1999), Margaret McDonald, Constable Lloyd Lackey (early 1960s), Alex George, Al Boyer, the two women killed in the Elliot Lake Mall collapse, Leo Lafond (2007), Hugh Stephens, Wade McMurray (2009), and Don Dumphry.