Westray: An act of Deliberate Remembering

8 May

People remember events like this for a reason. (photo by Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Twenty years ago I was living in Tokyo. On May 9, 1992 (It was probably May 10 I’m writing about, now that I think of it, since there is a 12 hour time difference), my alarm clock went off at 6 am in the bedroom of my tiny apartment in Ushigome Yanagicho, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward. In the midst of the madness that is downtown Tokyo, a place where I rarely heard the word “Canada,” I heard the words: “Stellarton, Nova Scotia” and “coal mine” and “explosion.”

I lay in bed a moment or two and wondered if I had been dreaming. I crawled out of my futon and dumbly held the tiny transistor alarm clock before my face, staring into the LED numbers on the front as though the radio might realize I had not heard it and repeat the 5 minute Associated Press news report.

The only English radio was the American Armed Forces Radio, and I knew there would not be another news report for an hour. I went into the kitchen and switched the TV to the one channel it received: NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster.

There it was: my hometown on Japanese television. NHK was pre-empting their regular programming for live reports from the mine site in Plymouth. I saw the surface workings of the Westray mine, a mine that was only a few minutes drive from my parents’ house, a mine I knew was visible out the living room window of the house my sister was living in at the time. I saw fire trucks with Stellarton Volunteer Fire Department emblazoned on the door.

The TV broadcast was in Japanese, and although my functional Japanese was pretty good while I lived in Tokyo: I knew how to order meals, get a haircut, do my banking, pay my bills at the Post Office. I did not have much newscast vocabulary. “Bakuhatsu” was a word I knew from a silly Japanese tongue twister. (busu basu gaido, basu gasu bakuhatsu) The word means explosion. And I understood nijuroku nin, twenty-six people.

Given my background as the descendant of coal miners in one of the most dangerous coal seams ever mined in the world, given my family’s (my father’s) decades of work in the Labour Movement, given the fact that I was thousands of miles from home in the final few years before the internet and had very few ways of finding out what was going on in Pictou County, the troubled emotional state I got sent into that day is very difficult to describe. In fact, it would take me over a decade of focused effort to describe it, in my novel Twenty-six.

I don’t talk about Westray much any more. I’ve personally said all I had to say about it. It was not an accident. Among other things, it was the result of a deeply and troublingly corrupt political and economic culture in the province of Nova Scotia, a culture I believe is less corrupt today, but only a little less corrupt.

Individual people have been shown to have been responsible for what happened in the Westray mine. (Don’t take my word for it, read Justice K. Peter Richard’s official report. I read all 4 volumes. Carefully.) Those people were never held to account. Over a decade after Westray, legislation was passed to make it easier to hold people to account for the actions they take in the name of the corporations they profit from. That legislation has never been effectively used.

One positive thing that has come out of Westray has been the change in attitude of the Nova Scotia media in the wake of the Westray catastrophe. I’ve had journalists admit to me how sorry they felt that they had not reported on safety concerns at the mine until it was too late. But work place safety issues get taken seriously in this province now. If not by officials, at least by the media.

I used to complain for decades that if a random bus goes off a cliff in Turkey, that gets a headline in every paper in Canada. But if someone gets killed in the factory down the street, people have to hear about that by word of mouth. This is the case no more in this province. I’m happy to say that workplace injuries and deaths get treated as news around here, and this alone makes events like Westray less likely.

On the occasion of this 20th anniversary I take the trouble now to say: I remember Westray. I spent a decade writing a book so that I would remember it, and so that others might, too. I do not remember it by accident or as the matter of some coincidental non-forgetting. I remember Westray deliberately. Deliberate remembering is a political act. Deliberate remembering is a compassionate act. Deliberate remembering is a way of holding the present to account for the past.

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