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No One Speaks for the Dead

May 20, 2012 permalink

About a hundred children a year die after CAS becomes involved in their lives, yet in the last five years only the Matthew Reid case has resulted in an inquest. That was one where the Welland Tribune published the boy's name before CAS could request anonymity. In a decade a thousand children have died without names or public inquiry of any kind. Today's article from the Ottawa Citizen shows that the coroner's inquest is an institution that is dying through lack of use.



Who will speak for Eric?

Eric Leighton
Pallbearers carry the casket of Eric Leighton St. Patrick’s Church in Fallowfield. Leighton was killed in a shop-class explosion at Mother Teresa Catholic High School in May 2011.
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington , Ottawa Citizen

The coroner’s inquest in Ontario is almost dead, in need of its own services.

In 2001, there were 78 inquests across the province — 53 were mandatory and 25 were discretionary. In 2011, there were only 34 inquests, with just six being discretionary.

Some years in between were even quieter. In 2009 — how could this be possible? — there was one so-called discretionary inquest in all of Ontario. One.

(The difference between the two is that some deaths, such as those that occur on construction sites or sometimes in prisons, call for automatic inquests. Others are left to the judgment of the coroner’s office, which needs to decide if there is sufficient public interest at stake for a full-blown hearing.)

Against that backdrop, we arrive at this unsatisfactory state of affairs: How is it possible that a construction worker who dies in a backhoe accident will be the subject of a coroner’s inquest, but a high school student killed in an explosion during shop class is not?

So sits the case of Eric Leighton, the Grade 12 student fatally injured at Mother Teresa High School as he was cutting open a steel barrel in shop class, only days from graduation. May 26 is the one-year anniversary. How much longer must the family wait for answers?

Dr. Roger Skinner is the supervising coroner for the Ontario east region, overseeing the work of about 40 other coroners, most of them part-time.

He is well aware of the Leighton case and says he’s yet to decide whether to hold an inquest.

The main outstanding matter at this point, he said, is the court case involving the Ministry of Labour and the Ottawa Catholic District School Board.

The board is facing three charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and was also charged under the provincial fire code. The penalties consist of fines.

“We don’t make any definite decisions until all matters in front of the court are complete,” said Dr. Skinner, even if that process takes many months, or years.

“In this situation, one of the things we will consider is the broader safety (issue) within the province and maybe beyond.”

It sometimes happens, he explained, that issues involving public safety and trust are fully explored in other “parallel” investigations, making an inquest unnecessary.

Well, in the interests of generating discussion, this is a case that rather screams for a public inquest, is it not?

A Ministry of Labour investigation sounds like an inquiry that looks at the relationship between an employer, the board, and its employee, the teacher, and the “workplace” or classroom.

Eric was not an employee of the board. He was a student and an innocent victim.

School boards, surely, have no more important priority than to provide an environment safe for students to learn and explore in. The actual instruction is secondary to Job One: learning conditions cannot be hazardous — our kids need to come home in one piece.

Obviously, the board failed in its primary responsibility. And we keep saying “the board” as though it were an entity capable of personal responsibility. It isn’t.

Painful as it may be, the family needs to hear directly from the teacher involved, his supervisor at school, other students, and any other relevant person or authority. This is owed to them.

The Leightons don’t need to read a negotiated guilty plea between the ministry and the board, which is possibly the outcome of the court case.

The family is also in the unwelcome position of getting news about this case by reading newspapers. This is just wrong.

It was left to the Citizen, for instance, the find out the 45-gallon barrel in question came from an agricultural manufacturer in Williamsburg, Ont., that produces a cream for the dairy industry. One of its ingredients is peppermint oil, the residue of which can be explosive with the right mixture with air.

It has been plausibly suggested the barrel Eric was cutting that day had not been properly cleaned, creating the dangerous conditions present when he began cutting. Absent a coroner’s inquest, can anyone in Ontario today offer an assurance that no happy, curly-haired kid this May, in some shop class in some small town, is not going to be cutting open another steel barrel to make a large barbecue?

And if we’ve lost the appetite for coroner’s inquests in Ontario, do we need some other forum for fatalities that occur outside the criminal realm?

The family is planning to put a gravestone on Eric’s remains next weekend. So does it never end for them.

Many hands wrote his epitaph. We need to hear their voices; not to blame, but to understand.

Source: Ottawa Citizen