An inquest is about finding truth

Two years ago this week, a devastating fatal explosion and fire destroyed the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George. Two workers at the mill, Alan Little and Glenn Roche, died in the aftermath of the explosion, and more than 20 others were injured.

It was the second such explosion in less than four months. In January 2012, millworkers Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi Jr. were killed in an explosion and fire at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, with again many others seriously injured.

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The impact of these events was horrifying for the families of the deceased, for the survivors and indeed for the entire communities involved. It is no surprise that many of those involved are now considering the best way to revisit these events in hindsight to provide public accountability and to try to ensure that such events do not occur again.

It has now been announced that a coroner's inquest will be held into the deaths that occurred in both explosions. As Chief Coroner, I would like to explain to the communities what an inquest involves, what it can and will do in these cases, and how it will answer many of the questions that are being asked.

The goal of an inquest is to determine the truth about an event that led to a fatality. The truth means more than just determining the identities of those who died, when, where and how. It also means determining the truth about the root causes leading up to an event and any contributing factors involved. It means examining the roles and responsibilities of anyone who may have had a part to play in the events leading up to the incident or in the incident itself. In cases like the sawmill explosions, it often means calling expert witnesses who can speak to best practices in other jurisdictions and discuss what changes or interventions might have prevented the occurrence, and hence might prevent future similar occurrences. It will also normally involve calling those who set safety standards, undertook inspections, and conducted investigations into the events, so that they may assist the jury by detailing the scope and results of their investigations.

The second goal of the inquest is for the inquest jury to make recommendations aimed at preventing similar events or indeed dealing with any other matters that arise during the proceeding.

To accomplish these two goals, presiding coroners have many tools at their disposal.

They may issue subpoenas to anyone whom they believe has useful information to provide - and those subpoenaed must attend the inquest, testify, and answer all questions put to them. They cannot refuse to testify on grounds that it might incriminate them. The only exception is Crown counsel who cannot be subpoenaed to testify about decisions they have made as to whether charges should be laid in any particular case.

An inquest is an open and transparent process. Hearings are open to everyone, and at the conclusion of the inquest, the jury foreperson will read aloud the jury's findings and recommendations for all to hear.

We recognize that investigations into workplace deaths often involve technical issues, so in these cases, we do all we can to ensure that some or all of the jury members are those who are familiar with the type of work involved.

Anyone directly impacted by a fatality may apply to the presiding coroner for what is known as "participant status." Those with participant status may ask questions of witnesses, and may request that other persons be subpoenaed.

An inquest cannot make any finding of legal responsibility nor express any conclusion of law. Nevertheless, juries' recommendations can clearly highlight areas where practices, policies, regulations or legislation should be reviewed or revised. Though recommendations do not have the weight of law, they carry the weight of public expectation.

I am confident that a Coroner's inquest remains the best venue to address the concerns and questions of family and community about how and why the explosions happened, and what should be done to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

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