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Counter-memory activism in the aftermath of tragedy: a case study of the Westray Families Group.

NARRATIVES STITCH THE FABRIC OF OUR lives, linking people to events, to each other, and to their past (Loseke 2007; Riessman 2008). Narratives become embedded in mnemonic practices, thereby shaping, reinforcing, or reconfiguring what is worth remembering and passing on (Misztal 2003). Important events and people are not memorialized as decontextualized fragments or images, but laden with meaning embedded within narratives: we remember Martin Luther King Jr. as a national hero who died leading a major civil rights movement in the United States, and whose persuasive argument changed attitudes and identities and transformed the laws of his country. To the extent that events or people are considered by a group to be significant and worthy of memorializing, the group will promulgate a particular narrative that renders the memory meaningful to the broader community. Recognizing, at least implicitly, the importance of narratives for the remembrance of events or people, stakeholders compete to have narrative authority. Do we remember the deaths of 14 females killed at L'ecole Polytechnique on December 6, 1989, as the isolated act of a madman, or as an act reflecting the systemic problem of male violence against women? Rosenberg (1998) argued that feminists emblemized "the Montreal Massacre" as the social problem of male violence against women, and when the federal government later declared December 6 a National Day of Action and Remembrance on Violence Against Women, the feminist narrative gained some authority.

This case study examines how the relatives of the men killed in the Westray mine explosion used various commemorative practices to memorialize "Westray" as a specific example of corporate manslaughter. The massive methane gas explosion occurred on May 9, 1992, in the rural community of Plymouth, NS. Draegermen [mine rescue workers] were able to bring 15 bodies to the surface but unstable mine conditions forced them to abandon the search for the remaining 11 men underground. As noted by Jobb (1994), "There were no survivors, but there were plenty of allegations that Westray had been a disaster waiting to happen" (p. 1). A Westray Public Inquiry was set up a week after the explosion, but it was postponed pending the results of a criminal investigation. Very soon after the explosion, in a highly charged emotional climate, all but one of the bereaved families forged the Westray Families Group (WFG), which became "a watchdog, making sure the inquiry, the Nova Scotia government, and the Mounties left no stone unturned" (Jobb 1994:225). In an article published in a special issue of the Canadian Review of Social Policy inviting stories from activists, Allen Martin, whose brother Glenn was killed in the mine, outlined the formation and objectives of the WFG. He recounts that:
   Soon after the explosion, the Westray Families Group was formed,
   partly for mutual support, but also because what we were hearing
   from politicians and Westray officials did not coincide with what
   we were told by our loved ones before their death. There was an
   obvious attempt to distort the truth and that made us suspicious.
   We identified three achievable objectives.

(1) We wanted justice. We were convinced that our men did not die by accident, but as the result of criminal behavior.

(2) We wanted body recovery. Everyone deserves a proper burial.

(3) We decided we would do whatever we could to ensure that there would be "No More Westrays" (Martin 2003:149).

As Mr. Martin indicates, the members of the WFG adopted a corporate criminal negligence narrative to explain the explosion against alternative narratives promoted by far more powerful stakeholders. In this paper, we provide a narrative analysis of the commemorative activism of the WFG. We examine their narration of how they experienced key events and processes taking place in the aftermath of the explosion, such as concerns over the handling of the criminal investigation, the under-resourcing of the prosecution, the "battle" with the corporation over recovery of the bodies, and the staying of criminal charges. We contend that, over time, these experiences served to shape, then attenuate their goal to ensure that "Westray" be remembered as workplace deaths caused by corporate negligence. We draw upon the dynamics of social memory perspective and the social constructionist approach to social problems. To varying degrees, both approaches use narrative inquiry methods to consider how individuals use narratives to construct social problems (e.g., Loseke 2003) or to challenge and reshape how the past is remembered (e.g., Irwin-Zarecka 1994; Kelley 1995). As such, our methodology and analysis rests upon insights drawn from the narrative inquiry literature (e.g., Bury 2001; Riessman 2008).

The data are drawn from two studies. The first study, entitled Life After Westray (2000 to 2001), focused on family members' posttraumatic adjustment eight years following the explosion. In particular, we draw upon participants' responses to open-ended questions on their reactions to the criminal investigation and prosecution (1992-1995), the staying of criminal charges (1995), the Westray Public Inquiry (May 1992; 1995 to 1997), and related topics. The sample included 52 family members of 16 families of the 26 men who died in the explosion (see Davis, Wohl, and Verberg 2007 for details). Two events prompted the design of a second study called Remembering Westray (2003 to 2008). First, findings from Life After Westray indicated that many relatives considered themselves to be activists who had influenced various political and judicial processes and the shaping of public perception of the criminal aspects surrounding the Westray mine explosion. Second, at the end of the first study, we were invited to attend a ceremony in which the WFG unveiled seven interpretative panels that they had designed and installed in the commemorative park they had built seven years earlier. We became aware of other commemorative strategies used by the group over the (then) nine years since the explosion. Remembering Westray was designed to shed light on the social, political, and cultural context in which their counter-memory activism was embedded. Because our goal was to illuminate the memory activism of the WFG, we draw upon interpretative methods focused on studying social change (McLeod and Thomson 2009; Richards 1985; Riessman 2008). "In narrative analysis, the interview or story is taken as a whole, and set in the context in which it has been generated and told" (Bury 2001:281). We wanted to hear the participants' firsthand accounts of their experience, and strive to understand how they understood their roles vis-a-vis other key stakeholders. The first author interviewed 10 members of the WFG, with interviews lasting two to three hours. Some family members were interviewed several times, alone or in small groups involving project leaders. Some family members who played key leadership roles early on wanted to participate, but declined due to health or family reasons; some had passed away. Much of their early activism is captured in Jobb's (1994) book Calculated Risk. Interviews were organized around specific memory projects (e.g., memorial park, monument, interpretative panels) or practices (e.g., establishing a Web site, organizing memorial services and a fifth anniversary memorial march, producing and distributing We Remember Westray bumper stickers, etc.).


The "commemorative fever" observed at the end of the twentieth century in many Western nations has been attributed to broad cultural shifts toward the democratization of identity, the emergence of debates over the veracity and meaning of historical events, and efforts by nation states to recognize and redress past wrongs (Misztal 2003:2-4). Commemorative monuments and rituals instituted by powerful institutions, such as governments and religious institutions, have come under scrutiny by groups seeking to liberate "suppressed memories" and cultivate new cultural identities and new meanings for their traditions, affiliations, and landscapes (Bodnor 1992; Neal and Dena 2001; Schudson 1997; Schwartz 1996). Such efforts have been called "counter-memory activism," which is defined as memory acts used by a group to contest and redress what they consider to be hegemonic renderings of the past. Counter-memory researchers have explored contests surrounding remembrance of the Holocaust (e.g., Douglass and Vogler 2003; LaCapra 1998; Linenthal 2001), violence against women (e.g., Bold, Knowles, and Leach 2002; Kelley 1995; Rosenberg 1998), slavery and racism (e.g., Daynes 1997; Griffin 2004), colonialism (Clarke 2003), and workplace tragedies (e.g., Scott 1996), among others.

Counter-memory activists work through memory projects and practices "to secure presence for certain elements of the past" (Irwin-Zarecka 1994:8). Memory projects may involve storytelling and family genealogy work in private settings (e.g., Lambert 2002; Langellier and Peterson 1993), performing public commemorative rituals (e.g., Bold et al. 2002; Kelley 1995), or using other narrative strategies, such as writing a book, movie, or play. Memory projects can range in scope from a single, local event, such as holding a memorial service, to doing something that may have a broader impact, such as producing a film (e.g., Roots). Some memory projects are large, encompassing, and integrating, such as the feminist critique of patriarchy, while others are more modest, both in terms of their scope and impact (Irwin-Zarecka 1994).

Memory projects or practices are accomplished through communities of memory (also called mnemonic communities) which "designate structured sets of relationships through which people engage representations of past events and put forth shared, complementary, or competing versions of what should be remembered and how" (Simon and Eppert 2005:61). Memory theorists argue that there are so-called "institutions of memory," such as schools, courts, museums, and the mass media, which have received increased attention by mnemonic communities because they play a significant role in social memory and, therefore, forgetting. Traditionally social memory theorists defined families, ethnic groups, and nations as "the main mnemonic communities" because through everyday interactions, social regulations, and "habit memory" (what Schudson calls noncommemorative memory), they tacitly teach cultural remembrance (Misztal 2003:15). Increasingly, groups formed by people who share a common mnemonic "battleground" (e.g., First Nations, African Americans, feminists) are referred to as a community of memory as well, because they specifically set out to influence how the past "should" be remembered (hence counter-memory). Such groups typically use narrative practices to attach specific meanings to key events or processes experienced as "traumatic" (e.g., racism, residential schooling, the Holocaust) (Douglass and Vogler 2003; Irwin-Zarecka 1994), and in doing so, demand changes in the institutions of memory.

Tragic events often stimulate a great deal of memory work, particularly on the part of those who are most affected. Those who have suffered tragic loss are motivated to find a purpose or meaning in the loss, and to tell and have others appreciate their experience, or the impact that the loss has had on them (see, e.g., Bury 2001; Davis et al. 2007; Loseke 2003). The social memory of the tragic event lives on past those directly involved if and when, and to the extent with which, the memories of what happened become culturally embedded. Simon (2005:88) suggests that through "transactional memory," nonvictims imagine the social, political, and ethical implications of an injustice, and may thereby be inspired to join the community of memory. Transactional memory refers to those instances where witnesses of an unjust tragedy use their personal trauma stories to draw attention to the unjust circumstances surrounding the tragedy. For Simon (2005), transactional public memory creates the possibility of a connection between victims and strangers because "public memory invokes a 'kinship' beyond that rendered by biology, tribal traditions, or national histories" (p. 89).

Holst-Warhaft (2000) contends that activists reveal their grief to draw attention to the social problem causing their grief. She argues that the grief apparent in the mothers who launched the Mothers of the Disappeared movement served to transform seemingly anonymous human rights violations taking place in Argentina at the time into personal, painful, family tragedies, thereby provoking people to take notice of the injustices surrounding their plight and called on governments to intervene (see also Misztal on social memory and justice, 2003:145-54). Holst-Warhaft does not specifically address the significance of the family members' participation in the various other movements she examines. Rather, it is the activists' grief that the public takes note of and responds to (Verberg 2006). Verberg (2006:38) contends that while people initiate or become involved in "family-based activism" (activism anchored in a family tragedy), the symbolic and practical roles families play in counter-memory competitions have yet to become a specific focus of research.

Loseke's (2003) theory and research on the social construction of social problems sheds light on how activists use narratives to shape the public's understandings of a particular "social problem." She argues that social problems are constructed discursively when social groups narrate a believable "formula story" that helps audiences to make sense of what had happened to them, particularly when the audience is seeking to make sense of a recent tragic event. The story or narrative must provide a "densely packed, complex, interlocking vision of how the world works, and of how the world should work" (Loseke 2007:665). Believable formula stories have particular authors, plot lines, and story forms, but because "circulating formula stories" (stories that exist in the culture) are adopted by storytellers trying to make sense of an embodied or tragic lived experience, the formula story adopted gets rewritten to reflect a particular cast of victims, culprits, and circumstances. As Loseke (2007) puts it, "New stories are created and age-old stories and their characters are reproduced, modified or discarded" (p. 665). For example, in the wake of 9/11, the formula story of "Middle-East terrorism" was adopted and reworked to fit the new circumstances.

Using a narrative analysis perspective, Bury (2001) suggests that individuals narrate new identities when faced with traumatic "biographical disruptions." In particular, he found that individuals diagnosed with cancer sort through and use narratives existing within the culture to help them to make sense of their embodied experiences of illness over time. These narratives redefine the self to incorporate ways of understanding new embodied experiences. In turn, individuals use the narratives to construct a public identity for themselves which reflects their perceptions, understandings, and experiences surrounding the crisis.

Ideas about social change overlap in the constructionist approach to social problems and the dynamics of memory perspective. Loseke (2007) argues that one's personal identity narrative interacts reflexively with narratives at the cultural, institutional, or organizational levels. She argues that activists draw upon "circulating formula stories" to make sense of their experiences, which in turn reinforce, reshape, or even reinvent existing narratives. In doing so, she proposes a mechanism through which individuals might be able to accomplish social change. In her words, "while individual social actors can use their understandings of cultural narratives as resources to craft their own stories of the self, these personal identity narratives are critical in shaping institutional and cultural narratives" (Loseke 2007:676). Likewise Schudson (1997) argues that the past "continues into and shapes the present personally, as it is transmitted through individual lives; socially, as it is transmitted through laws and other institutions; and culturally, as it is transmitted through language and other symbolic systems" (p. 6). He further argues that memory is a negotiated process that provides individuals with identities arising out of particular circumstances taking place in particular times and places. As such, both contend that to understand the timing and impact of narratives of change, research must explore the sociocultural context within which individuals shape how events will be understood and remembered.


Within hours of the explosion, families were called to gather at the Plymouth Fire Hall to await news of the fate of their family members. Relatives sought to make sense of what had happened and what was happening. Their stories recreate the drama of how they experienced news of the explosion, the rescue operation, and events taking place in the aftermath. Their stories define a cast of characters and culprits and offer "evidence" that something went terribly wrong at Westray coal mine.

I was always quick to blame God for disasters that happened around us.... But that [the explosion] was a man-made frig up over there, and I'm being kind saying 'frig up.' That was a man-made disaster waiting to happen. (Sister-in-law)

As suggested earlier by Allen Martin, different narratives circulated to make sense of the Westray mine explosion: an accident narrative, a victim-blaming narrative, and a corporate negligence narrative. The company promoted the accident narrative, suggesting that the explosion was a random, unpredictable, and unavoidable occurrence. For example, the company's communication manager told reporters that "Mother Nature cannot always be predicted or controlled" (as quoted in O'Connell and Mills 2003:336). The plausibility of the accident narrative was bolstered by "local wisdom" that coal mining on the "gassy" Foord seam was dangerous; more than 600 lives had been lost to mining-related disasters over the past two centuries. (1) Several participants rejected the accident narrative, saying that it was a tactic used by the company so it could manage the rescue operation, control the dissemination of information to families and the media, and prepare itself for an impending investigation. One brother put it this way:
   I think we were into Day 2 or 3. We found out that there was a
   tractor-trailer and a group of people down there in the Westray
   office, Westray personnel, shredding documents. WHY? Well, the RCMP
   says, these documents that they're shredding, its unnecessary stuff
   that they want to go on ... they got stuff that has to be done.
   Well excuse me! In my books, I don't think anything should be
   touched until this investigation is finished. And they hauled away
   truck, tractor-trailer loads of shredded documentation.

The victim-blaming narrative located responsibility with the mine workers themselves for failing to follow proper safety procedures. Several participants heard this narrative in the community following the explosion. One sister said "even family--cousins--said like 'Well, maybe the guys blew it up. Maybe it's their fault. Maybe they had cigarettes down there."' Others heard that the men were partly to blame because they continued to work despite the unsafe working conditions. To answer these claims, many relatives used a regional political economy narrative, noting, as one brother explained, "There is no jobs that you can just up and go, what you've got is what you've got, you gotta take it." A widow added, "I know my own situation. We had just built a new house. We built that house on Westray, on the dream and the future that Westray was supposed to bring." This same participant noted that their counter-memory activism was necessary to discredit false narratives of blame:

I feel sorry for the public for falling for [the victim-blaming narrative]. I don't feel angry at them because they don't know it all. They don't know all the facts. I feel sorry for them and I think it's very sad because what's happening is ... the government is doing this and the mine managers are doing this to get off the hook themselves. They have to find a way to justify what happened themselves. Nobody wants to take the blame so in order not to take the blame, you got to pass it to somebody else. It's very simple. That's life. And that's what they're doing. That's why it's so important for me to get all the facts out there and show the public that ... these weren't fools ... these men weren't idiots. (Widow)

Participants suggest that the corporate negligence narrative resonated with them, in part, because it coincided with the shocking realizations that the company had "no clue who was on-shiff" when the mine exploded and that company officials peddled false hopes during the rescue operation that the men might come out alive. With regard to the former criticism, this widow said:
   When they called home and wanted to know if our husbands were
   working, that's mistake number one. You should tell us 'Yes, your
   husband was working.' I've been a miner's wife for 20 years, and I
   know that you can be fired if you don't tag yourself in and out of
   a mine. They had no tagging system at Westray, although Gerald
   Phillips told us differently. The draegermen and the other miners
   told us, no, there was no tagging system. That's a mistake!

Most participants expressed profound anger about being misled by the company during the rescue operation. One brother said,
   And another thing was when they kept coming up, since it's in my
   mind here, when they were coming up every hour or something to tell
   us 'We got through. The air was clear,' and 'We got this debris out
   of the way' and 'The air is clear and it looks good.' They kept
   coming up and telling us this, and we were clapping.... The last
   time he come up he said, 'It looks great! We're on our way in to
   get them out and the air looks clean and it looks positive.' And we
   started--every one of us, we were just clapping our hearts out.
   They [11 bodies] were down at the Aberdeen, New Glasgow
   Stadium--dead, lying out. And when we found out! That still bothers
   me today! I think that's why I'm bringing it up!

With hopes shaped by the corporation, relatives expressed shock and distress at the announcement that the search was terminated. Many feared the men were left in the mine alive: "When they called off the search I remember being really upset because he could still be caught in a pocket, that he could still be alive down there" (Daughter). Proposed plans to recover the bodies of the 11 men in the Southwest Main were tied to flooding (stabilizing) the mine and the "reopening" of the mine, both of which were political hot potatoes (see Jobb 1994): Flooding would interfere with the criminal investigation and reopening the mine before the investigation was complete was considered inappropriate. In the end, after months of discussion and debate, the families lost their campaign to have the men's bodies brought out of the mine.


Soon after the rescue operation ended, hope gave way to anger as most relatives began to question whether their loved ones died as the result of corporate negligence. Developing a system to work together was born out of their need to make sense of the cacophony of information, announcements, and interactions taking place in the aftermath of the explosion, and due to a critical need to address conflicts arising over the fact that company, government, and RCMP personnel viewed some family members as "family representatives," thereby excluding others from receiving information or attending meetings (Jobb 1994). Moreover, Justice Peter Richard, appointed Commissioner of the Westray Public Inquiry, stipulated that the Westray families could be represented at the inquiry by one lawyer. (2) Within a month of the explosion, the inquiry was postponed pending the results of a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, relatives became increasingly suspicious of company officials, who began te pit families and miners against each other in its bid te reopen the mine, while playing on the hopes of the 11 families whose loved one had net been recovered. Amid the anger and confusion, some family members emerged in leadership roles te rally families together around what they considered te be critical problems in the legal response te the explosion. They impressed upon the families the need te closely monitor the criminal investigation and the judicial proceedings (the families' attention and reaction te the mishandling of the legal case is discussed at length in Jobb 1994, 1998). As a result, they met regularly te discuss what was happening on various fronts, and they did se as the WFG. (3) As one participant noted,

We think ... if it hadn't been for our group, we were a strong group, we stuck together, we fought with each other, we got back together, we fought with them, we stayed together--that maybe other groups of in-laws and family members wouldn't have been as strong and fought as long and hard as we did, and that's why, it was our family. (Sister-in-law)

Our participants use terms like "anger" and "frustration" when describing the many "fights" they had with the government and the corporation in the aftermath of the explosion. Among other "battles," family members were intensely involved with addressing what they considered to be serious problems with the timelines of the criminal investigation and the under-resourcing of the prosecution; some were involved in decisions related to the possibility of body recovery; and some fought over the terms of the Westray Public Inquiry. They felt vindicated when company officials were charged with 52 noncriminal counts of operating an unsafe mine under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act, and later, in August 1992, when two managers, Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, were charged with criminal negligence causing death and manslaughter. In 1993 most of the noncriminal charges were stayed by Crown prosecutors on the grounds that they might jeopardize prosecuting the criminal charges. Although there were many "battles," participants had felt buoyed by the fact that "closure" would eventually come when they witnessed the criminal prosecution of the mine managers. For a time, they felt assured that the mine managers would be convicted. Things turned on a dime. In June 1995, families were gathered to hear the announcement that criminal charges were stayed, with the trial judge citing the prosecutors' failure to disclose key evidence to the defense. The Supreme Court of Canada upheld The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal's order for a new trial, yet prosecutors decided not to pursue the charges because they determined there was not enough evidence to secure convictions. When the trial was called off, they felt justice slipping away. And with concerns about the terms of the Westray Public Inquiry and skepticism about the impartiality its Commissioner, relatives were sure that there would be no justice whatsoever.

We contend that their interpretation of these crucial events served to shift their identities, and in turn, preempted shifts in their commemorative orientation. In other words, their commemorative work has been a dynamic, interpretative process which evolved as they themselves were transformed in response to the myriad of happenings subsequent to the explosion. So many participants describe losing faith in the justice system and its representatives, and this intensified their view that it was up to them to convey to the public the social significance of the Westray mine explosion. Specifically, we identify three distinct, yet overlapping and reinforcing memory orientations which we argue were shaped by the shifting subjectivities of the bereaved relatives as they responded to events in the aftermath of the explosion. These memory orientations are presented under the following heading:

1. Their Light Shall Always Shine: Engaging public commemoration.

2. We Remember Westray: Engaging critical commemoration

3. No More Westrays: Engaging transformative commemoration.

Their Light Shall Always Shine: Engaging in Public Commemoration

Emblems, monuments, and memorial parks are central features of public commemoration. Not surprisingly, provincial and local politicians commemorated the tragic deaths by hosting a public memorial service and by commissioning the design of a memorial emblem. The emblem, which features a miner's lantern with 26 rays of light, underscored by the phrase Their Light Shall Always Shine, was presented to the families who adopted it as the WFG symbol. Officials proposed other ways to commemorate the miners, such as adding their names to an existing monument memorializing lives lost in earlier mining disasters, or establishing a Westray memorial park. When public officials were slow to act on these proposals, a cousin assumed leadership of the park project. He secured the donation of a 1.5 acre treed lot, and by the first anniversary of the explosion, it was transformed into a grassed memorial park featuring 26 commemorative trees and a stone monument designed by another group of relatives. They named the park Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park instead of Westray memorial park, choosing to memorialize the men instead of the company. (4) Although paving was not yet done and grass seed not yet sprouted, the WFG held the first of what would become annual memorial services at their park.

During the time the park was being constructed, certain members of the WFG paid vigilant attention to the judicial processes as they were unfolding, and they used the media to expose problems and to challenge decisions made by various officials. Jobb (1994) documents the intricacies and sheer volume of decisions and events to which the WFG responded. Despite some criticisms of the WFG's outspoken stance on some issues, Jobb (1994) claims that "public support was decidedly behind the victims" (p. 233). So while the park was being constructed, the WFG was vigilant in advancing the corporate negligence narrative. Through the creation of the park and monument, the families found themselves embedded in a broadly based mnemonic community, as evidenced by the extensive involvement of the public in the memorial services and by the hundreds of donations made by individuals, farmers, unions, trades-people, businesses, and governments to support the construction of the park and monument. With the inquiry put on hold pending the outcome of the criminal prosecution against two mine managers, the participants felt that community members worked with them to commemorate the men whose lives had been taken unjustly. As one WFG member said, "It was a real pick-up to see other people want to join in and help us. It was awesome."

We Remember Westray: Engaging Critical Commemoration

It is no accident that books on tragedy focus extensively on the aftermath. For members of the WFG, their sense of victimization increased in the aftermath of the explosion as they began to question whether justice would be served. Assurances received from the RCMP and prosecutors led many to believe that the criminal justice system had set in motion a process that would conclude with the conviction of the mine managers. This did not happen. In 1995, the trial judge stayed manslaughter and criminal negligence charges against the two mine managers.

... They threw it out of court in Pictou in '95.... We trusted them. They had us doing things: We were to meetings, we went to any court we could--just to back them, and then one day they called us in and walked out on us! Nobody there! And I tell you when they did it. They did it the day before the July 1st weekend so that [there would be] no media coverage. Nothing was being said about it. (Sister-in-law)

When we asked an open-ended question about their reaction to the staying of criminal charges, all of the participants expressed profound disappointment and an enduring sense of justice denied.

They kept telling us, the RCMP and the prosecutors, 'Look, all we gotta do is get them to court. These guys are guilty as hell. We've got them for everything! All we gotta do is get them to court.' (Brother) The first day, the wheels fell right off. (Father)

I guess it was a real burst of my bubble ... all of the information that they had, everything, all the reports, and then for them to come forward and say that they did not have enough to go ahead with the charges. And you sit back and you think, well, what would it take? Somebody should have been held accountable. (Sister)

I never thought that anything like this could ever happen. I never thought that we would be made a mockery out of in public, and I never thought that anybody could kill somebody and get away with it so publicly. (Widow)

I've lost a part of myself actually. When, as we say, justice died, for a lot of us, there was a piece of us lost at the same time, 'cause we put so much faith, to me anyway. (Cousin)

Two further announcements shocked the families. First, although the staying of charges was under appeal, the province announced that the inquiry would go ahead at that time. Some members of the WFG believed that this would compromise any future criminal proceedings against the managers. While they were responding to and protesting this announcement, the province announced that the inquiry would be conducted in Halifax not the local community. Recounting these announcements brought forth tears of rage and stories of betrayal. One sister-in-law said, "That took the heart out of everybody." A brother said it was "emotional torture." A father used the term "another blow." The plan to hold the inquiry in the provincial capital threatened to shift the focus from personal loss to something more technical, bureaucratic, and thus, removed. The inquiry was both figuratively and literally being "taken away" from them. The families sensed that they were losing the memory competition. Some relatives feared that public officials were seeking ways to have "Westray" fade into history. This widow expresses the view that the government feared the implications of convictions:
   The government didn't want ... the government knew that if criminal
   charges were laid, and they were successful, then that opened the
   door to civil litigation. It was all just bad publicity, the whole
   nine yards. They knew they couldn't allow that to happen. The
   government and the Crown are supposed to be completely independent
   of each other. So how do you make the Crown not work? Well, you
   starve them from the resources. That's the way you do it, and
   that's the way they did it. The Crown didn't even have staplers for
   crying out loud!

As Douglass and Volger note (2003), "[i]n courts of law, competing narrative discourses struggle in adversarial combat to produce 'the facts,' or the story of 'what really happened'" (p. 2). Members of the WFG understood very well that the inquiry would have the final "official" word on what happened at Westray. This awareness was alarming to those WFG members who were now cynical about the failure of the criminal justice system, and increasingly skeptical about the independence and impartiality of the Westray Public Inquiry. They were convinced that it was up to them to make the public aware of the company's role in the explosion. With the inquiry seen as the last vestige for achieving any justice, the WFG decided to use a variety of counter-memory strategies to emblemize "Westray" as a specific example of "corporate manslaughter." By this time, more than three years had passed since the explosion. They told us that, by then, they had learned that they can and should use the media to achieve their objectives. The WFG used the media to pressure the province to hold the inquiry proceedings locally. When it began, WGF maintained a watchful presence at the proceedings. To keep people's attention on the inquiry, they produced and distributed We Remember Westray bumper stickers, baseball caps, and t-shirts and Their Lights Shall Always Shine lapel pins. When the media asked for reactions, their responses were uniform: that their family member died because the mine managers refused to follow mine safety regulations and because government officials refused to shut down the mine when the corporation failed to conform to provincial legislation.

The inquiry was under way as the fifth anniversary of the explosion approached. Haunted by their sense that the justice system would fail them, they planned a fifth anniversary protest march and decided to ask unions to have a more visible presence in the mnemonic community. As this brother recalls, "Our first year, our focus was on the Park and getting the monument up and looking after ourselves. And shortly after that it was the trial and then we noticed in August, we knew that that wasn't going to work, so we got to, we got to spread this out to the union." An invitation to the Canadian Union of Public Employees to participate in a memorial march/protest resulted in a quick decision by the union to relocate its Annual General Meeting to the local community so their membership could participate in the march.

If there was going to be any justice we would have to get it on our own, through the media, through unions, through interviews. (Brother) When the inquiry started, the inquiry was always televised. Every day and every evening the news had something to do with Westray. And it was bringing out all of the safety violations and all the poor working conditions, the poor communication, the authority--how imposing [the mine managers] were and how they bullied the guys and all of this kind of stuff, So that's how we gravitated towards the Federation of Labour and welcomed in their counsel and the unions--because we're all working people.... (Sister-in-law) And that's when Andy King and Steve Hunt (from the national office of the United Steelworkers Union) and a bunch of them came down for the fifth anniversary. We probably had some steel workers but we had the Federation of Labour, and this is how this goes. We had written a letter inviting the steel workers and inviting the CLC [Canadian Labour Congress] too. (Brother) And we'd invited the head of CUPE and we'd invited Paul Cowen from the National Film Board, and we had the Federation of Labour coming, and thinking, 'Ok you guys all up there. I hope you're listening because this is who we're reaching out to.' And that's how we really kind of got the ... and Rick Clark wrote us back and said, 'Ah! This letter came just in time because we're planning our annual meeting, se rather than us having it here in Halifax, we're going to move it to New Glasgow so everyone that's attending the meeting will be at the service, and we will bus them up to the service at 5:18 ct the mine site.' (Sister-in-law)

Protesters met ct the mine site before sunrise. A father had erected 26 white crosses, each bearing the name of a deceased man. At 5:18 AM, the time the mine had exploded, the families, former Westray employees, union members, and concerned citizens began their five-mile walk from the mine site to the memorial park. The march received extensive national coverage. The message conveyed was that the explosion was not an accident; it was a crime.

With all the media attention on Westray, the WFG launched a Web site (5) in 1995 to further expand the community of memory. The "home page" commemorated the miners by listing the names of the deceased men. The rest of the site was a compilation of the hundreds of media reports, government documents, and academic papers on Westray. Some WFG members expressed hoped that this amplifying tactic would bring justice by expanding the mnemonic community, but also by its potential to prevent those responsible for the explosion from getting other management work, and in turn, putting other workers ct risk. As this brother hopes: "If one of these managers wants a job, and the employer Googles him, there it is, the whole Westray story. Same goes for Clifford Frame [Westray CEO]. When he goes looking for investors, here it is. This is what this guy is all about."

These purposeful actions constitute mnemonic practices undertaken by the WFG to expand and influence the broader mnemonic community to remember the death of the men as a crime. When criminal charges were laid, many family members believed that the broader community understood that the deaths were unjust. This perception was threatened when the charges against the mine managers were stayed and when it was announced that the inquiry would go ahead in the provincial capital. It was within this context that the WFG became determined to expand the mnemonic community to include groups sympathetic to their cause, and to use every tactic they could to convince the public that the Westray mine explosion is a specific example of death resulting from corporate negligence. Unions also narrate corporate responsibility and workplace safety messages, and the media were becoming more critical in their reporting (see, e.g., McMullan 2005, 2006, 2007). Although--or perhaps because--bereaved relatives were not permitted to testify ct the Westray Public Inquiry, the WFG maintained an active courtroom presence ct the inquiry, and responded to invitations by "trusted reporters" to give their reactions to the testimony entered day by day at the inquiry. They welcomed and capitalized on these opportunities to reinforce the corporate negligence narrative, and were able to challenge publicly the victim-blaming narrative advanced in the Nova Scotia Premier's testimony. In her study of the families "situated reality construction" during the Public Inquiry, Dodd (2002) argued that "[e]stablishing their own version of causation, responsibility and blame thus became a matter of fundamental, even existential, import for family members" (p. 149).

No More Westrays: Engaging Transformative Commemoration

In November 1997, Justice Richard, the Commissioner of the Westray Public Inquiry, (6) concluded that responsibility for the explosion rested primarily with the corporate management, but also that: "The Department of Labour through its mine inspectorate must bear a correlative responsibility for its continued failure in its duty to ensure compliance with the Coal Mines Regulations Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act" (Richard 1997:605). The inquiry conclusions indicated that the explosion was not an accident, nor the fault of the miners. For the families, it served to end the memory competition. The importance of this conclusion to the Westray families is reflected in the interpretative panels the WFG later developed. The panel shown in Box 1 appears first in the chronological ordering of the seven panels that they installed in the memorial park in 2001. The WFG used the title of the inquiry report, The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, to bring authority to its narration, without which, it might simply be read as the unsubstantiated beliefs of grieving relatives.

The conclusion of the Westray Public Inquiry brought "closure" to many WFG members. Many participants in our studies felt there were no further avenues to fight for justice; they had done all they could. For others, the conclusion of the report was seen as an opportunity to engage in transformative commemoration, defined herein as commemorative work aimed at social change. The clarity of the statements on culpability allowed the WFG to move their counter-memory activism from the particular (the Westray mine explosion) to the general (corporate negligence causing death or bodily harm), which led them to advocate for legislated changes making the workplace safer (i.e., "No More Westrays"). Like critical commemoration, transformative commemoration unites the personal and the political, or as Loseke (2007) and Schudson (1997) might say, the personal narrative has reinforced the cultural and organizational narrative, and has the potential to shape the institutional narrative. The WFG understand that what happened to them has implications for others. The new focus on social change advocacy is reflected in the panel shown in Box 1 when they write:
   The families ... have vowed the flame of remembrance will continue
   to burn--THEIR LIGHT SHALL ALWAYS SHINE. They go on to say: It is
   our hope that all who stand in this place will share our loss in a
   way that words can never describe. All of us, as citizens, must
   ensure such events never occur again.

Box 1
Interpretative panel designed by the Westray Families Group


Thus, in this period they make a commitment to long-term social change related to corporate responsibility for workplace safety. Given the confines of space, we briefly discuss a few of their transformative commemoration projects and practices.

As noted above, the design and installation of a set of interpretative panels was identified by some members of the WFG as a strategy for advocating social change because it would narrate "The Westray Story." Project leaders emerged who developed the panels with the assistance of a graphic designer. The panels were installed in the memorial park in May 2001. In 2006, these same project leaders requested the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry to revise the Westray panels in its "Coal and Grit" exhibit to reflect how the Westray mine explosion influenced Canadian labor and social justice history by reporting the conclusion of the Westray Public Inquiry (i.e., its conclusion on corporate negligence), the activism of the WFG, and the passing of a corporate liability bill (discussed below). The revised exhibit officially opened on the 16th anniversary of the explosion. Both museum strategies articulate the corporate negligence narrative; both advocate for change.

Their social change goal is revealed on the Web site. In the post-inquiry period, a new link was added entitled "Do Canadian Corporations Now Have the Right to Kill?" On this page, their activist voice becomes quite transparent. They call upon visitors to the Web site to help them ensure that the laws regarding corporate responsibility be changed to protect workers. In their words,
   There is a choice for all of us. Is it all over and forgotten, or
   will our response to the deaths of 26 men in the prime of their
   lives lead to a change in how we as a society expect employers and
   managers to treat the people who work for them? Maybe the Crown
   Attorney is right and, in the narrow technicalities of the current
   law, there was no smoking gun in Phillips' and Parry's hands, and
   they could not be convicted. The fact remains that they, and other
   senior officials like Clifford Frame and Marvin Pelley, should be
   brought before a court of law to answer for what they did do. No
   one can read Judge Richard's report without being moved to believe
   that what management did there must be a crime. Judge Richard
   experienced the attempts of Westray managers to use criminal
   technicalities to stop the Public Inquiry, and recognized that the
   'crime of corporate killing' needed to be added to the Criminal
   Code. In recommendation 73 of his report, he wrote 'The Government
   of Canada, through the Department of Justice, should institute a
   study of the accountability of corporate executives and directors
   for the wrongful or negligent acts of the corporation and should
   introduce in the Parliament of Canada such amendments to
   legislation as are necessary to ensure that corporate executives
   and directors are held properly accountable for workplace safety.'

The unequivocal conclusions of the Westray Public Inquiry were anticipated by labor unions. Following the release of the report, the United Steelworkers lobbied for changes to the criminal code. Bill C-45, (7) dubbed the "Westray bill," proposed amendments to the Criminal code with respect to the criminal liability of corporations ( Bills). As part of the lobby, the Steelworkers coorganized a 10th anniversary march with the WFG, bringing with them the black No More Westrays banner to reinforce in the minds of Canadians that what happened at Westray mine was a crime. We do not claim that Bill C-45 is a WFG memory project, nor do they. Rather, we suggest that their memory practices and projects served to keep the critical memory of Westray alive and their commitment to transformative commemoration led them to build the bridges necessary to help develop the political will to see Bill C-45 become law. The WGF worked with union lobbyists to approach Members of Parliament to get the corporate liability bill tabled. Bill C-45 went to Senate with all-party support. A representative of the WFG gave a presentation to the Canadian Senate, reminding the Senators that the victims were not anonymous individuals (Martin 2003). Bill C-45 was passed into law in March 31, 2004.


This case study illuminates the activist role the WFG played in memorializing Westray as a tragic example of corporate negligence causing death. We have argued that, as an enduring commemoration to their loved ones, the WFG worked actively and discursively to convey a critical commemoration of the Westray mine explosion, and that their memory orientations changed in response to their experiences in the aftermath of the explosion. In the year following the explosion the criminal investigation and prosecution were under way, suggesting that the corporate negligence narrative carried weight. Members sensed that the mnemonic community was broadly based and extensive. With criminal negligence charges laid, and with hundreds of businesses and community members supporting the development of the memorial park, they perceived that the public shared with them the belief that the mine managers were culpable. When charges were stayed shortly after the third anniversary of the explosion, this perception was shaken. Sensing that they were in jeopardy of losing the memory contest, the WFG worked tirelessly to restore the corporate negligence narrative in the public discourse (established a Web site, distributed We Remember Westray bumper stickers, shirts, and hats, used the media to publicize their responses to testimony given at the Public Inquiry, and aligned themselves with powerful unions which also narrate on corporate responsibility for workplace safety). When the inquiry report identified the mine managers and the mine regulators as responsible for the explosion, their commemorative strategies shifted once again. Through their museum projects and collaboration with unions lobbying for legislative change, the WFG continued to work to expand the mnemonic community and preserve a critical and transformative commemoration of Westray.

This study sheds light on Loseke's thesis that for personal identity narratives to be influential, they must interact and merge with narratives at the cultural, organizational, and institutional levels. The bereaved relatives rejected accident and victim-blaming narratives and actively promoted the corporate negligence narrative being articulated by Westray mine workers, including some of their own family members. When the criminal investigation led to criminal charges being laid against two mine managers, and with assurances that the case was strong, many family members believed it would be just a matter of time until convictions against mine managers were secured. When this did not happen, the families understood that there were others who would support their effort to advocate the corporate negligence narrative including surviving former Westray employees and unions. Some reporters helped shape the public's views on the plausibility of the corporate negligence narrative by highlighting political and judicial issues, and by airing the concerns of the WFG. The WFG drew on these resources to help convince the public of the authority of the corporate negligence narrative. They also understood that there were mnemonic actors at the cultural level. As Mr. Martin (2003) notes in his essay, "Westray has been the subject of a play, numerous books, and a documentary movie. There are dozens of songs about Westray. The Fifth Estate, CBC, has done several investigative reporting segments on the injustice of Westray. Macleans and Newsweek have published numerous articles. All this has been done and much more because people were, and are still, outraged that 26 lives could be taken and to this day no one at all had been held accountable" (p. 150). Mr. Martin notes that many organizational and institutional changes have occurred because Westray is remembered as corporate negligence causing death. He cites the passing of the "Westray bill" (corporate criminal liability legislation), as well as other legal changes that occurred as a result of Westray, such as amendments to the Coal Mines Regulations and the Occupational Health and Safety Acts, changes in the Public Prosecution, and changes across the country to emergency response procedures (Martin 2003:151-52). Mr. Martin conveys that the WFG is embedded in a broader mnemonic community that reinforces the corporate negligence narrative.

This is the first sociological study specifically aimed at exploring the counter-memory activism of a families group. We have shown that our participants narrated for themselves an activist role in the response to the Westray mine explosion. Joined by a common "biographical disruption," a group of strangers became organized around a shared narration of blame, and worked together to "fight" for justice. At the core, their desire and commitment to seek justice, and, in another sense, their "right" to seek justice, rests upon their family connection to the deceased mine workers. As one sister-in-law stated, "We always thought we'll do good in this and they won't be able to put somebody's life on the line after this, and they will have to answer to this and to think things out before the government does things and before the banks are so quick to give money out to have a business come in without thinking about what it is. Kind of thought maybe we were the strongest group, and that's why. It was our group that lost their men " (emphasis added). As noted by Verberg (2006), studies on Mothers of the Disappeared and Mothers Against Drunk Driving have not given analytical attention to the fact that the social change advocates are family members. Counter-memory studies sometimes mention "families" but again, the roles families play is left unexplored. Future research ought to explore the extent to which families facing a common biographical disruption forge a families group or social change organization, and how and why families or families groups struggle to influence social change.

This study provides support for the dynamics of memory perspective and the social construction of social problems perspective in that it reveals that relatively powerless stakeholders can influence social change by influencing how the public understand and remember a significant event. This case study illuminates that families can play a critical role in drawing the public's attention to key social justice issues, and in so doing, they can shape how the public will remember an event. Simon (2005:89) has suggested that the witnesses of an unjust tragedy can influence how the public remember the tragedy because their personal stories bring to light the human cost of the unjust tragedy. Members of the WFG attached personal trauma narratives to the corporate negligence narrative to impress upon the public that their personal problems reflected a broader social problem. In other words, the WFG reveal human-inflicted suffering, thereby evoking a proactive empathy (Douglass and Vogler 2003). Justice Richard's recognition that the explosion "ought not to have occurred" suggests that something needed to be done to prevent further tragedy. With charges now being laid under the new "Westray law," at least some family members feel their work was not done in vain.


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St. Francis Xavier University


Carleton University

(1.) Cameron (1974, as cited in McCormick 1998) estimated that 625 to 650 men have died in this area from "colliery misadventure" over the past 200 years.

(2.) In fact, participants in this study suggested that the requirement that all 26 families be represented by one lawyer for the Public Inquiry--"curious as it seemed at the time"--inadvertently helped to bring them together.

(3.) The confines of space limit a discussion about how and to what extent relatives were involved in the WFG. The active membership of the WFG did change over time, and various individual played various roles in various projects and practices. As the WFG responded to various contingencies, different relatives assumed different types and levels of involvement in different actions and projects that we conceptualize as commemorative practices. Those who emerged as leaders had tremendous support from other wives, parents, siblings, cousins, and other in-laws, many of whom also played vital public or behind-the-scenes roles. Local families were more involved than those "from away." For many, their activism surrounding "Westray" was all-consuming and exhausting for several intensive years. Over time, some family members had to pull back due to health concerns; some "lest faith" when the mistrial was declared; many more "moved on" at the conclusion of the Public Inquiry (1997) or after Senate approval of the so-called Westray bill (2003).

(4.) Highway signage uses the term Westray memorial park.

(5) The Web site has changed little since 2008; most of the content available when data were collected for this study can be round ct this Web address:

(6) The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster:

(7.) It extends the corporate criminal liability to all "organizations"; it adds new provisions which attribute criminal liability to organizations for the acts of their representatives; it amends Section 217.1 of the Criminal Code by clarifying the legal duty of those responsible for directing work to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to workers, and; it outlines sentencing principles for organizations. With respects to the definition of representatives of organizations, this term is defined broadly and extensively. For corporations, it includes everyone from rank and file employees through to senior officers: "include[ing], at the very least, a director, the chief executive officer, and the chief financial officer."

We thank the participants for sharing their narratives. The research was supported by grants from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Centre for Regional Studies at St. Francis Xavier University. We are grateful to Ronald Lambert, Lynda Harling-Stalker, Yvon Grenier, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

Norine Verberg, Department of Sociology, St. Francis Xavier University, PO Box 5000, Antigonish, NS, Canada B2G 2E8. E-mail:
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Author:Verberg, Norine; Davis, Christopher G.
Publication:Canadian Review of Sociology
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Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Feb 1, 2011
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