I first met Elizabeth Witmer about a year after my son was killed in a 1994 workplace explosion. But our paths crossed somewhat earlier than that following the trial of the employer responsible for Sean’s death.
I tell this story not because it is the most important of all the positive differences Elizabeth Witmer has made but because it was my first glimpse into the kind of person and politician she is and was: decisive, principled, compassionate, caring and always determined to do the right thing.
Elizabeth had been appointed as Ontario’s Minister of Labour, assuming the position some months after Sean passed away. Meanwhile, the Ministry’s lawyers had decided to plea bargain the charges filed under OHS regulations from seven down to two and to levy fines totaling $75,000. Our family wasn’t happy about the plea bargain and the amount of the fines could in no way fit the loss of life. Still, the defendants had already agreed to these terms before we found out about it so reluctantly we accepted that we were powerless to do anything about it.
We decided to see it through; to attend the sentencing hearing presided over by a Justice of the Peace. What followed next was simply mind-boggling. The JP, saying he thought the fines were too high, rejected the plea bargain and cut the amount in half. Outraged, I walked out of the courtroom, called the MOL’s Assistant Deputy and asked her to pass on my feelings to the Minister, whom I had not yet met. Less than a half hour later, the Minister announced her intent to file an appeal.
Since that time, our paths have intersected many more times. In the era of drastic Mike Harris cutbacks she prevailed in preserving the number of labour inspectors in the field. She was invaluable in her support of my founding of the Safe Communities Foundation in Canada. And last year she resigned her seat as a Conservative MPP and was appointed Chair of the Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. There, I am certain she continues to insure the WSIB does not leave behind its moral duty to support prevention principles in the aftermath of its formal prevention mandate being yanked and shifted to the Ministry of Labour.
At a time when many Canadians are distressed about the integrity of some of its political leadership, it lifts my spirits to be able to point to someone who is such a wonderful example of an Up-Stander – a person whose service to her province and country demonstrates the very best of public integrity and purpose.
Workplace Respect and Safety Champion, Culture Change Expert and Inspiring Speaker
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