Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Counter-Memory Activism in the Aftermath of Tragedy: A Case Study of the Westray Families Group

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Counter-Memory Activism in the Aftermath of Tragedy: A Case Study of the Westray Families Group

Article excerpt

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. …

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