Huge public grief for Guelph workplace death
When I heard about Constable Jennifer Kovach’s accidental death by traffic accident in Guelph last week, I felt sick. She was only 26, and died suddenly, for no easy reason, perhaps just a slippery road.
It was a workplace accident, in a job that is regarded as public service. Her mother, Gloria, is also a public servant, a city councillor with a long record of allegiance to her community. So the story was hugely newsworthy, and the city poured out its condolences to the family.
My deepest sorrow was for Jennifer’s father and stepmum, away on vacation in the tropics when her car went astray and collided with a city bus. They would have heard the news in a strange place, a terrible predicament followed by a lonely, isolated journey home.
This morning was Jennifer Kovach’s funeral. I knew it would be a large public event, because police funerals just are. But nothing prepared me for the scale of it. I happen to work right on the procession route, near the city’s hockey arena where the public service would take place at 11:30 am. Even before 9, my street was closed to traffic. Other road closures and the arrival of thousands of police officers from out of town turned the downtown core eerily silent. A three-story high Canadian flag hung vertically over the main square, suspended from the ladders of two Guelph fire trucks.
By 10 o’clock the procession is in full swing – waves of city officers, male and female, from Toronto, London and other cities, plus OPP constables, RCMP officers in red tunics, horses, bagpipes, drums, and even a pretty hefty contingent of barking police dogs with their handlers. The street is quiet as the initial wave passes, before the band appears, just the swish-swish-swish of their pant legs brushing in unison.
The mood is sombre and highly respectful; the organization is military in its precision, as you’d expect. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said “thousands” of officers. They line our street for several blocks, forming a wall of deep navy jackets and caps on both sides, several deep, waiting for the funeral hearse.
When it arrives, the limousine is the climax of this mourning parade. But the sight of the heart-broken Kovach family walking in a tight clutch behind the long black car, buffeted by cold wind and a light snow, seems more sad than if they’d just been on their own somehow. Everyone salutes them, but they look neither left nor right as they pass, swallowed by grief, not by the phalanx of police officers.
It will take almost an hour for the huge procession to work its way into the hockey arena and the overflow venue across the street, our city’s concert hall. (The 25 police dogs are quietly led away into the “canine unit” vehicles that fill the parking lot across the street from my building.)
I have an engagement at 11 am – I’m teaching writing to a class of Grade 6 students at Waverly school. We begin by talking about the funeral, because I arrive late due to the congestion downtown. One of the students readily volunteers Jennifer’s name when I ask if they know what’s up. I’m not surprised to learn she’s a family friend, and looks a little upset. The tentacles of the tragedy spread throughout the city, I learn. Such is community.
Still, if I had been free, I’m not sure I could have gone to the funeral. Something about the scale of it makes me uneasy. It’s not any lack of sympathy for the family or the profession. But I don’t understand the breadth of public grief for this sort of death – when an average of four Canadians perish every working day in workplace accidents or from occupational disease.* It’s not even a rare event in little old Guelph. Just a couple of weeks ago, a landscaping company in town was fined $15,000 because of an accident involving their employee Chad Moore, 29 years of age, who was electrocuted while installing Christmas lights.
It’s right to honour and mourn those who die at work – no matter what the profession or circumstances. In today’s case, literally thousands of hours and who knows how many public dollars are devoted to the memorial. I’m okay with that too, but I wonder who makes the decision about which deaths get recognized, and which are basically ignored? Police, fire and emergency service work has its dangers and I know it can involve situations and threats most of us never have to face, and for that we can be thankful.
But policing is nowhere near the most dangerous job in Canada; I’m not even sure it makes the top 10 for workplace fatalities each year. Mining, fishing, logging, construction and farming are all much more likely places to die on the job. That’s right: it’s more dangerous to install roofs than it is to police the streets.
Today, the city buses all display the slogan “R.I.P. #72” (Jennifer Kovach’s police number). That’s cool, a nice way of remembering her death and acknowledging the city’s connection, through its public bus service, to the accident.
Will a similar memorial or bus slogan ever be granted to someone like Chad Moore, also killed while working for the benefit of others? Or to think about it another way, would we have staged a public memorial if the bus driver had been the victim of the crash?
It’s 2:30 pm now, I’m back in my studio, and my street is again full of police officers as they leave the funeral. Church bells peal next door from the St. George’s bell tower. There’s chatter, and even laughter outside my window, which I understand – the officers have endured over five hours of marching, standing, cold and emotion. The snow is still blowing in from the north, and the Kovach family has gone on to the graveyard, to complete their mourning under this afternoon’s brooding, grey skies.
It’s a sad day for sure. Guelph did well in honouring one of its citizens, and highlighting the value of public service. But it’s also hard to accept that such losses happen several times a day, many times a week, to other families across the country – minus the outpouring of public recognition and support that is.
My short video of the funeral procession is here: https://vimeo.com/62362680
* Does this number shock you? Four work-related deaths per working day? Does the figure seem unbelievable or made up? Surely if four people were killed every day at work, we’d hear more about it, right? This number derives from Workers’ Compensation claims across the country, so it is hard data (it may even be an under-estimate, because not all industries are covered by Workers’ Comp). Over an 18-year period, from 1993 to 2011, there were an average of 898 workplace fatalities per year in Canada. Divide that by 230 working days per year and you get an average of 4 per working day. (Sources below.**) In recent years (2008–2011), the average is higher, at close to 1,000 per year; things are getting worse – less safe – not better. So why, again, don’t we hear about these deaths? Many reasons. About half of them are from disease, not catastrophic accidents. Automatically, they’re a lot less visible. They get reported to Workers’ Comp, but don’t make the news. Most are in industries that are just a lot less visible than say policing – they occur in mines, on fishing boats, in the woods or on farms – far from the media glare. An editor friend of mine at the Guelph Mercury says that even urban industrial accidents tend to get hushed up because companies see death as bad publicity. That’s perverse when you think about it, since it’s the publicity surrounding a police death that highlights it as a social loss, not just a family one. Finally, from my quick reading of the literature, there is one huge, silent killer in Canada – asbestos. It seems that somewhere between a quarter and a third of all workplace deaths are asbestos-related, across several industries. Get a tiny bit of that stuff in your lungs at work and it can fell you suddenly, many decades later, from mesothelioma, a very quiet and private way to die, no parade, no memorial.