This year marks the 100th anniversary of Ontario’s first Royal Commission on workers’ compensation, conducted by Chief Justice Sir William Meredith from 1910 to 1913. To celebrate this centennial and bring awareness to the ongoing struggle of injured workers, a "People’s Commission" has been appointed by injured workers and activists to explore the state of the worker’s compensation system in Ontario.
Playing the part of the present-day Meredith is Dr. Robert Storey, Director of Labour Studies at McMaster University and author of the forthcoming People’s Commission Report on Workers Compensation.
Storey and acting Secretary and co-Commissioner, Carol Elston, who is a PhD student at Guelph University, have been traveling across Ontario since May 2013. They have sat for 11 hearings, listening principally to injured workers and some community legal advisers.
Elston says that although it is often painful to listen to the stories workers have to tell, their voices need to be heard. "As Ontarians, Canadians, we have an obligation to do something with this information," says Elston.
The Commission’s findings and other research will be presented at No Half Measures, an International Conference to be held in Toronto from October 31 to November 2. Conference panels will explore the efficacy of present-day workers compensation systems and how justice for injured workers can better be achieved today.
Justice and humanity speedily rendered?
While conducting his commission, Chief Justice Sir William Meredith did 99 interviews but heard from only one injured worker. This time around, almost all of the commission’s interviewees are injured workers.
"We’re thinking we’re going to have a much better understanding of what the situation is than Meredith did at that time," says Storey.
Blair Markle*, a member of the Bright Lights Injured Worker group, presented at one of the Toronto hearings in August. Markle agrees that the commission would be incomplete without contributions from injured workers. "Most educated people do not know what happens to the individual," says Markle, "they cannot really put themselves in my shoes."
In 2008, after six months on the job, Markle developed a knee injury that prevented her from walking. She had always been physically active and considered herself to have excellent fitness before her injury.
When she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) dismissed the knee injury as the result of old age and pre-existing conditions, but Markle says it was the poor conditions of her work that caused the injury.
As a temporary letter carrier for Canada Post, Markle walked a different route almost everyday. It often took twice as long to complete the route because unlike full-time workers, Markle had no time to figure out the most efficient way to go.
Markle felt "guilty" and "stupid" for the slower work pace. "It’s like everyday is your first day, but I couldn’t claim overtime," Markle explains. Markle's mouth remained shut because the potential of being fired at will was too great.
Markle came close to homelessness after accruing thousands of dollars in debt for medical and living expenses. When she could no longer work, Markle was forced to move to a smaller apartment, and then a boarding house, as savings dwindled. "Had it not been for some good friends," Markle explains, "I would have been out on the street."
Five years after her knee injury, Markle has yet to receive compensation from the WSIB.
Though some employment insurance and loans have been granted through other provincial welfare bodies, claiming even that small amount of social assistance has required a continuous fight and constant justification. On top of which, Markle explains, the Worker’s Compensation system was designed to take injured workers out of the welfare system and "the WSIB should not make injured workers [like me] go on public assistance."
By speaking out about this experience, Markle hopes to bring awareness to the general public about the hardships that injured workers face.
"A regular person doesn’t have the foggiest notion," says Markle. "We only wake up when it happens to us."
The historic compromise
For the better part of the 20th Century, the Meredith Report has formed the basis of Ontario’s workers’ compensation system, which has been recognized and emulated across Canada.
As Meredith acknowledges in his report, his was a time of great uncertainty. The rapid changes brought on by industrialization led to social unrest around the world.
As a former leader of the Ontario Conservative Party, Meredith was no labour radical. His goals were to create a fair and dependable compensation system that would appease the demands of workers at a limited and predictable cost to employers.
Towards that end, Meredith designed a compensation system based on the "historic compromise:" workers forfeited their right to sue employers in exchange for a non-adversarial employer funded compensation system that would deliver prompt benefits for as long as a worker’s disability lasted. An independent board was established to try the cases; effectively removing injured worker compensation from the regular court system.
Meredith’s proposed system was not entirely perfect. His initial recommendations excluded domestic and agricultural labourers -- two groups that have historically been marginalized from decent labour standards.
Yet for the majority of workers, the Ontario government’s adoption of Meredith’s principles as the 1915 Workmen’s Compensation Act meant due process and the guarantee of at least some injury compensation.
The meanings of Meredith
Like the Bible or the Constitution, Meredith’s report contains the founding principle of Ontario’s workers’ compensation system. And in that same fashion, Meredith’s principles are invoked and re-interpreted by anyone looking to change that system -- be it for better or for worse.
"There’s a contest of what Meredith’s principles actually are" Storey explains, "and it’s not an academic exercise by any stretch of the imagination. It has real practically important implications for how the system looks, how it operates, what it’s philosophy is, what it’s mission is and it’s impact on injured workers."
Like so many of Ontario’s social assistance programs, the workers’ compensation system has been under attack since the late 1980s.
Rather than seeing compensation as a public right, politicians throughout the political spectrum have compromised Meredith's principles by redesigning the compensation system in the image of private insurance companies. The irony is that these changes are often made in the name of Meredith’s principles, even as they turn the no-fault system into an increasingly adversarial one in which injured workers must come before the board, "cap in hand," to prove that they are worthy of compensation.
As Storey explains, "You have employer groups and WSIB groups saying 'we’re making these changes based on Meredith’s principles' and we’re saying no you’re not. Those changes aren’t Meredith’s principles. Here are Meredith’s principles."
In the face of the increased surveillance of injured workers, shrinking legal aid funding and a more adversarial WSIB, Storey and Elston hope that the People’s Commission will shed light on the struggle of injured workers and lead compensation policymakers in a more progressive direction. They have also been happy to observe the galvanizing effect the hearings have had among injured workers.
On Manitoulin Island, injured workers organized a meeting group in anticipation of the Meredith hearing -- and they continue to meet.
For Storey, this type of mobilization is the most positive outcome of the hearings: "The more injured workers listen to each other the more they realize that their cases are not individual, there are similarities. The empathy begins to flow, the understanding begins to flow, and from there they develop a collective voice from an individual voice."
It is from here, Storey explains, that the personal pain of the injured worker transforms into a powerful political tool for change.
*Markle is a pseudonym. The worker asked that we not use their real name because they say that they are treated differently when people know they are an injured worker.
For more information on the People’s Commission, Meredith’s Principles, and the upcoming No Half Measures Conference visit the website.
Ella Bedard is an MA student in History at the University of Victoria. She studies Canadian Labour and Indigenous History, and is a proud member of the Teaching Assistant’s union, CUPE Local 4163. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.