Union wants police to 'compel' witnesses in Claridge construction site death

Claridge stalling investigation into worker's death, police say

Ottawa's largest trade union is calling for police to push harder in their investigation of Olivier Bruneau's death at a Little Italy construction site, following a CBC News report about how the probe has stalled due to reluctant witnesses.

"We're shocked and frustrated," said Sean McKenney, president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council, which represents more than 50,000 trade workers in the city.

McKenney is urging police to treat the investigation the same way they would a fatal stabbing or shooting.

Bruneau died on March 23, 2016 at the site of a massive excavation pit at the corner of Preston Street and Carling Avenue.  A giant chunk of ice broke off the walls and struck 25-year-old as he worked at the bottom of the nine-storey hole.  

There were approximately 30 workers at the construction site of the Claridge Icon condominium tower when Bruneau died, according to police. Some worked for developer Claridge, while others — including Bruneau — worked for Bellai Brothers Construction Ltd.

Police sources told CBC News no Claridge employees have been interviewed to date.

"To wait until a witness comes in is absurd," McKenney said. "They know who these employees or witnesses are. Police should be more direct in compelling them to come forward and speaking to them." 

McKenney is concerned a power imbalance may be keeping witnesses from talking.

"I believe individuals are not saying what they want to say or say what they do know for fear they will be turfed and that they will be out of work," McKenney said. "They're worried it will affect their families as well."

No law to compel cooperation: lawyer

The case is the first time Ottawa police have done a criminal investigation of a workplace death. Police started considering criminal negligence charges last June, three months after Bruneau's death.

Police cannot force a person to come in for an interview unless they make an arrest. Even in that case, people don't have to speak to police.

"There is no law which compels a person to cooperate with police," said defence lawyer Leo Russomanno, "And the right to silence and the right against self-incrimination are rights that pre-date the charter — it goes back centuries."

Russomanno said the only time a person can be compelled to speak in a criminal investigation is if they are subpoenaed to testify in court by a judge — and that's only if they are deemed to have relevant evidence to give.

Safety issues persist, union says

Even though the Claridge Icon site has been under increased scrutiny from the Ministry of Labour since Bruneau's death, McKenney said he has spoken to workers in recent months who don't feel safe.

On Thursday, the province filed charges against Claridge, Bellai and two supervisors under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The eight charges allege the corporations and the individuals failed to remove debris from the excavation wall and failed to protect workers from falling ice.

The corporations could face fines of up to $500,000 per conviction, while individuals could face fines of up to $25,000 or 12 months in jail.

McKenney said criminal charges would be the best way to keep workers safe.

"What kind of fine can you put on a person's life? This was an individual in his prime — with a wife and a family who loved him dearly — who went to work one day and didn't return at night."

A lawyer for Claridge declined to comment and Bellai Brothers did not respond to CBC's inquiries.

The first court date related to the Ministry of Labour charges is March 30.