Criminal charge in young worker’s death sends strong message, labour group says. Police add criminal charge to supervisor alleged to have broken provincial safety law

Nicholas Chenier, who died on the job while working for Best Green Hedges in 2023, was saving up to get his own place, a courtroom heard last week. He was 20. (Photo submitted by Jennifer Chenier).

Guy Quenneville · CBC News ·

A criminal charge laid against a supervisor in the death of a young worker in Ottawa marks a rare but important step toward preventing future workplace fatalities, the local labour council says.

Last week, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) announced it had charged a manager at Best Green Hedges — a small company with up to 18 employees — with one count of criminal negligence causing death.

The charge stemmed from the May 2023 death of 20-year-old Nicholas Chenier, who was killed when his battery-powered trimming attachment touched a 16,000-volt power line while he was landscaping bushes between two homes in Manotick.

In a separate, non-criminal court proceeding on Thursday, Best Green Hedges’ director, Sheldon Bestgreen, pleaded guilty for failing to ensure his company complied with Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA).

“[I] believed my company was doing what was necessary to keep our workers safe. I realize it was not,” Bestgreen said in a statement shared with CBC after he was handed a $45,000 fine plus a victim impact surcharge.

Supervisor Steven Deans was also charged under the OHSA for allegedly failing to take every reasonable precaution to protect Chenier.

But at the request of his lawyer, Fabienne Lajoie, Deans’ OHSA matter was adjourned to May 30. His criminal charge was announced only hours before Bestgreen’s sentencing hearing began, and Lajoie said Deans needed time to consider his options.

According to the agreed statement of facts filed for the OHSA matter, on the day Chenier died, it was just him and another worker — not Deans — at the site.

Lajoie declined to comment to CBC about Deans’ criminal charge. Deans will be back in court on May 29.

Mom taking part in Sunday ceremony

While Chenier’s mother Jennifer described Bestgreen’s fine on Thursday as “a slap on the wrist,” she was “extremely happy” to hear about the criminal charge against Deans, calling it “a little bit of hope after the disappointment today.”

Sean McKenny, president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council, said his group believes it’s the first time someone’s been charged with criminal negligence causing death in an Ottawa workplace fatality.

Ever since the so-called Westray law came into effect two decades ago, the labour council has been calling on police forces to take a stronger role in the investigation of job site deaths.

The federal legislation was enacted in 2004 after a methane explosion ripped through the Westray coal mine in Nova Scotia in 1992, killing 26 miners. It’s intended to hold companies and individuals criminally responsible for workplace deaths.

“If there [were] no workplace fatalities, there’d be no need to see those kinds of charges laid. But in that regards, we’re pleased,” McKenny said.

“The hope is that it sends a message to other employers, to the community, that they have to pay attention to health and safety or what will happen is charges like this, in addition … to the Ministry of Labour charges.”

Both the OPS and Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General declined to say if the charge against Deans represents such a local precedent, with the ministry saying it would be inappropriate to do so while his case is before the court.

Regardless, that sort of charge in Ottawa is “extremely rare,” said Steven Bittle, an associate criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.

According to the United Steelworkers union, between 2004 and 2022, the Westray amendments have been used in approximately 23 incidents to bring criminal negligence charges in cases of serious worker injury and death.

As of early 2022, there have been only nine successful prosecutions, according to the union: four in Quebec, four in Ontario and one in British Columbia.

Both the labour council and Jennifer Chenier said they’d be taking part Sunday in the annual National Day of Mourning Ceremony for Workers Killed or Injured on the Job.

Sunday’s commemoration in Vincent Massey Park comes just one week shy of the anniversary of her son’s death.

“It’s been a long, hard year,” she said.