RCMP launch criminal probe into COVID-19 death tied to massive Alberta meat plant outbreak

Ariana Quesada, 16, walked into the RCMP detachment in High River, Alta., on Friday and filed a formal complaint asking police to investigate potential criminal negligence in the death of her father.

Benito Quesada, a 51-year-old immigrant from Mexico supporting a wife and four children, was hospitalized with COVID-19 in mid-April, one of hundreds of workers at the town’s Cargill meat plant infected with the coronavirus.

He had been in a coma and on a ventilator when he died on May 7. His family had been barred from visiting — except to say goodbye.

The Quesadas are demanding accountability from Cargill, alleging the company didn’t do enough to protect Benito from the coronavirus.

“We have filed a complaint … to finally bring justice to my dad … to finally hold Cargill accountable for what they did,” Ariana Quesada said, fighting back tears.

“I spent Christmas with one less person to hug,” she said. “And all the executives and general managers, everyone at Cargill got to spend Christmas with their loved ones. And I did not get that.”

Workers prepare beef to be packaged at the Cargill facility near High River, Alta., before the pandemic was declared. The plant is the site of what was at one point the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America. (Name withheld by request)

The RCMP confirmed it has now opened an investigation.

“We have created a file, so to speak. An investigation has commenced,” Staff Sgt. Greg Wiebe, the detachment commander, told CBC News late Friday, noting the matter is in its preliminary stages as the RCMP review the complaint and assigns appropriate resources.

“It’s not going to be your routine investigation, certainly. There’s probably a lot of moving parts to it,” Wiebe said.

At least 950 staff at the Cargill plant — nearly half its workforce — tested positive for COVID-19 by early May in what remains the largest workplace outbreak in Canada.  

As part of the national food supply chain, slaughterhouses and meat-processing facilities were deemed essential by governments, and Cargill stayed open as the pandemic worsened. It continued operating until April 20, when it was shut down for two weeks because of the surging outbreak among its staff.

Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan declined to comment without seeing the complaint to police. But in an email on Saturday, he said that safety is a top priority for the company and that since the beginning of the pandemic, it has worked closely with provincial health and occupational health and safety officials.

“Maintaining a safe workplace has long been one of our core values, and we recognize that the well-being of our plant employees is integral to our business and to the continuity of the food supply chain throughout Canada,” the statement read.

Cargill is also facing a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals who had close contact with Cargill employees. They allege the company operated without adequate safeguards despite public health warnings.

Across Canada, at least 33 compensation claims for work-related deaths have been accepted by provincial insurance boards for people who contracted COVID-19 on the job, according to figures obtained by CBC News.

But the real number of workplace deaths from the illness is likely far greater, given that not all cases are reported and not all workplaces are covered by provincial compensation plans.

WATCH | Ariana Quesada hopes to ensure other families won’t suffer:

Family prompts COVID-19 police probe into Alberta meat plant — Canada’s largest workplace outbreak. 0:59

The RCMP probe in the Cargill case is the first known instance in Canada of police investigating a workplace-related COVID-19 death.

But there are other similar cases from the first wave of the pandemic that police have been asked to investigate.

A union representing front-line health-care workers in Ontario has called for investigations into the COVID-19 deaths of three personal support workers in the Greater Toronto Area who allegedly didn’t have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) in the early weeks of the health crisis.

The cases raise questions about the strength and effectiveness of Canada’s occupational health and safety system and its ability to protect essential workers from exposure to the virus.

Pressure to work despite positive COVID-19 tests

The complaint filed on Friday against Cargill cites the Westray Law, a Criminal Code provision named after a deadly mining disaster in Nova Scotia in 1992 that imposes a duty on all employers to take “reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm” to workers.

The Quesadas allege that Cargill failed to heed early public health warnings and failed to protect workers from a known, deadly threat.

“Employers need to do far better than what happened in High River in the spring,” said Michael Hughes, a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has been helping the Quesada family.

Cargill’s meat-processing facility in High River, Alta., on Jan. 8. The company is facing an RCMP investigation and a proposed class-action lawsuit following a large COVID-19 outbreak at the plant. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Hughes said that for a company such as Cargill, which reported revenue of $113.5 billion US in 2019, the threat of fines for labour and safety violations isn’t necessarily a strong deterrent, which is why the complaint was made to police.

“I think what the situation at Cargill really exposed is that there are severe limits to accountability” under current workplace rules, he said.

The written complaint suggests Benito Quesada died due to criminal negligence and alleges the following failures by Cargill to prevent the spread of the virus:

  • The company failed to provide adequate PPE. 
  • Workers on production lines were not physically distant.
  • Lunchrooms were crowded, with tables less than half a metre apart. 
  • Company medical personnel cleared workers for duty despite positive COVID-19 tests or symptoms.
  • Workers faced unpaid, temporary layoff if they didn’t report for work out of fear of the virus.
  • Workers were promised a $500 bonus for not missing a shift over a two-month period.

The family says that while Benito Quesada isolated at home as a precaution and told family members to stay away from him, he continued to go to work, motivated by the $500 that would have made a big difference for the family of six.

The RCMP investigation is now in its preliminary stages and no charges have been laid. The allegations have not been tested in court.

The CBC’s own investigation last spring found numerous workers who said they continued to work elbow to elbow and felt pressured to show up when sick as Cargill tried to keep its meat-processing lines moving.

Four workers said they were pushed to report for shifts or even cleared for duty by a company nurse, despite testing positive for COVID-19 or continuing to exhibit symptoms.

Take a look at a timeline of the Cargill outbreak:

Provincial health and safety inspectors did not conduct in-person inspections at the Cargill plant in the first few months after the pandemic was declared.

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety instead conducted an inspection via video link on April 14 — around the same time Benito Quesada was admitted to hospital.

Officials allowed the plant to remain open. Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen reassured staff the worksite was safe during a telephone town hall on April 18.

But two days later, with at least 360 confirmed cases among its workers, Cargill announced a complete shutdown for two weeks.

The Quesada family’s police complaint alleges Cargill managers failed to provide an accurate picture of conditions inside the plant during the province’s video inspection.

Cargill’s spokesperson said in a statement that provincial officials have been on-site multiple times during the pandemic and have approved of the company’s actions. The spokesperson also said the company’s operations meet or exceed federal health and safety standards. 

Police probes sought in Ontario

Police in Ontario have been reluctant to step in after receiving formal requests for criminal negligence investigations in the deaths of three front-line health-care workers.

Arlene Reid, 51, Sharon Roberts, 59, and Christine Mandegarian, 54, were all personal support caregivers who contracted COVID-19 in April. They worked in the homes of elderly patients or inside long-term care facilities.

Their union filed complaints last spring with police in Toronto and Peel Region against their three employers alleging criminal negligence and failure to provide adequate protective equipment to staff. The union also accuses provincial health and safety officials of failing to ensure that the essential workers were safe.

Arlene Reid, 51, Sharon Roberts, 59, and Christine Mandegarian, 54, were personal support caregivers in Ontario who died after contracting COVID-19 in April. They worked in the homes of elderly patients or inside long-term care facilities. (Submitted)

“A worker inside a home, a nursing home, happens to be a woman, and happens to be a woman of colour, dies because of an infection that she contracted at work. If this was a construction site, it would have been shut down immediately and investigated,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, which represents more than 60,000 front-line health-care workers in Ontario.

Stewart said health-care facilities in Ontario should have been much better prepared for COVID-19 given the recommendations that came from the public inquiry into the deadly SARS outbreak of 2003.

All three employers expressed sadness and offered condolences to the families of the workers who died. But they also flatly rejected the union’s claims, arguing each closely followed public health advice and infection control protocols.

“Facing the first wave of a global pandemic of the scale of COVID-19, Downsview Long Term Care Centre did everything possible to protect the health and safety of our workers and our residents,” James Balcom, chief operating officer at GEM Health Care Group, which owns the facility where Sharon Roberts worked, said in a statement to CBC News.

“These allegations by the union are false and highly irresponsible.”

Unlike the RCMP in Alberta, police in these three cases have not opened criminal investigations and have instead deferred to provincial coroners and the Ontario Ministry of Labour. Criminal charges carry more serious penalties than the provincial charges the ministry can impose.

Labour inspector investigations are ongoing in all three cases.

Health and safety system swamped by complaints 

Katherine Lippel, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, says provincial health and safety inspectors across Canada struggled to do their jobs in the early days of the pandemic.

She called it a “catastrophic” situation in which essential industries scrambled to protect workers while the provincial health and safety system was swamped by a wave of employee complaints stemming from fears of exposure to the virus.

Katherine Lippel, a workplace safety law expert at the University of Ottawa, says ideally, provinces would have more trained inspectors in the field to prevent workplace deaths. (Submitted by Katherine Lippel )

“On paper, the laws look pretty good. But in practice, there is no assurance on a day-to-day basis that we’re prepared for something like COVID-19,” Lippel said in an interview.

While asking police to investigate is serious business, Lippel said, Canada has a poor track record of actually prosecuting and convicting employers under the Westray Law for failing to protect workers. There have been only six convictions or guilty pleas under the law since it was passed in 2004.

Ideally, she said, provinces would have more trained inspectors in the field to prevent workplace deaths in the first place.

“The police tend to look for a criminal. They don’t look for the cause of the crime,” Lippel said. “And what we really need, if we’re going to have adequate prevention, is competent and numerous inspectors who are looking at the cause of the catastrophe.”

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