Whose deaths do we mourn?

No one should die when they go to work. That includes police officers, like OPP Constable Grzegorz Pierzchala, who was killed while responding to a vehicle in a ditch on December 27th.

My thoughts go out to his family, as they grieve their loss at his death. By all accounts, he was a wonderful young man, with a bright future ahead of him, who was much loved by his family, friends and colleagues. He should not have had his life cut short in such a senseless way.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 police officers from across Canada attended Constable Pierzchala’s funeral earlier this week. So did the Premier and the Lieutenant Governor, both of whom spoke. The funeral was live streamed.

Funerals for police officers who die in the line of duty are rituals filled with pomp and circumstance. According to a 2011 Globe and Mail article, the officer’s police service usually covers the cost of the public ceremony and puts together a logistical team to coordinate the event with input from the officer’s family. (If the family doesn’t want a public ceremony, then it won’t happen.) Flags in the community are flown at half-mast, at least for the day of the funeral, but often for much longer.

While police officers who come from across the country to attend the funeral do so on personal time, their travel and accommodation costs are usually paid by the police department and/or the police union.

Dying to work

People die on the job in lots of workplaces in Canada. According to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC),  924 workers died due to work-related causes in 2020. However, the AWCBC report notes that the actual rate of workplace deaths may be as much as 10 times higher than this number, because its data is drawn strictly from workplace incidents that are compensable. It defines a workplace fatality as:

“a death resulting from a work-related incident (including disease) that has been accepted for compensation by a Board/Commission.”

Of course, even one workplace death is too many, but it’s helpful to look at the numbers in different areas of work.

Farming remains the workplace with the highest number of fatalities, with an average of 85 deaths a year across Canada. Approximately 73 firefighters die annually across the country, with many of those deaths the result of cancers caused by their work. In 2021, 22 people died while working on construction sites and four died working in mines.

COVID-19 brought a new category of work-related deaths. According to the AWCBC, in 2020, 38 people died from work-related COVID, a number that increased to 138 in 2021.

While intimate partner violence deaths are not generally considered workplace deaths, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to include them in this discussion. For many women, their intimate relationship is their job. It may not pay a formal wage but, especially if the woman does not also work outside the home, she relies on her partner to provide the necessities of life. In Ontario last year, 52 women were killed in that context.

All deaths matter

According to Statistics Canada, 44 police officers in Ontario were killed while working between 1961 and 2009 – that’s less than one a year. Last year saw a major increase, with four officers killed. In other words, comparing these deaths to just those few categories I have mentioned here, fewer police officers died while at work than did farmers, firefighters construction workers, miners, and women with abusive partners.

(Last year also saw an increase – of 25% — in the number of people shot by police: 87, of whom 46 died.)

Nobody signs on to die when they take a job, but people going into some lines of work – police officers, in particular – do so knowing that their job involves a high level of risk. Police officers are provided with specialized training to help them be as safe as possible. They are also provided with tools – what some of us would call weapons – batons, tasers and guns – and the statutory authority to use them.

Lots of workers – including women whose partners abuse them – do not sign on for the possibility of lethality when they take a job, are not provided with special training and are not given tools – let alone weapons – to protect themselves. When they die on the job, no one covers the cost of even a basic funeral, let alone a public ceremony.

It seems to me that anyone who dies on the job – including women killed by their intimate partner – deserves the same pomp, circumstance and public money as are currently spent on funerals for police officers.

To do otherwise says that some deaths are more worthy of public commemoration than others, and that is just not right.

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