Canada Lost More Than Life at the Algo Centre Mall

The roof of a certified “safe” public mall collapses. Rescue efforts are called off as victims frantically tap for help in vain, buried alive, ten feet from daylight. Authority figures offer public pronouncements that somehow manage to be both meaningless and infuriating all at the same time. You’d think this was all part of some tragic third-world disaster, but no. It happened right here in Canada, and it proves that we’re losing three big things we used to have in abundance in this country.

The first thing that’s undeniably on the decline is our trust in the competence of technical professionals. One way or another, the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ontario was a piece of dangerous garbage. What else can you say when the roof of any public building collapses on a calm day in June? It was either designed as junk, or some slip-shod building company failed to live up to the construction or maintenance details that human life and safety depend on. Even if just one public building collapses like this in all of Canada, it proves that something is disgustingly rotten. This is strike#1 against a country that used to have the technical safety of ordinary public structures well in hand.

The Algo Centre Mall recently passed “engineering” and “structural” studies. That’s big strike#2. There was a time when engineers could be counted on to reliably verify the safety of things as simple as a mall. With engineers like the ones signing off on the Algo Centre Mall, who needs terrorists? How could such people be certified as engineers in the first place?

The third and possibly most disappointing thing in the Algo Mall disaster is how critical leadership lost its courage in Elliot Lake – the kind of courage that Canada used to have in spades. That’s strike#3.

When the roof on any simple public build in Canada caves in, it’s a shocking tragedy. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in decent countries. When rescuers are called off by officials, while victims are known to be alive in the rubble, it’s a shameful thing indeed. What’s even worse is when this kind of action is justified publicly by rescue professionals. And it has been, more than once. What can you say when the pros withdraw while people die a slow, ugly death in an unstable situation because “you cannot allow yourself to get caught up in the desire to do very good things at the serious risk of the people that are doing the work”?

Yikes! Really? So the Algo Centre Mall disaster zone was highly unstable. When was the last time anyone had the luxury of dealing with a stable, safe disaster site? And exactly how does a person come to choose a career as a professional rescue worker while also expecting they should avoid “serious risk”? We don’t seem to make heroes like we used to, and that begs a sobering question.

When did we stop raising the kind of Canadian leaders who rallied the troops up Vimy Ridge in 1917? When did Canada stop raising 19- and 20-year-olds capable of flying bombers over the English Channel, beating back the most dangerous regime in history in the 1940s? Who sold us the rubbish that serious risk is bigger than the ingenuity, determination and urgency of the best trained professionals Canada can muster? When did serious risk become grounds to stand back and let the helpless die? If there’s risk, reduce it. If there are people buried under tons of concrete, step up to the plate, put your life on the line and get them out. Elliot Lake is less than 8 hours drive from Toronto. How come it took days to get a decent crane to a modern city that’s just north of the Trans-Canada highway?

The only thing that would make the Algo Centre Mall disaster worse is if we somehow passed it all off as an unfortunate tragedy, failing to recognize it as a symptom of the systemic problem that it is. Sadly, Canada is on the downgrade technically, professionally and morally. I’ve lived long enough to see it plainly. I’m grieved and you should be, too. The Algo Centre Mall has important lessons to teach us. Let’s recognize that technical disasters, lapsed professionalism and cowardice hiding behind safety standards have no place in the Canada that so many died to keep free. Let’s also make sure we keep reminding ourselves what it means to be a hero.

His Excellency, the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada said it best at an awards ceremony honouring 44 brave, non-professional Canadian heroes in May 2011. “It is real-life heroes, the ones who rush headlong into danger with nothing but their wits, ingenuity and determination who truly make a difference”. Can we still find enough capable, hands-on leaders in this country who say “amen” to that, then roll up their sleeves and prevail? I sure hope so.