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When Institutions Fail Us

Tue, 08/07/2018 - 08:39 -- Mike Czechowicz

We put a lot of faith in our government and various institutions to keep us and our loved ones safe.  Most people don’t expect that the tap water they drink may kill them.  But that’s what happened in Walkerton, Ontario in the summer of 2000. With a population of less than 5000, 2300 fell ill and seven died from E. coli contamination in the city’s wells.  

When parents send their children off to school, even though most are aware of the scourge of bullying, they don’t expect that this might end in their child’s death. But that’s what happened to ten-year-old Myles Neuts, six days after he was found hanging from a hook in a school change room, on Feb. 6, 1998. Doctors, determining that the boy had irreversible brain damage took him off life-support.

When children put their aging parents, who can no longer care for themselves, in a nursing home they don’t expect that they will die there from insulin overdoses.  But that’s what happened to eight people between June 2007 and August 2016, living in various old age/retirement homes throughout southwestern Ontario.

The three instances above, which are well known to many living in these parts, are but a few of a myriad of situations which hapless citizens are confronted with in a course of a lifetime, some making it out alive, and the ones who don’t, at least leave behind a legacy as bellwethers for what will hopefully lead to better oversight of these faulty institutions in the future.

The three tragedies mentioned can all be blamed on the decisions and actions of single individuals, who were either ignorant, evil, or mentally ill, but the fact that they were not identified and dealt with earlier show the systemic failure of systems which have been put in place to protect us but have been found to be terribly lacking or outdated.

The inquiries that often follow such tragedies, two of which I had the opportunity to sit in on, were frightening in the way they highlight a complete breakdown in the institutional chain of command.  During these inquiries, which do not assign blame but rather give recommendations so similar mishaps do not happen again, the witnesses, many of whom, would be culpable in a criminal court come armed with lawyers each squirming their way out knowledge and responsibility of the events going on around them, often blaming others. The inquiries make for an acute education in how institutions, meant to protect us, and ones we put our trust in, often shine a light on the worse aspects of humanity.  And it’s not necessarily maliciousness that is the culprit but rather indifference.

Government regulations and bureaucracies are often criticized for being too cumbersome on businesses and often the term, “nannyism,” is used to describe governmental or institutional policies viewed as unduly interfering with personal choice. It’s a fine line for elected officials to distinguish between the rules that keep us safe and those which are overbearing intrusions in our lives.  

It’s clear from our history of terrorist attacks: planes crashing into buildings, bombs being planted on trains or at marathons, and trucks mowing people down on sidewalks that there is little any government can do to thwart a determined and creative murderer. But when we place our faith in institutions we hope that people who work there are stable, and professional. When the actions of one person can make entire infrastructures come crashing down, leading to the preventable death of one or many, it is incumbent on these institutions to do thorough due diligence so that the chances of it happening again are greatly diminished. In our dangerous world it is the least we can hope for.

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