When her husband became seriously ill at a remote Manitoba Hydro job site, Valerie Nabess Head assumed he’d be flown to the nearest hospital.
But Joseph Head never made it.
Her partner of 32 years died during the bumpy ambulance ride she says pulled over several times to administer CPR, and shock him with a defibrillator.
“I fell to my knees saying this can’t be true,” the widow said upon hearing the bad news.
“He was promised to be choppered out of there.”
Now, in a lawsuit filed against Manitoba Hydro and Joseph’s employer, BBE Hydro Constructors, the family alleges not enough was done to save the carpenter’s life in 2014.
BBE is a consortium of four major firms that were awarded the $1.4-billion contract to build the Keeyask Hydroelectric Generating Station on the lower Nelson River in northern Manitoba, about 725 km northeast of Winnipeg.
It’s a massive project that Hydro says on its website is needed to meet the growing demand for electricity and, when completed, will generate power for 400,000 homes.
But, in a statement of defence to Valerie’s lawsuit, the Crown corporation says it’s not responsible for workers under contract to BBE.
“As a matter of law, the defendant Manitoba Hydro was not an employer, occupier of premises or otherwise a person who owed any legal duty to Joseph Head. As such, it is not a proper party to this action,” its lawyers state.
BBE did not respond to a request for comment from APTN. Its statement of defence is included with Hydro’s, added Valerie’s lawyer, Gene Zazelenchuk.
A spokesman for Hydro said the matter was before the courts and there would be no further comment.
Valerie says after Joseph died, BBE sent a condolence card and Hydro delivered a fruit basket.
“That fruit basket went out the door as fast as it came in,” she said in an interview with APTN News.
“He had just died and I was just angry.”
Her lawsuit seeks damages for Joseph’s “wrongful death,” along with loss of financial support, funeral expenses and costs. She alleges he’d still be alive if he received quicker medical care.
In an interview, she disputed Hydro’s claim of not being responsible, saying both it and BBE go out of their way to recruit Indigenous workers like Head, who was 65, for its mega projects.
“He was a Treaty man and very proud to be working for his province,” said Valerie, noting Joseph was involved in many projects on and off his home reserve of Opaskwayak Cree Nation near The Pas, Man.
In fact, Hydro says on its website Keeyask is a partnership with four northern Manitoba First Nations.
It even shows a pie chart highlighting the number of “Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal” workers, and mentions the availability of cultural ceremonies, a sweat lodge, and private place to smudge.
Yet, one of those employees died and Valerie says no one from Hydro met with her.
Even though she says “someone from Manitoba Hydro” called Oct. 16, 2014 to tell her Joseph had a headache and was enroute to hospital in the northern city of Thompson, Man., about two hours away.
Valerie questions how a construction camp of approximately 800 workers can operate without an air ambulance or medevac plane on site.
“I have documentation from people that work there that were told during orientation that they would be choppered out of there if they were sick or injured,” she said.
“They were even shown the chopper.”
Valerie says she spent hours calling around to locate her husband after the hospital in Thompson said he wasn’t there.
Finally, the RCMP in Gillam, Man., about 30 minutes away, told her to call the local fire department who confirmed he was at the 10-bed Gillam medical centre.
“The nurse came on the phone she told me to hold…the doctor came on and she said…‘I’m sorry to inform you that we couldn’t save your husband.’
“I just couldn’t believe it.”
The question of safety for workers at Keeyask was raised in the Manitoba Legislature May 7 by MLA Jon Gerrard (River Heights).
Gerrard said 22-year-old Todd Maytwayashing of Lake Manitoba First Nation was killed by a falling piece of steel at a workyard near Gillam 0n Jan. 17, 2018. He worked for Forbes Brothers Ltd., an Alberta company contracted by Manitoba Hydro to build a transmission line from Keeyask to a nearby station.
“Todd’s death is the third death at a Forbes Brothers worksite in the last year,” said Gerrard.
“Has the minister increased inspections at Forbes Brothers and Manitoba Hydro worksites and what other steps has he taken?”
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister promised to get answers for the family.
“I have taken this issue on personally and seriously. I am not pleased with the absence of compassionate response and timely response in some areas,” he told the legislature.
Valerie’s daughter-in-law Kristy Knox-Head is shocked at the poor communication with loved ones.
“Shouldn’t there be a protocol in place so if someone gets sick or injured the family is immediately contacted?” Knox-Head asked.
“They contacted her (Valerie) at 10 p.m. The ambulance left the camp at 8:20 p.m. So she wasn’t notified for about an hour and 40 minutes after they already left.”
It’s something Valerie’s lawsuit alleges is Hydro’s responsibility: “The living conditions at the Keeyask work camp (and) accessibility to medical treatment are entirely in control of the two defendants,” it says.
“(They) owed a duty of care to insure that that in the event of illness or injury, (Joseph) would receive reasonable medical care within a reasonable period of time.”
The family says Joseph, a father of two and grandfather of seven, experienced a brain bleed that caused a stroke, a heart attack and then death.
Hydro has previously said it had six paramedics on site and the medical care meets or exceeds provincial guidelines. It claims all protocols were followed and an ambulance team arrived within 30 minutes, which meets provincial standards.
Hydro is Manitoba’s major energy utility supplying both electricity and natural gas.
Construction on Keeyask began in the summer of 2014 and is expected to wrap up by 2021.