$21 Million – What Was Learned from the Algo Mall Inquiry?

Now that the criminal charges relating to the collapse of the Algo Mall have been dealt with, (a proper acquittal), critical aspects of the collapse and response to the collapse remain outstanding. The Ontario people spent over $21 million on a public inquiry, a sum that would have replaced the facility and adequately compensated everyone affected, with money to spare.


What did we learn and what have we done with what we learned?


The first lesson that taxpayers would probably agree has been learned, is that the inquiry was not worth $21 million. Indeed had the government known that this would be the cost, it should have concluded that economics trumped politics, and it would not have been commissioned.


Public inquiries need to have specific, limited objectives, realistic budgets, and firm cut-off controls.


So what else was learned from an inquiry that cost more than the replacement cost of the building, and will not restore families or a community?


The cause of the collapse was obvious from the first inspection of the collapsed structure. A quarter inch thick piece of weld metal that carried the roof loads from a beam into a column rusted through. What in hindsight is glaringly obvious was missed, and generally agreed as human error. It was not found in inspections because the focus was on the leaking that was compromising the everyday functioning of an important community facility.


If this incident is seen in the larger context of the rot which infests much of our aging infrastructures; buildings, parking structures, roads, bridges, power stations, transmission lines, etc., etc., a lot should have been learned. These facilities, because of neglect, lack of fore planning, and lack of proper funding, are reaching the end of their safe life. There is a need for identifying, prioritising, and instituting corrective measures for public safety. If restoring and replacing does not become a public initiative, more Algo Mall collapses are inevitable.


The rescue operation at the collapsed mall was one from which much should be learned in the context of terrorism, where history shows that potential attacks on structures and infrastructure, all of which are particularly vulnerable in Canada, are much more likely than building collapses.


The Report noted that the rescue effort was no model of perfection, and further, that an effective and efficient first response system is essential to the health, safety, and security of Ontario’s citizens. A number of the commissioner’s conclusions on the rescue effort point to the lack of an effective and efficient response system, and while he notes that we learn best from experience, it should not be necessary to repeat at a critical time some of the concerns he raised.


Issues such as; the lack of an incident action plan; understanding and respecting a mandated command structure of the Incident Management System; and a careful re-examination of Ontario’s urban search and rescue system. All these concerns are particularly appropriate in the current terror climate, and should by now have been resolved and tested in practical re-enactments, with appropriate public education and involvement.


Another issue that the enquiry addressed was the role of self-regulation in the engineering profession, which cast light on the place of self-regulation in a Uberized world. Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) was established in 1922 and given special status by government to control who could practise engineering and under what conditions. It is clear that society has moved dramatically away from reliance on codes of ethics observed in what is now the dim past.


Following the disclosure of corruption in the engineering community in Quebec, the engineering regulator in that province introduced ethics as a way forward, mostly in an effort to regain a lost trust.


In respect of oversight of the practice of professional engineers, PEO, a $25 million a year operation with over 100 employees, is clearly not sufficiently performing a vital role of a self-regulator, protecting the interest of public safety, nor is it subject to sufficient scrutiny from the Attorney-General who oversees its role. As the Commissioner wrote about the actions over many years of the members it regulates, “some engineers forgot the moral and ethical foundation of their vocation and profession – to hold paramount the safety and welfare of the public”. Nor were they effectively reminded, and monitored by professional guidelines and practise standards, by their regulator.


Toward determining the future of self-regulation of all professions, an independent analysis such as the McRuer report of the 1980’s is long overdue; their spending, governance, performance in fulfilling regulatory roles in an environment where less regulation is possible or perhaps wanted, and the cost/benefits to society. The real protection of the public, as the inquiry revealed, demands no less.


The Report of the Elliot Lake Inquiry should be taken off the shelf, dusted off, and actions taken now on the lessons learned, for the protection of the public who paid for it.

This Media Release