Coronavirus Canada Updates: RCMP launch first criminal investigation into COVID-19 death at Alberta meat plant

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A formal complaint has been filed with the RCMP in connection with the death of a worker at the Cargill meat plant in High River. It will be the first criminal investigation into a COVID-19 related workplace death in Canada.

The complaint was filed by Ariana Quesada, the 16-year-old daughter of Benito Quesada, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 in April. Quesada was one of hundreds of workers at the Cargill plant infected with the virus. He died in hospital during May.

His daughter is alleging criminal negligence, saying the company didn’t do enough to protect workers from the infection.

“We have filed a complaint … to finally bring justice to my dad … to finally hold Cargill accountable for what they did,” Ariana Quesada said, fighting back tears, “I spent Christmas with one less person to hug,” she said. “And all the executives and general managers, everyone at Cargill got to spend Christmas with their loved ones. And I did not get that,” it was reported.

The complaint alleges Benito Quesada died due to criminal negligence, citing the following reasons:

The company failed to provide adequate PPE.
Workers on production lines were not physically distant.
Lunchrooms were crowded, with tables less than half a metre apart.
Company medical personnel cleared workers for duty despite positive COVID-19 tests or symptoms.
Workers faced unpaid, temporary layoff if they didn’t report for work out of fear of the virus.
Workers were promised a $500 bonus for not missing a shift over a two-month period.
The Cargill plant was the site of a massive COVID-19 outbreak back in April, eventually infecting almost 1,000 workers, and closing the plant temporarily. It was the largest single outbreak in North America, and was linked to more than 1,500 infections and 3 deaths.

The High River plant employs more than 2,000 people, many temporary foreign workers.

As part of the national food chain, and therefore an essential service, meat processing facilities remained open during the initial lockdown.

The RCMP confirmed it has opened an investigation.

“We have created a file, so to speak. An investigation has commenced,” Staff Sgt. Greg Wiebe, the detachment commander, told CBC News.

Cargill issued a statement saying: “Maintaining a safe workplace has long been one of our core values, and we recognize that the well-being of our plant employees is integral to our business and to the continuity of the food supply chain throughout Canada.”

The High River plant is not the only Cargill facility to experience large outbreaks. In December, the Cargill plant in Guelph, Ontario closed after 82 workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Cargill is also facing a class-action lawsuit in connection with the High River outbreak, on behalf of persons infected through close contact with Cargill employees.

The lawsuit was filed in July by the Calgary-based Guardian Law Group and James H. Brown and Associates, alleges Cargill ought to have known “that the lack of protective measures [at its facility near High River] would affect not only their own employees, but those close to them as well.”

Across Canada, at least 33 compensation claims for work-related deaths have been accepted by provincial insurance boards for people who contracted COVID-19 on the job, it was reported.

The RCMP investigation into criminal negligence at the High River Cargill plant could be the first of many similar investigations.

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