Award winning Vancouver Sun investigative journalist Gordon Hoekstra says graduating from Langara College in 1992 and getting his first journalism job at the Prince George Citizen was a “huge turning point” in his life. So was his first major investigation. Below, Hoekstra answers questions about his early, award-winning work on logging truck safety. The series of 35 stories, called Dying for Work, earned The Citizen a Michener Award in 2006.
How did you first find out about the logging truck safety issue?
While I was at the Citizen I was covering the forest industry in general. The softwood lumber dispute was happening, and lumber prices and mills closing down were in the news.
There were also times when I would hear from someone in the community or through the RCMP that a log truck driver had been killed in an accident. One day I made a list about how many people had been killed and it wasn’t insignifcant.
What did you do after making the list?
I asked the then-Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) for statistics about deaths. I seem to recall they said, ‘Well, it’s hard to give you that information because we don’t keep it that way.’”
I got some information, but it wasn’t useful, so I started asking more questions. Whenever someone says ‘no’ to a reporter, it makes you want to dig more.
How did you continue your investigation with limited access to data?
I started having conversations with truckers, who told me about working long hours on narrow roads. ‘It’s always push, push, push,’ they said. They really felt they were working around the clock.
That’s not very safe, so I started making a serious effort to find out how many people had died that decade. I went through the newspaper database, started requesting coroners reports and made freedom of information (FOI) requests for WCB investigation reports.
What did you find out from the FOI requests?
In about a half dozen of the deaths there had been quite significant recommendations made trying to address safety issues, yet very little action had been taken.
There had been specific recommendations about roads, so I took two or three trips out to those sites. One time I actually brought a big tape measure and measured the road.
What was the impact of the series that followed?
I wrote stories about how around two dozen drivers had died in a decade, how drivers were expected to continue to die, about the industry, and how things could have been fixed and they weren’t. As a result, the province hired a forestry coroner and announced more than $20 million in upgrades to forestry roads.
The impact the investigation had is the kind of thing that fuels my journalism.
About Langara College’s 49 Langarans Celebrating its 49th year on 49th Avenue, Langara is honouring 49 Langarans; those who are making an impact in the community and have helped shape the College into what it is today. From theatre directors and journalists to small business owners, community advocates, and dedicated employees – the stories of the award recipients are as varied as the College’s journey over the past 49 years.
Meet the 49 Langarans at beyond49.langara.ca