TORONTO – A family whose personal tragedy sparked a five-year battle to make carbon monoxide detectors mandatory in all Ontario homes hopes other provinces will soon follow suit.
The Hawkins Gignac Act – named after members of a Woodstock family who died from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2008 – passed Wednesday in the legislature, paving the way for CO alarms, like smoke detectors, to be used in all homes.
John Gignac, whose niece died along with her husband and two children, said his family will never be able to fully recover from their deaths. But the legislation allows their memory to live on.
“It creates a legacy and it makes Laurie’s memory live on and not in vain,” he said.
“The family didn’t die for no reason. It’s helping to educate Canadians on the dangers of carbon monoxide.”
Former provincial police officer Laurie Hawkins, her husband Richard, their 14-year-old daughter Cassandra and 12-year-old son Jordan all died after a blocked chimney allowed carbon monoxide to seep into their home, which didn’t have a CO detector.
Carbon monoxide is colourless, odourless and tasteless, making it very difficult to detect.
The new law will allow the fire code to be changed so that all homes are required to have CO detectors, said Progressive Conservative MPP Ernie Hardeman, who pushed for the changes for five years.
Right now, only residences built after Aug. 6, 2001 are required to have CO detectors installed.
Yukon was the first to make it mandatory, Hardeman said. Now that Ontario is on board, other provinces could join in.
“I don’t think there’s any province immune from carbon monoxide poisoning,” he said.
“It’s not a unique problem to one little area in the province or one unique area even in the country of Canada. It’s all over.”
Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur said she hopes other provinces will realize the importance of CO detectors.
“Provinces always look at what their neighbours are doing,” she said before the final vote.
“So we take examples from elsewhere, and I hope that the action of the Ontario government today will convince other provinces to follow us.”
Hardeman introduced his first private member’s bill on CO detectors in 2008. But such bills rarely become law unless they’re backed by the government.
In a rare show of solidarity, all three parties in Ontario’s minority parliament agreed Wednesday to pass his bill without a recorded vote. Premier Kathleen Wynne even attended to add her voice to the all-party chorus.
It was a bittersweet day for members of the Hawkins and Gignac families who watched the debate in the legislature, some wiping away tears as politicians struggled to control their emotions as they spoke.
“The long and the short of it all is that we’ve got the message through to most of Ontario, now we want to get it through to most of the people in Canada,” said Gignac.
When he was a firefighter in Brantford, Ont., his fire department would be called to suspected carbon monoxide leaks eight to ten times a week, he said. But public awareness about CO poisoning has spread.
“Back then, it seemed to be something that slipped through the cracks, but now it’s very out in the open,” said Gignac, who’s made it his mission to educate the public as co-chair of the Hawkins-Gignac Foundation for CO Education.
Ontario’s new legislation expands the scope of the Fire Prevention and Protection Act to include unsafe levels of carbon monoxide, paving the way for a regulation change to require CO detectors in all homes.
It also allows fire departments to enforce the rules, just as they do with smoke detectors, Hardeman said.
Now that the legislation has passed, a technical advisory committee will look at changing the fire code, said Meilleur.
It’s not yet known when the new law will take effect, but the legislation is expected to be presented for Royal Assent before Dec. 14.
Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of fatal poisonings in North America, according to the Canada Safety Council, an independent not-for-profit organization. In high concentrations, it can kill in minutes.
When inhaled, it inhibits the blood’s ability to absorb and transport oxygen throughout the body. Eventually, vital organs including the brain are deprived of oxygen and become damaged.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning range from nausea and headaches to more severe signs such as vomiting and unconsciousness.