Not just another dead coal miner

Steve Drake Jr. won a six-year battle to keep a promise to his dead father

STEVE DRAKE WANTED HIS DEATH TO MATTER. He didn’t want to be just one more dead coal miner. His son, Steve Jr., promised to make sure his dad wasn’t. He had no idea how hard it would be to keep that promise.

All Steve Drake Sr. wanted was to have an autopsy done on his body after he died to prove to the WCB (Workers Compensation Board) that his lungs were ruined after working 40 years underground. Getting an autopsy and an accurate cause of death should have been straight forward. It wasn’t.

It turned into a quest for the truth through years and years of mistakes, excuses, buck passing and backtracking. Revealing a system of after-death procedures that were riddled with flaws and hopelessly inadequate.

“It took more than 2,109 days, 10 legal decisions and $108,000, but I kept that promise,” says Steve Jr. “I call these my fight stats, as this was a fight. That’s the time, the energy and everything else to uncover the truth.”

Four wrongs to start with

Steve Jr’s long quest started with his father's death in 2012 and a request for a complete autopsy to include an examination of both his father’s lungs for workers compensation purposes.

“I thought it was a simple request,” he says. “I was wrong.” Nothing was done right.

What Steve Jr. wanted—and what his father was entitled to for WCB purposes—was a full forensic autopsy. What his father got instead was a clinical autopsy.

Steve Jr. says this happened because the autopsy authorization form was poorly designed and used misleading language that could cause a breach of an injured worker’s right to a full forensic autopsy. Which it did.

“It was a wrong autopsy, at a wrong hospital, by the wrong pathologist, producing a wrong cause of death.,” says Steve Jr.

Not about to stop

On March 27, 2013, the clinical pathologist with the CBDHA (Cape Breton District Health Authority) signed the autopsy report. The lungs weren’t on the list of clinical findings. No cause of death listed.

Steve Jr. wouldn’t let the matter die. The more officials denied, or tried to explain away their lapses, the more he kept up the pressure to get them to do the right thing by his father. He kept it up for more than two years.

Then, on July 27, 2015, he caught a break: officials admitted making a mistake in who had been put in charge of the case to begin with. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Matthew Bowes took over jurisdiction the case and conducted a “death investigation.”

True cause of death revealed

Seven months later, Bowes added a twist: he certified immediate cause of death as complications of C. difficile diarrhea with simple coal workers pneumoconiosis, atherosclerotic coronary artery disease and chronic kidney disease contributing. Bowes released an amendment to Steve Sr.’s death certificate.

Steve Jr. immediately provided Bowes’ report and death certificate to the NSHA (Nova Scotia Health Authority) and the WCB, but both organizations refused to accept Dr. Bowes’ opinion or certification of the cause of death as conclusive.


The identification of C. difficile as the cause of death made all the official stonewalling even more suspect.

The NSHA had yet another expert review everything. He declared the chief medical examiner of Nova Scotia was wrong: he listed “hypertensive heart disease” as the major cause of death. He did, however, agree that the condition of Steve Sr.’s lungs contributed to his death. Case closed.

“They slammed a door in my face,” says Steve Jr., “they stopped returning my calls and wouldn’t return my emails.”  But Steve Jr. wasn’t done yet.

One more, once

Steve Jr. spent months reviewing his father’s files again. Then, on Nov. 12, 2018—the six year anniversary of his father’s death—Steve Drake Jr. took one last shot: he sent a legal brief to Janet Knox, chief executive officer and president of the NSHA.

Steve Jr. says he had never played “the legal card” before. Her says it’s just not his style, but this time there was a difference. Six years had gone by.

Steve Jr. signed the letter “Stephen J. Drake, barrister and solicitor.”

On Feb. 6, 2019, he says the NSHA conceded in writing that they would be amending the cause of death on his father’s death certificate.

“The only time I sent a legal letter signed ‘barrister and solicitor,’ is the only time I got a legitimate response from the NSHA.”

No clear lessons

What do we learn from all this? Is it that dogged persistence pays off? Or, that sending a letter signed by a barrister and solicitor makes the difference? Or, that the two taken together are what brought Steve Jr. success?

No one knows for sure. What we do know for sure is that few are ready to do, or could manage to do, what Steve Drake Jr. did. We also know he did a real service to all the people of Nova Scotia by prompting changes to post-mortem care.

And, we know that a son kept a promise to his father.

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