My Favourite Mistake

Work in Progress By Ivan Morgan

If you are like most of us, you’ve made a couple of mistakes in your work life. I know I have – some humdingers, in fact. We are human, we make mistakes – sometimes whoppers.

I am not talking about tragic mistakes that costs lives and limbs, that’s another, far grimmer category. I mean just the good old-fashioned white and blue-collar boners that we have all either done or seen done.

I have always been fascinated by how people deal with mistakes they have made. I have seen folks deny making them. I have seen them blame others, cover up the mistake, shift suspicion to an unsuspecting co-worker. I have seen folks just carry on, hoping no one will notice.

I was raised by a stiff upper lip Englishman who taught me when (not if) I made a mistake to march into my manager’s office and immediately fess up. Which I have done, embarrassingly more than a few times.

I have been collecting mistakes for years (besides my own). People tell me stories, and I write them down. I have a handsome collection. I especially love oil company mistakes because they pretend like they don’t make them.

The biggest boo-boo I have ever come across – and the one that I can’t forget – is the accidental expropriation of the Abitibi paper mill. For those who don’t know or remember, in 2008 Abitibi announced it was closing its paper mill in Grand Falls, after over 100 years of operation. The problem was the company owned more that $300 million in assets – hydro plants, forests, etc.  

Then Premier Danny Williams called an emergency session of the House, talked the opposition parties into going along with him (no mean feat in itself) and in one afternoon had the House unanimously expropriate all the forest and hydro assets of the company. All three parties voted to take those assets back. Except the mill. Abitibi could have the mill. The idea was to stick the company with an antiquated, dilapidated and huge environmental liability. Let Abitibi pay to clean that up.

Somebody screwed up. After the legislation was passed it was discovered that in their haste government officials accidentally included the mill. We owned it, and the debt attached to it. At the time the press valued the mistake in the hundreds of millions. Sacred Heart!

This was all very terrible, but I fixate on the process, on the people involved. Can you imagine the moment you realized what had been done, maybe what you had done? Can you imagine sitting at your desk letting the enormity of the situation wash over you? Can you imagine the long walk down the hall to your supervisor’s office? Imagine briefing the minister? Can you even imagine telling Danny? That couldn’t have been a walk in the park.

Danny, who had to stand up in the House and publicly own the mistake? We all know he must have loved that!

And, as they say, at the end of the day, I imagine some poor sod (sods?) walking to his or her car one afternoon, knowing it was their fault. Someone out there lying awake (or sleeping like a baby?) knowing their mistake cost the province hundreds of millions of dollars?

No one was ever fired or disciplined for that error. As far as I understand no one was ever “blamed.” Williams himself said at the time it was an innocent mistake made by an official in the department.

“As simple as that,” he said.

Gentle reader. If you have worked as long as I have you will know it was far from that simple.

Ivan Morgan can be reached at ivan.morgan@gmail.com

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