Walkerton: where do we go from here?

Three hundred residents of Walkerton, Ontario honoured Justice Dennis O’Connor with a standing ovation on Friday January 18. The judge had just presented his report, “Part One of the Report of the Walkerton Inquiry.” And, while conducting his research, he had lived in Walkerton for nine months: the gestation period won him the admiration of the villagers whom he evidentially interviewed with empathetic understanding.

Walkerton is a southern Ontario rural community. On May 12, 2000 rain swept E. coli bacteria from a farmer’s field into well Number 5, contaminating the village’s drinking water. According to the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund (www.cedf.net/walkerton/) seven directly related deaths and 2,300 illnesses were a direct consequence.

Almost two years later, Walkerton residents continue to suffer physically as well as economically from repercussions of May 12. Some will endure the consequences of this tragedy throughout their lifetime.

What do we learn from this?

Walkerton symbolizes what can go dreadfully wrong when we rely too much on a political system that is in conflict with itself. What conflict? The Ontario government has acted both as law-makers/regulators as well as suppliers of drinking water to the homes of Walkerton residents.

Is now the time to privatize water suppliers? Or, should we reinstate more government workers (dismissed by years of Conservative rule) and more or less say “situation normal” by relying on government to be supplier and watchdog rolled into one?

Leah Casselman, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said, “Justice O’Connor has confirmed what we have been saying all along: that the privatization of the Ministry of Environment labs contributed to hundreds of serious illnesses in Walkerton, and that cuts and layoffs at the Ministry of Environment made it less likely that the government would be able to prevent the tragedy.

“Ontarians know now that, after six-and-a-half years of cuts, layoffs, privatization, and mismanagement at the highest level, it’s time to rebuild the public service and to restore its ability to protect public safety and the public interest.”

Anticipating their new contract negotiations, Casselman continued, “All of our demands in this round of bargaining are built around the idea of rebuilding and renewing the public service.”

Should we rebuild the public service, or should we take this opportunity to privatize the supply side of the equation? Probably both.

But whatever happens, I hope that not just Ontario but all Canadian governments at every level take a good hard look at Judge O’Connor’s report.

If you think about it, merely by turning on their taps at home, Walkerton residents were trusting that the “government” was providing for their safety. They were placing their trust in Stan Koebel, local water manager at the public utility; and in the Ontario Government’s system of regulators: the Ministry of Environment’s inspection programs and water testing labs.

The trust was misplaced.

Considering all the personnel cuts, the low priority placed on environment dossiers, and the state of Canada’s old water delivery and purification infrastructures, can any of us be surprised that the system was bound to catastrophically fail somewhere, sometime?

Perhaps, after Judge O’Connor’s report on the situation in Walkerton, the role between government and public water utilities will be redefined.

And possibly the most important lesson is that Walkerton is not an island. We hear about water contamination in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

But don’t forget that here in the Pontiac, villagers living in towns such as Quyon, Bristol, Fort Coulonge and others don’t drink their tap water. Unfortunately, anyone who thinks the Walkerton tragedy couldn’t happen here in the Pontiac is dreaming in la-la-land.

Pontiac-based Concerned Citizens Committees have expressed concern over potable water in one way or another for years. I’ve lived here since May 1, 1989 and I know that water-related issues repeatedly crop up. Here are a few “for instances.”

Pontiacers debated the Bristol Mines being turned into a landfill site for Ottawa and Montreal if not Toronto’s garbage. Why? One significant reason was concern over contaminants potentially leaching into the water table and thereby polluting the watershed system that services livestock, irrigates fields — and which comes out of our taps.

Pontiacers expressed keen interest in solar aquatics technology instead of lagoon-based system to treat Quyon’s sewage so as to prevent raw sewage being dumped into the Ottawa River.

Pontiac beef operators and others have adapted their feed lot operations to conform to new and evolving Ministry of Environment regulations. Among other reasons, these new environmental rules were implemented to protect the watershed systems from fecal-based pollutants.

And last summer, Pontiac residents attended meetings to express distrust of and opposition to having pulp and paper mill manufacturing by-products spread upon agricultural land. Their concern revolved around not just the foul odour but also reasonable concerns that these by-products would contaminate their wells.

Yes, there are challenges everywhere we look with respect to potable water and its delivery to our homes, villages, businesses and livestock.

Now, thanks to Judge O’Connor’s report, we have a chance to start seriously examining exactly how we can go about updating and hopefully improving water delivery systems throughout Canada.

Blame? Scapegoats?

Let’s rise above our human propensity to indulge in finger pointing at Walkerton’s Koebel brothers and Premier Harris’ ill-advised personnel and project cuts.

Instead, let’s examine Judge O’Connor’s findings and consider his words, when he addressed the people of Walkerton. After addressing some remarks about the victims of this tragedy, he said, “I recognize that it [his report] does not end the pain and suffering that will continue. We simply say to the people of Walkerton: Our thoughts are with you. They will be with you in the years to come.”

No wonder this man, who spent nine months living in Walkerton as he conducted his research, won a standing ovation.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who telecommutes from her farmhouse north of Quyon, Québec. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com