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Walkerton: The whistleblower

In May 2000, bacteria seeped into Walkerton's town well. The deadly E. coli then slipped quietly through a maze of pipes and into the homes of Walkerton, Ont. Unsuspecting residents thirstily drank the polluted water and bathed in their bacteria-ridden tubs. But soon after, they began experiencing common symptoms of infection; bloody diarrhea and throbbing cramps. Seven people would eventually die and another 1286 would fall ill. The investigation which followed exposed an alarmingly unstable waterworks system made fragile by government cuts.

"We felt that the people and public of Walkerton should know that what has happened and is happening is not a mystery -- this could have been prevented," a sombre Dr. Murray McQuigge says in a prepared statement read on CBC Radio. McQuigge, the regional medical officer of health for the Grey-Bruce Health Unit, reveals that the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission lied to authorities about a compromised water filtration system. The PUC is responsible for testing and maintaining the water quality.

McQuigge explains that the PUC deliberately misled authorities and as a result, people have needlessly died. He says they knew about the contamination as early as May 18. "I want to make sure I understand this," the CBC's Metro Morning host Andy Barrie asks incredulously, "this was not a sin of omission, this was a sin of commission? They actually, they actually, lied to you?" They were definitely not forthcoming, McQuigge replies. 
. On May 17, 2000, water samples taken by the Walkerton PUC indicated that the water was contaminated with E. coli. PUC Manager Stan Koebel did not notify the public health office. On the same day, Walkerton residents began complaining of stomach cramps and diarrhea.

• McQuigge was puzzled by the outbreak and asked Koebel if the water system was safe; Koebel assured him that nothing was amiss at the PUC. McQuigge's team then began to search for different sources of possible contamination but were puzzled by the widespread reach of the outbreak.

. After conducting a thorough investigation, McQuigge was convinced that the bacteria was being transmitted through the water. On May 21, contrary to the PUC's earlier assertions that the water was safe, McQuigge issued a boil-water advisory and began an independent water-testing investigation. Two days later, on May 23, McQuigge's team found that the water was indeed contaminated with the fatal E. coli O157:H7.

. McQuigge was praised by some townspeople and colleagues for breaking an unnecessary and dangerous silence. Other Walkerton residents criticized the doctor for waiting too long to issue a boil-water advisory. McQuigge has always asserted that his team did their best. He said the only possible action he might've changed was to issue the advisory on television instead of radio. The Association of Local Public Health Agencies for Ontario gave McQuigge a merit award for his work.

. McQuigge later expressed his distaste for the term "whistleblower" because of its subtext of snitching. He has always remained steadfast that his actions weren't heroic — he was simply doing his job by alerting the public. At the Walkerton Public Inquiry, which would be held in 2001, McQuigge insisted that he was forced to come forward with the revelations because town officials were slow to come forward and warn Walkerton residents.
Medium: Radio
Program: Metro Morning
Broadcast Date: May 25, 2000
Guest(s): Murray McQuigge
Announcer: Anubha Parray
Host: Andy Barrie
Duration: 11:19

Last updated: March 26, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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