Speaking in Walkerton, Ont., site of Canada's worst E. coli water contamination, Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne said Thursday that cuts like those proposed by PC Leader Tim Hudak "have consequences."
Wynne made her remarks after touring the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, which was built after an E. coli contamination in the town's water supply in 2000 that killed seven people and saw 2,300 fall ill.
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The tragedy in Walkerton — a town of about 5,000 people located in rural Bruce County — was blamed partly on government cutbacks and negligence by water inspectors.
Wynne referred to those cutbacks Thursday, implicitly linking them to Hudak's austerity proposals put forward Wednesday as part of the Tory election platform.
"It is important to recognize that decisions have consequences," said Wynne. "Safe drinking water is not an optional service."
"The cutbacks of the 1990s contributed to this tragedy. There was a failure of oversight, a failure of enforcement. Cuts have consequences. We need to learn from and avoid the mistakes of Ontario's past."
Hudak has made cutting red tape one of his goals to get the province's economy moving. In March, Lisa Thompson, the PC MPP for the Huron-Bruce County, complained there was too much red tape surrounding water regulations.
"Municipalities, their expenses are going through the roof because of regulation after regulation that is being introduced... And I am going to leave it at that," Thompson said at a Queen's Park news conference at the time.
Raising the spectre of Walkerton
Wynne stopped short of blaming the Tories for Walkerton, saying "no leader of this province would ever, consciously or intentionally, follow a policy that would risk another tragedy."
But prior to making her remarks, Liberal staffers handed out copies of Justice Dennis O'Connor's 2002 report into the Walkerton tragedy. His inquiry found that reductions in water inspections effectively led to privatization of water sample testing and played a direct role in the E. coli contamination of the town's drinking water.
O'Connor also faulted two brothers in charge of the water — they were later criminally convicted — for falsifying
records and failing to maintain proper disinfectant levels.
Walkerton's Clean Water Centre is a research facility where water inspectors are trained. Wynne promised to continue funding the facility for another 10 years, a $30-million commitment.
"Walkerton has emerged from the tragedy as a powerful advocate for, and provider of, safe drinking water," said Wynne.
Hudak, campaigning in London, accused Wynne of politicizing the tragedy.
"I think it's rather sad that the premier of Ontario is trying to take advantage of that for political gain," Hudak said.
"I expected better from Kathleen Wynne. That sounds like the kind of tactic that Dalton McGuinty would use. I guess it's just more of the same."
Hudak said closing the Clean Water Centre was not part of his plan to reduce the size of the public sector by about 10 per
cent, and rejected suggestions he'd cut water inspectors or put people at risk with his job cuts.
"I don't think anybody would even contemplate that," he said.
"All I've seen from [Wynne] in this campaign is pointing her finger at everybody else. I know that's what weak leadership is, you try to find someone else to blame. That's not me."