'I'm accountable,' Harris says of Walkerton

Ontario Premier Mike Harris to testify at Walkerton inquiry Friday

Ontario Premier Mike Harris took the stand at the Walkerton water inquiry Friday and immediately faced questions on Conservative campaign documents promising a Common Sense Revolution.

Inquiry lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo painstakingly grilled the premier on cutbacks and privatization including the privatization of water testing in the province, which some suggest contributed to Canada's worst E. coli outbreak in May 2000 in the town of Walkerton.

"Walkerton was a wake-up call for all of us," Harris said toward the end of the morning session. Harris also repeatedly said, testfying under oath, that as head of the Ontario government he is accountable for what happened in Walkerton.

Seven people died and more than 2,000 were made sick as a result of contaminated water in Walkerton.

Harris referred to "the terrible mess in Walkerton," adding, "As head of the government, I'm accountable."

At the start of the inquiry session, Harris said, "The premise of the Common Sense Revolution and the change we believe needed to be brought to government was that we should put things to the test.

"Are there things the private sector can do better? Are there other bodies that can do it? Could a municipal government do something the provincial government's doing? Are there other agencies that could be doing it? Is there duplication?"

Harris said he did not see a ministry document that warned cuts would have a negative impact on the environment. He said he and his cabinet were never told that cuts to Environment Ministry spending would compromise public safety.

"Let me say this," Harris said, "there's risk in everything. But I can tell you at no time was it ever brought to cabinet's attention, to my attention, that the implementation of these business plans would cause increased risk to the health and safety of any citizens anywhere in the province."

"We've got document upon document upon document of increased risk to health and safety," Cavalluzzo said.

Cavalluzzo then referred to a report of the province's ombudsman for 1997-98 that said the Ontario public service was "in a state of crisis." Harris said he couldn't remember, but that he disagreed with the quoted statement.

Cavalluzzo then mentioned a remark in the ombudsman's report that referred to "an atmosphere of fear" among Ontario public servants and how they felt "seriously undermined."

"I would say the complete opposite," Harris said.

Following two of his former environment ministers to the stand, Harris becomes one of the highest ranked politicians ever to testify at a Canadian inquiry.