Anti-Nestlé rally in Guelph unites people of all ages against 'bad use of our water'

Nestlé's highly charged battle to keep pumping groundwater in southern Ontario amid a drought and a First Nations water crisis has people questioning why private companies are allowed to take water out of the ground for next to nothing, and sell it back for profit.

Nestlé Waters Canada manager says company is 'committed' to working with township regarding 2nd well in Elora

Nestlé's battle to keep pumping groundwater in southern Ontario amid a drought and First Nations water crisis is stirring the emotions of young and old in both Guelph, and other areas of Canada. (Eddie Keogh/Reuters)

Adam Inniss didn't spend his Monday evening like most teenagers his age.

Holding a sign that read Necessity not Nestlé, the 16-year-old took part in a rally in front of city call in the southern Ontario city of Guelph.

"Some people, like all these people here, believe that water is a necessity, not a commodity, so we don't think it should be bottled and sold back to people," he told CBC News.

When asked why he cared about the issue of groundwater, he replied, "Everyone should care.

"I think it's very important for everyone of all ages to be vocal about what they believe in," he said.

Ontario's Neskantaga First Nation is home to Canada's longest-standing boil water advisory. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)

Adam was not alone. More than 150 people attended the rally.

Darwin Zander was there with his mother, local artist Bunny Safari. He held a sign that read, "When the well runs dry, all our tears won't replenish the drought."

Darwin, 10, said he had concerns about the plastic water bottles that are not recycled, but also about what bottling water can mean for his future.

"It's not very good in that we can actually lose water," he said.

Safari brought her son to the rally to help him realize it's a big issue for many in the city.

"What brought me out was to say enough is enough to the big corporations who are mining our future water resources, and I wanted to bring my son along to his first protest to see that it's not just me who thinks we need to do this, but many members of our community," she said.

The rally was held ahead of a motion by Coun. James Gordon to have the city ask the province not to renew Nestlé's permit to take water in Aberfoyle. After a debate of more than two hours, council agreed to move forward with an amended version of the motion. It will be back on the council's agenda Nov. 7, when delegates will have a chance to speak.

The issue is important to many members of this community 95 kilometres west of Toronto, but interest in protecting groundwater resources from bottled water companies is growing across the country, said Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians.

"I would argue there's no need for bottled water. You can turn your tap on in this country and in southern Ontario, and you get good, clean, fresh tested water," Barlow said.

"We don't need to be using our water to pump out water to ship it off to people around the world who can afford it. It's not even going to the poor. This is a bad use of our water," she added. "Canada has a coming water crisis. People don't understand this, but they will in time. And we mustn't be letting our water be used this way."

The group has called for a boycott of all Nestlé products, particularly after news broke the company purchased a well in Elora, Ont., after a second buyer expressed interest.

The second buyer turned out to be the Township of Centre Wellington.

Mayor Kerry Linton said the township came into some cash through a trust fund and made an offer in July to buy the well on the former site of the Middlebrook Water Company.

"It was a very serious offer we put forward — it was a no conditions attached, serious money offer, and we knew one of the conditions Nestlé had was the results of the pump test. So we weren't sure if they would agree to purchase the property without getting any results back," Linton told CBC News in August.

We would like to see national standards on drinking water and on water protection.- Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians chair

"Unfortunately, we weren't able to purchase the property, but we'll continue the same process that we have going forward, working with all parties to protect our water source."

For its part, Nestlé has said it did not know the township had made the offer.

Andreanne Simard, a hydrologist and a water resource manager for Nestlé Waters Canada, said the property had been for sale for about 10 years and the company had put in an offer in March 2015. The conditional offer was based on getting provincial Ministry of the Environment approval to perform a pump test of the well to see just how much water was in it. 

When the anonymous second buyer came forward, Nestlé waived that condition and purchased the property.

"We did not outbid anybody," Simard said Monday. "We didn't know who the other offer was from."

Simard, who holds office hours in Elora weekly to discuss her company's plans in the town with concerned residents, said when Nestlé initially put in the offer in 2015, the township said it had no plans to purchase the well. Both Linton and Simard said they will continue to work together.
The Council of Canadians has called for a boycott of all Nestlé products. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

"We're committed, I can't stress it enough, committed to working with the township," Simard said. 

The Nestlé name tends to stir people up all by itself, said Ian Stephen with WaterWealth Project in Chilliwack, B.C.

In that province, people have been up in arms about a bottling facility in Hope. Meanwhile, another company's bottling plant in Chilliwack rarely gets mentioned.

"It's a bigger issue than just Nestlé," Stephen said.

If people are upset, they should be focusing on the regulators in each province.

"Water is going to be an increasing issue with climate change and changing precipitation patterns," he said, noting if a provincial regulator had overseen the sale of the Middlebrook well in Elora, they might have put the township's need for water above a commercial business' desire to own it.

"You need to have value judgment in water licensing." Barlow agreed and said now is the time for the federal and provincial governments to act. Ontario has said it will be reviewing water taking permits in the province.

"We would like to see national standards on drinking water and on water protection," she said.

Barlow said when there are so many in Canada who don't have access to safe drinking water, it's time to rethink the way things are done.

"If Nestle gets the next permit fulfilled [in Elora], they're going to be taking over six million litres of water a day from the Grand River watershed - a watershed, by the way, where there are 11,000 First Nations people without running water," she said. "The politicians just aren't listening, they're not acting fast enough, so we've called for a boycott and we're going to take it into our own hands."

with files from Sheena Goodyear and Havard Gould