Nestlé accused of 'shameful tactic' after employees fill seats at contentious meeting

Coun. James Gordon says it was "a shameful tactic" for Nestlé employees to fill some of the seats in the council chamber in Guelph, Ont., during a special meeting Monday night to discuss water-taking permits.

Company filling seats at special meeting in Guelph, Ont., kept residents out, councillor says

One-litre bottles of spring water move along an assembly line by the thousands inside Nestlé's Aberfoyle bottling plant, which is 12 kilometres from Guelph, Ont., city hall, where a meeting was held Monday night over water taking. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Nestlé Waters Canada is under fire after employees sat in the city council chambers in Guelph, Ont., hours before a special meeting on water-taking permits was set to begin Monday night.

"This is a shameful tactic," Coun. James Gordon posted to Facebook, saying the company bused employees to the meeting "to take seats away from citizens."

The Nestlé facility in Aberfoyle is just 12 kilometres from Guelph city hall, and the company has said it employs more than 300 people from the local area. 

Mayor Cam Guthrie said the people arrived during another public meeting and didn't leave. As people left during the special council meeting, Guthrie had bylaw officers bring people in from an overflow room where they were sitting on the floor to watch the council meeting. 

"After the tenth delegation, the Nestlé employees left and the chamber was wide open for anyone to come in and join us for the remaining 20 delegations," Guthrie wrote on Twitter after he was accused of allowing the employees to take seats from citizens.

"I didn't 'allow' anyone to do anything," Guthrie wrote. "I called a special meeting specifically to hear from the citizens of our community on this topic so please don't go spreading false accusations about me allowing things that I had no control over."

In a statement sent to CBC News on Tuesday, Nestlé said the employees wanted to be at the meeting.

"Our employees are passionate about water, our business and are members of this community. They have wanted to be involved in the discussion and show their support which they proudly did last night," the statement said. "To avert parking issues a bus was provided which some employees used while many other came on their own."

'Wow. People around here really hate you.'

More than 30 people spoke at Monday's special council meeting, which lasted more than five hours. Others sent correspondence for councillors to review.

Jennifer Nikolasevic was one of them.

The 17-year employee of Nestlé Waters Canada in Aberfoyle said simple conversations with the parents of her children's friends often become awkward when people ask what she does for a living.

"Imagine how I feel when the parent … responds with, 'Wow. People around here really hate you,' or, 'You're a water stealer.' They hate me? They hate us? They don't even know us, and at that moment, the connection is gone and I'm viewed as the enemy," Nikolasevic said.

"There are hundreds of examples where we, as employees, feel like we can't wear our uniform into the grocery store in fear of confrontation," she added. "It's become increasingly difficult for us, and our kids, to not feel excluded, judged or bullied."

Despite the controversy over the seating arrangements, after Nikolasevic's presentation, Coun. Phil Allt said he was sorry to hear the kind of reaction she received from people in the community.

"I apologize for anybody that hates you," Allt said, adding he is the landlord of someone who works at Nestlé and appreciates they all have to pay their bills. "This should never, ever, be about hate."
Guelph Coun. James Gordon posted this to his Facebook page Monday night. (James Gordon/Faceboook)

Permit renewal sparks debate

Nikolasevic is the face of a side that is rarely heard from in the debate over whether Nestlé should be bottling Ontario water and selling it.

The Aberfoyle facility has come under fire in recent months after the company applied to renew its licence to take water.

Water advocates have called for the provincial government to stop the company in its tracks, arguing charging Nestlé and others just $3.71 for every million litres they take is far too low.

There was even more controversy when it was revealed the company went ahead with the purchase of a well in Elora, Ont., when a second buyer expressed interest in the Middlebrook well. It was revealed after Nestlé purchased the well that the second buyer was the Township of Centre Wellington.

The Council of Canadians has called for a boycott of all Nestlé products, while Premier Kathleen Wynne has said the province will review all take water permits issued to bottled water companies.

A Nestlé employee takes bottles of water from the Nestlé supermarket for staff at the company's headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland. (Laurent Gillieron/The Associated Press)

Children among delegations

Debbie Moore, president of Nestlé Waters Canada, also spoke at the meeting, and said the water bottled at the Aberfoyle plant is not trucked away to distant areas as some would argue. Instead, she said, it stays in Eastern Canada – mostly Ontario and Quebec, with some going to Atlantic Canada.

"We have a lot more in common than not. We unconditionally share your passion for water and its long-term sustainability," Moore told council and a packed council chambers. "Bottled water has a role to play because it's healthy, it's convenient, and it's portable. But it also plays a key role in times of crisis, or when local water sources have been compromised for any reason."

But the vast majority of those who spoke at the meeting were against Nestlé and other bottled water companies. Some brought children to microphones to have their voices heard.

"We need the water to drink, and when I say drink, I mean drink from our taps, not a plastic bottle. Water is good in nature, not a plastic bottle, because I love water," one young child named Henry said.

David said he wanted council to protect the environment.

"Plastic water bottles are not good for the environment, and they pollute Guelph and the Earth and the rivers," he said. "We need to be responsible about how much water we take and not to be greedy so that there's lots left for kids and adults and animals in the future."

David also used his platform to ask for one other thing.

"I think we should also have a fountain at the skate park," he said, which offered a moment of levity, making many in the council chambers laugh.

"Well played, David," Guthrie said with a smile.

Issue to come back to council

The special meeting was to hear the thoughts of citizens regarding water-taking permits. It was called after Gordon proposed a motion in September to have the city send a letter to the province asking the government to stop Nestlé's operations in Aberfoyle.

Staff at the time said they were waiting for the province to ask for comment on Nestlé's renewal of its take water permit, which the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has not yet done.

The issue is expected to come before council again on Nov. 28.


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