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20 years after Walkerton: critics say Ontario is laying the foundations of a new water crisis

A generation after the deadliest tainted water crisis in Canada in modern memory, environmental critics say the Ontario government could be laying the foundations of new kind of water crisis by cutting back on environmental protections.

Environmental critics say Ford government is chipping away at Walkerton's lessons

A generation after a tainted water crisis in Ontario's heartland put the town of Walkerton in the spotlight, critics say the province could be laying the foundations of a new type of water crisis. (Haydn Watters/CBC News)

Even 20 years after the Walkerton water crisis erupted in his hometown, Bruce Davidson is careful not to say it couldn't happen again in Ontario. 

"That's a very, very dangerous road to go down," said the massage therapist, who became a clean water crusader because of the experience.

Up until the pandemic gnawed its way into our lives in March, Davidson was still making regular appearances in high school auditoriums, on television, or in city hall committee rooms across Canada educating people about the pitfalls of taking clean water for granted. 

"At the time of the Walkerton water tragedy we really didn't perceive any threat to our drinking water, thinking that those problems were the sad fate of the developing world where they didn't have the science and technology to keep their water safe. We were ignorant and arrogant about that," he said. 

Seven people died and more than 2,000 fell ill after days of heavy rains washed cow manure from a nearby pasture into the town's water system through a cracked well. It caused the worst e-coli outbreak in Canadian history and thrust the close-knit community in Ontario's heartland into the international spotlight. 

The cost of making Ontario 'open for business'

Ontario has erected 25 of these signs at major crossing points at the provincial border, including this one on the Quebec-Ontario border. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Thanks to relentless pressure by Davidson and others with the Concerned Citizens of Walkerton, the province was pushed to call an inquiry into what happened. It also instituted some of the strictest laws in Canada when it comes to water protection in response to the tragedy. 

Barely a generation later however, environmental critics say the Progressive Conservative government is chipping away at Walkerton's hard-won lessons by rolling back environmental protections it sees as "red tape" in the name of making Ontario "open for business."

Since taking office two years ago, Premier Doug Ford's government has made the following changes to Ontario's environmental policies:

"There is nothing constructive I can say about their climate plan. It's all destructive," said Dianne Saxe, an environmental lawyer who has the distinction of being Ontario's last environment commissioner. The post was eliminated by the Ford government last March. 

"It takes hard work and investment and attention to keep air, water, food safe. It doesn't happen by itself and it's exactly those ... that have been undercut, undermined, damaged, destroyed and abandoned by this government."

During the Walkerton inquiry, Saxe was a lawyer representing the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. She said the inquiry uncovered that the privatization of water testing by the provincial government of then-premier Mike Harris – as part of a larger agenda of cost-cutting – was partly to blame for the disaster.

Saxe said 20 years later, she is seeing the same pattern from the Ford government. 

"It was the provincial government's hasty cancelation of the public testing labs that allowed [Walkerton] to happen and we're seeing a restitution of that model of government by this conservative government."

"We're seeing the same kind of destruction of public capacity with the expectation that the private sector will somehow make it all right, it doesn't work," she said.

The Ford government counters that leaving it up to the private sector does work. It's why it created the Ontario Carbon Trust, a 400 million dollar fund paid for by the Ontario government to help big polluters curb their emissions as a way to meet the province's 30 per cent emission reduction goal by 2030.

The province's environment plan, Preserving and Protecting our Environment for Future Generations, argues it can reduce emissions in a way that ensures "hardworking taxpayers are respected and protected" while "regulatory burden for responsible businesses."

Lessons of Walkerton are not 'red tape,' say critics

Ontario Environment Minister Rod Phillips, seen here in November of 2019 discusses the government's climate plan, which includes $400 million in public money to help private businesses reduce pollution. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

Opponents however argue the environmental protections put in place by previous governments are not a form of "regulatory burden" or "red tape" – the kind of excessive government oversight and redundancy some argue hamstrings private businesses from creating jobs.

"Redundancy was an essential lesson of the Walkerton inquiry, that we need to have in place safeguards so that if something goes wrong at one level, you can catch it at the next level," said Theresa McClenaghan, the executive director and counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Assocation, or CELA. 

"You're not only protecting the source of drinking water, you're also protecting the distribution system, through the pipes and then what's coming out of people's taps at the end of the day."

CELA was one of the many agencies at the inquiry that fought for and won what's called multi-barrier source water protection. The philosophy relies on regular monitoring of water quality, strong laws and standards and encourages public participation to protect water from source to tap. 

Pandemic powers trump environmental rights

Ontario says it can meet 2030 targets without a carbon tax, but critics say the plan, which subsidizes big polluters with public money, is not based on sound evidence. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Recently, the provincial government has curbed the public's ability to participate in environmental decision-making through the use of emergency powers invoked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, the Ford government made it possible to sidestep Ontario's Environmental Bill of Rights, giving the province an exemption from being legally required to hold a 30-day public consultation on any new laws that would affect the quality of land, air, water or wildlife. 

McClenaghan sees the change as a serious case of overreach by a government that claims to be "for the people," especially when community participation is essential for environmental protection.  

"All notice requirements have been suspended," she said. "Even though the minister indicates that it's only intended to be for things that are necessary for the emergency."

"We certainly would support emergency powers in this incredibly exceptional time, but we don't think going beyond that is appropriate." 

While critics say the measure might be the most recent example, it's not the only way multi-barrier water source protection is under attack in Ontario. 

Last fall the Ford government cleaved the amount of money to conservation authorities for flood control in half, from $7.4 million to $3.7 million, while at the same time making flood mitigation part of their core mandate. 

It's meant tough decisions for the province's 36 conservation authorities, including layoffs, spending their financial reserves, even increasing levies on their member municipalities. As climate change is expected to deliver more frequent and intense storms, critics say the cuts are bad timing. 

Climate change is 'a whole new ball game'

Environmental advocates say some of the lessons from Walkerton include taking clean water for granted and cutting back on environmental oversight by government. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"Let's remember that Walkerton was tipped from a system that was limping to a system that was lethal after a 50-year flood event with extreme weather," said Walkerton survivor Bruce Davidson. 

"I think with climate change we're in a whole new ball game now."

"Are our systems like drinking water systems resilient enough to stand that? We need to be looking at what's happening in our environment," he said. 

Twenty years ago, Davidson said the residents of Walkerton took their drinking water for granted and paid for it. He and others argue we're doing the same thing with our drinking water now, when it comes to climate change. 

"The Walkerton crisis showed us just as this pandemic has that our assumption of invulnerability is unsafe. So yes we should have learned from the Walkerton crisis," said Dianne Saxe. 

"If we want clean water, if we want clean air, if we want a safe natural environment that I grew up in, it takes hard work, it takes good government and it takes tax money, it doesn't happen by itself."

"Everything, just about, that we were doing in Ontario to get ready for what's coming, to reduce fossil fuels, to clean our air, to improve public health, all of those things were thrown out the window," she said. 

That's why, even as the province continues on its pro-business agenda, critics said they'll continue to push the message that although Walkerton is 20 years behind us, its about water are prescient for climate change. 

"That's what's in danger of being lost with the passage of time," said Theresa McClenaghan. "How essential that kind of multi-barrier approach is to protecting people's health. It's true for air quality, it's true for drinking water, it's true for children's products and consumer toys." 

"We need to constantly remind governments that we need proper oversight and accountability and transparency."

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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