It was in May of 2000 when the people of Walkerton, Ont. began to present with symptoms of E. coli contamination from the small town’s water supply. Seven people were to die from drinking the water, and about 2,500 people became ill.
Though two men were jailed for their part in the tragedy, admitting to falsifying reports and concealing laboratory tests that had found evidence of the contamination, well before the public was warned, it was the Walkerton Commission of Inquiry, led by Justice Dennis O’Connor, that eventually placed some of the blame for the tragedy at the foot of the Conservative provincial government for cuts made to regulating water quality and enforcement of the environmental guidelines that had been in place.
A friend of this magazine reminded us about this incident in recent history, and noted that many of the same players in the provincial government then are very much operating on the federal level now, and instead of learning from that past, today the Conservatives are chopping away at a whole new set of environmental standards.
At the time of the Walkerton inquiry report, O’Connor concluded that the tragedy could have been prevented. And we fear that there is another preventable tragedy just waiting around the next corner.
Cost savings and budget balancing, as well as Conservative ideology, are driving today’s big cuts.
The Harper government has its hopes set on $1.6 billion in cuts to environmental initiatives, and cuts of up to 1,211 jobs and $222 million from Environment Canada alone.
Federal cuts at Environment Canada will force the agency to reduce some its wastewater monitoring programs, for example.
Said Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, “The Harper government is clearly abandoning its responsibility to steward our freshwater heritage for future generations. All life and livelihoods come from our watersheds and ecosystems, and this government is abandoning them to fend for themselves.”
And it’s not only on the environmental front that we have our concerns. It is also in the area Canadian safety.
Proposed cuts to the Canadian Coast Guard and Search and Rescue stations on each coast also present considerable worries. It seems an odd time to be cutting Coast Guard resources on the West Coast, in particular, considering the Coast Guard is responsible for the containment and recovery of materials that are drifting towards Canada as part of the massive Japan tsunami debris field.
The majority of the debris is expected in 2013. Perhaps we’ll get all of that stuff cleared away before three coast guard communication centres in Vancouver, Comox and Tofino are closed down, as well as the Kitsilano lifeboat station in Vancouver. So let’s not even mention the possibility of increased tanker traffic along that stretch of water on the inside coast and the risks associated with transporting crude oil† when the Enbridge project gets the green light to proceed.
It seems the people in Ottawa are so focused on battling the deficit, that they are forgetting all but this fiscal responsibility. We still need services, regardless of the sword hanging over Canada’s books.
A professor named Arthur Schafer wrote a paper entitled “Premier Harris and Walkerton: Does ignorance excuse?” At the time of the writing Schafer was the director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. He quoted Monique Begin, a Liberal Health Minister, who said “public ethics requires that those at the top be accountable.”
Will these current cuts lead to death or illness? That’s something that we will have to deal with at the time, we suppose, but the Canadian government cannot plead ignorance of the risks associated with these cuts as Premier Mike Harris did when he took to the stand at the Walkerton inquiry.
“If it [the existence of risk to human health] had been brought to my attention”, Harris told the inquiry, “we would not have proceeded [with the cuts].
Mr. Harper and company: You have been put on notice.