Intervenor: vol. 26, no. 2 - 3, April - August 2001

CELA at the Walkerton Inquiry - From Infamy to Excellence

In late May of the year 2000, the quiet rural town of Walkerton, Ontario was tragically catapulted in the blink of an eye from relative obscurity to ground zero, as the environmental doomsday clock struck midnight. The acute specter of death and disease was ironically underlined by the fact the Grim Reaper had chosen our communal ignorance and complacency as its vehicle. Walkerton's underground highway of water turned savagely from the giver of life to a conduit of the plague. To date the number of lives lost directly attributed to the E. coli contamination of the Walkerton municipal water system stands at seven with thousands of others made ill, some of whom will never fully recover.

A year later, coming to terms with the events of last May remains an emotionally perilous and mentally challenging task for the people of our community. Shortly after the depth of the tragedy began to register in Walkerton and around the world, we found ourselves facing a threat that in the long run had the potential to be even more dangerous to our environment than the lethal explosion of E. coli bacteria in our water system. Following the outbreak, the immediate response of both the municipal and provincial governments was to engage in a choreographed dance of political denial. These two levels of government charged with ensuring the safety of Walkerton's water system seemed far more intent on circling their respective public relations wagons around their impotent environment protocols than meeting the needs of a devastated community. This vast abyss in political accountability gave birth to frustration that would evolve into the organization know as the Concerned Walkerton Citizens (CWC).

The nucleus of the CWC wrote the Premier of Ontario respectfully requesting that he immediately commence the process of an independent public inquiry probing all factors and events leading to the Walkerton tragedy. We further requested that the inquiry consist of the broadest possible scope and that the residents of Walkerton be granted fully funded intervener status as we would stand as the citizens of record for the province of Ontario.

Having established the goal of participating as a citizens group in the inquiry process we acknowledged the fact that we lacked the technical expertise necessary to properly examine the evidence without professional guidance. Like most of the population, we were perilously oblivious of the ramifications of an environmental disaster in our community.

Fortunately, however, one member of our steering committee was aware of CELA and its strong reputation for environmental advocacy. Thankfully CELA rose to the challenge and immediately began assisting the residents of Walkerton by authoring a detailed draft of terms of reference for the Walkerton Inquiry (Inquiry). This assistance was most timely as it established CWC as a serious contender for standing in the Inquiry. One must also bear in mind that CELA's assistance to CWC began long before any formal agreement was reached for representation in the Inquiry and in fact prior to the actual formation of the CWC. No other legal organization was prepared to offer this level of comprehensive assistance much less the vast experience and patience necessary to guide CWC through the obligatory growing pains of its infancy.

On June 15, 2000, CWC held their first formalizing meeting with the stated goal of seeking fully funded intervener status in the Inquiry. Once again CELA was there to assist CWC with a detailed explanation of the Inquiry process. Based on the advice of CELA and the opposition parties at Queen's Park, CWC established formal positions within its steering committee and began to develop a comprehensive membership list. The membership expanded from 20 to 200 at the first public meeting of the CWC. Within less than a month, the membership expanded to over 500 individuals, thus achieving the goal of a large and diversely based representation of Walkerton within the organization.

Throughout the summer of 2000, CELA and CWC worked frantically on the production of a large volume of documentation which would evolve into CWC's application for standing in the Walkerton Inquiry. In July 2000, CWC and CELA would formally partner for the purpose of participation in the Inquiry. This partnership has served the CWC exceedingly well as the staff of CELA unfailingly rises to all tasks placed before them. The dedication, expertise and compassion that exemplifies CELA's approach to its representation of CWC cannot be underestimated in its importance, and for this, all members of CWC are immensely grateful.

In the early days of CWC's existence, it became apparent that the community required more than representation in the Inquiry process. Many ongoing concerns faced the citizens of Walkerton as they struggled through a summer filled with hurdles of contaminated water, illness, death and an uncertain future. CWC found itself in the position of acting as a voice of advocacy as the community dealt with often indifferent local and provincial governments.

During the past year, CWC has undertaken a number of varied initiatives aimed at meeting communal needs unattended to by any level of government. The initiatives have ranged from the spiritual to the technical and logistic elements dealing with the tragedy. Examples of these initiatives would include:

  • Canada Day Candlelight Prayer Vigil- CWC sponsored an ecumenical prayer service and candlelight vigil in memory of those that lost their lives and in support of many others that continued to struggle with illness. CWC also held another vigil on the evening before the Inquiry was to commence;
  • Public Meetings- CWC sponsored a number of public information meetings designed to meet the community's concerns regarding issues such as: CWC status and approach to the Inquiry; equitable compensation; and, the need for a comprehensive health study probing the ramifications of the consumption of contaminated drinking water. The CWC also invited a number of guest speakers such as Marilyn Churley, M.P.; Jim Bradley, M.P.; CELA; and, mental health experts. The topics included environmental protection, participation in the Inquiry, and stress management;
  • Fundraising Events- In order to assist with the considerable cost associated with participation in the Inquiry process, CWC undertook a number of fundraising initiatives. These events included: a Stephen Fearing Concert and Dinner; an inspirational evening with author and activist Dr. David Suzuki; and, finally a talk titled, Water In Crisis with keynote speaker Maude Barlow and presenters Dr David Brubaker and Jamie Dunn of the Council of Canadians;
  • Environmental Group Sponsorship- CWC assisted with sponsorship of a group called Greening Walkerton Initiative (GWI). GWI hopes to turn Walkerton's environmental awareness into a positive force for the future;
  • Environmental Fair- CWC and GWI undertook sponsorship of a fair in May 2001 called Green Step 2001 representing environmental groups from Grey and Bruce Counties. While recognizing the need to remember the lives lost to the E. coli tragedy and the desire to chart a positive new environmental direction for the future, CWC and GWI presented a day long event featuring an ecumenical memorial service. Activities included over 25 speakers and 29 booths covering a variety of topics dealing with environmental protection and ecological sound solutions;
  • Safe Drinking Water Act - In conjunction with CELA, CWC is proposing a Safe Drinking Water Act designed to ensure the integrity of Ontario's drinking water. This report titled, Tragedy on Tap: Why Ontario Needs a Safe Drinking Water Actwas released in May, 2001, see related information, below; 
  • Public versus Privatization Paper - CWC and CELA co-sponsored a paper opposing the privatization of Ontario's water management and delivery systems demanding that safety and accountability continue to rest in public hands. This report titled, Water Services in Ontario: For the Public, By the Publicwas released in the June, 2001, see related information, below; 
  • Hydrogeological Investigations- On the advice of CELA, CWC agreed to retain Dr. Stephen Worthington, a specialist in karst hydrogeology, to broaden the investigation into possible routes of contamination of Walkerton's water system. Dr. Worthington's research has shed new light on the Walkerton tragedy by greatly expanding knowledge of the complexities of the aquifers surrounding Walkerton. The karst report can be found in related information, below;
  • Community Involvement - The steering committee of CWC has a strong belief in the need to participate in those groups associated with the rehabilitation of our community. To that end, CWC has representation on "The Public Advisory Committee" for the Environmental Assessment responsible for selecting Walkerton's source of future water, the Liaison Committee between Walkerton community members and the Adjustment firm regarding the Class Action Compensation, and the Walkerton Health Study Steering Committee.

The Walkerton tragedy began long before the people began to fall ill and die. We must acknowledge that complacency and ignorance can be lethal, while our best defence rests in education and proactivity. CWC intends to continue to advocate for environmental protection and management of drinking water as we turn Walkerton's legacy from one of "Infamy to that of Excellence."
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Bruce Davidson and Ron Leavoy are founding members of the Concerned Walkerton Citizens.