Intervenor: Vol 25. No 3 & 4 July-December 2000

What will it take for Walkerton?

The year 2000 is the 30th anniversary of CELA, a milestone that could have been an occasion for celebration. Thirty years ago futurists and science fiction writers were predicting that humanity would be faced with new epic environmental challenges in the next millennium. Fulfilling those prophecies today, CELA's work includes: the patenting of life forms, global climate change and the sweeping influence of international trade over environmental protection-all issues not on the horizon thirty years ago. Who would have ever predicted that the greatest health threat at the beginning of the last century, poor sanitation, would usher in 2000 with the worst environmental disaster in Ontario? Cancel the celebration, there's work to do, and redo, over and over.

CELA is very honoured to have been selected by the Concerned Walkerton Citizens (CWC) to represent them in the Walkerton Inquiry into the tragic deaths of seven people and the injury of at least 2,000 others. The CWC is the largest group of individual Walkerton residents to receive standing in the public inquiry into the contamination of their community's drinking water that commenced on October 16, 2000.

What will it take to achieve the goal of the CWC that this never happen again to any other community in Ontario? Well for starters, it will take sifting through mountains of evidence, much of it very technical introduced in Part 1A of the Inquiry looking into events leading to the contamination of Walkerton's water and Part 1B considering what role government policy and practice had in these events. Parts 1A and B will include; medical evidence on E-coli-157, coroners evidence, hydrogeological studies of the groundwater of the region, climatology records of recent rain events, engineering of water wells, infrastructure and water treatment processes, and laboratory testing procedures. Other issues that will need scrutiny include, the impacts of recent government changes to inspections, enforcement, environmental protection and agricultural practices, funding, staffing and changes in jurisdictional responsibilities and in municipal boundaries by amalgamation. Then, for Part 2, submissions on papers solicited from experts on policy issues relevant to the safety of Ontario's drinking water will be needed.

Unfortunately, few tools remain for the public to use in Goliath undertakings of this kind. One of the significant environmental cuts in Ontario eliminated the Intervenor Project Funding Act leaving almost no playing field for the public in environmental hearings. This Act was in force for eight years. It provided funding for expert advice and assistance for those intervening in environmental hearings. No precedents remain that recognize the value of fundictng experts for citizens' groups, so it comes as no surprise that the Walkerton Inquiry did not grant funding to parties to retain their own experts to assist them with their evaluation of the evidence and experts selected by the Commission.

Knowing the importance of the outcome of their intervention, CWC set out to raise their own funds for experts this fall. Grace under pressure comes to mind. As if life were not challenging enough for the community, four months into daily life still without water, continued well closings and constant media attention, the community has rallied to raise funds to fight the fight for all of our rights to clean water.

First on September 16th they hosted a benefit at the local farm of author and garden historian Douglas Chambers. Ironies abounded as supporters soaked up the mist and rain in this special paradise just outside of Walkerton. The farm "Stoneyground" and its magnificent garden are lovingly infused with literary and planted tributes to ancestors, poets, and friends. Some of these tributes have been carved and set in stone gathered during the cultivation of the surrounding fields. In his book chronicling the evolution of this garden Stoneyground: The Making of a Canadian Garden, our host traces the history of agriculture with the history of his own transformation of the garden passed to him through generations of family. He speaks about the great underground river that connects Lake Huron and Georgian Bay through prehistoric caverns of limestone that feeds his well. His well is now perilously close to one of the town wells plagued with problems. In this 1996 book Douglas Chambers voiced his regret that Walkerton may never surface in literature but for its one appearance in an Alice Munro short story "Wigtime".

Today, Walkerton has become part of the Canadian lexicon. At the Stoneyground benefit supporters learned from the local people how hard it is for a community to gain notoriety as a place of poison. The rain that day bought special fears with it for the community-fears of more farm manure washing into their one well still in operation. The afternoon ended in the barn where quilts were thrown over bails of hay to create an amphitheater for the concert and supper that followed. Entertainment was provided by local singer and magician Richard Knechtel, followed by Guelph singer Stephen Fearing who shared songs from his new CD of live performances, So Many Miles. The sound in the barn put big city concert halls to shame. The delicious meal that followed was provided by Dos Rios Cafe of Paisley. Supporters came away from that day with a deep appreciation of the real Walkerton, a beautiful small town with farming and community spirit central to its life-a town determined to heal.

CWC organized a second fundraising event on October 19th with Naturalist and Geneticist, David Suzuki. Dr. Suzuki introduced the community to the approach known as the environmental footprint, an alternative economic tool that factors in the worth of ecosystems and their carrying capacity into policy and decision-making. As he has done for 20 years on his program The Nature of Things, Suzuki infuses local issues with global ones in an effort always to make science socially and environmentally responsible.

Walkerton, has become a symbol to others of a system gone very wrong. Many people want to do whatever they can to help those who have been visited with the most painful and overt result of too many cuts. In September, the Canadian Federation of Students suggested joining forces with CELA to hold a Toronto benefit during their October 23rd weekend of activities to protest these cuts. Mayworks joined with us to help put together a great line-up of entertainment for this benefit held at Oakham House at Ryerson. While students and artists are living with cuts affecting their lives, many gave generously of their time to make this event a success. NDP Environment Critic Marilyn Churley hosted the event and spirits were high after the surprise demise of the Adams Mine deal the day before. A cappella singers the "Divine Divas" gave a spirited start to the evening with their medley of protest songs. Singer/songwriter Carey West and accompanist Michael Warnick followed with their own thoughtful and powerful original compositions, Toronto balladeer Andrew Baranofsi previewed his song Woes of Walkerton. Imagist-at-large, Gera Dillon showed a video he made of Shadowland's 2000 Caribana carnival entry "H2O--OH" dedicated to the people of Walkerton. This Caribana band has kept the populist origins of carnival in political satire alive with its portrayal of the piracy of clean water. The evening was cranked up and danced out by the energetic band Tibi and the Soul Point Five. Many of those attending responded with generous pledges some of them donating their recently received Ontario tax rebate to the cause.

For the thirty years CELA has existed, the one enduring constant has been the dedicated communities and individuals that put their lives on hold to fight huge and complex environmental and health protection issues for local improvements and always in the greater public interest. They know that the environment is not a special interest. It is the one world we all live in and share with all life. What will it take to convince our governments and politicians of this? The test of this Inquiry will be counted in the changes made to environmental protection that will prevent this from ever happening again. Support for the expert fund is still needed. Contributions should be made out to Concerned Walkerton Citizens and sent to CELA. Thank you to everyone who has helped us so far in so many ways.
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Sarah Miller is the coordinator at CELA