GEOFFREY STEVENS writes a weekly column which he circulates to his personal distribution list and publishes each Monday in the Waterloo Region Record. His column, entitled “Does Doug Ford Know About Walkerton?,” published yesterday, is particularly timely.
With thanks to Geoffrey, I commend it to you and share it here:
“Does Doug Ford Know About Walkerton?
“Is there an Honest Broker in the Progressive Conservative party of Ontario?
“If so, please take Doug Ford aside, sit him down, and suggest he hush up while you explain some of the facts of political life, Ontario style.
“Be patient, Honest Broker. Ford is new and a bit brash. He won’t like it when you recall what happened two decades ago when the province was won by a leader wedded to a platform of rooting out so much waste at Queen’s Park that he could simultaneously slash taxes and eliminate the deficit without, as that leader promised, touching any basic services.
“That leader, of course, was Mike Harris, premier from 1995-2002, in whose caucus Ford’s father sat for one term. Before going into some of the nasty nitty-gritty (28 hospitals closed, 6,000 nurses fired, $1 billion chopped from education), please remind Ford about Walkerton. Walkerton remains the most enduring and tragic monument to the folly of Harris years.
“Tell Ford he must read the moving account of Robbie Schnurr on the front page of Saturday’s Toronto Star. Schnurr, a former OPP officer, took his own life through doctor-assisted suicide two weeks ago, making him the most recent known victim of the Walkerton tainted-water scandal.
“It was a hot, muggy day in May 2000 when Schnurr drove to Walkerton to visit friends. While there, he chugged down a pitcher of tap water. He did not know that the municipal water supply had been contaminated with E. coli bacteria. No one in the town knew. But they knew it soon enough, as 2,300 residents, half of the town’s population, fell ill. Seven died and many others suffered permanent health damage.
“Robbie Schnurr knew it when he got home to Mississauga and collapsed, bleeding, on the floor of his condo. “I had blood coming out of both ends,” he told the Star. He lay there for two days, too weak to summon help. The next 18 years were a downward spiral: constant pain from a degenerative neurological disease, unemployment, and, as the end neared, he was unable to walk or even open his medication bottles.
“If you are still with us, Honest Broker, you might give Ford a copy of Mr. Justice Dennis O’Connor’s inquiry report into the Walkerton tragedy. The judge found that proper chlorination could have prevented the outbreak. But budget cuts had left the provincial environment ministry without enough inspectors to oversee the system of checks and balances that had previously ensured the safety of municipal water systems.
“When O’Connor’s report was released in 2002, Premier Harris went to Walkerton to express his ‘deep regrets’… [saying] I, as premier, must ultimately accept responsibility for any shortcomings of the government of Ontario. … I would also like to say that I am truly sorry for the pain and suffering that you have experienced.’
“Expressions of regret and sorrow are welcome, but they do not bring back the dead or retroactively relieve a Robbie Schnurr of a life of pain. The effects of bad government policy can be irreversible.
“It can reasonably be argued that hospital wait times would not be out of sight today or hospital beds in such dire shortage had it not been for the damage inflicted on the health system by the Harris government. It has taken a generation to recover and the recovery is not complete yet.
“It seems to me, Honest Broker, that the high purpose of government is not to cut taxes or balance budgets. It is to serve and protect its people – to keep them safe from contaminated food and water, safe from violence when they venture into streets and other public spaces, safe from accidents on dangerous highways or in shoddy buildings.
“And to serve them by making sure all citizens have an equal opportunity in terms of education, decent housing and access to public services to make their way in the world, according to their abilities.
“Does Doug Ford understand this?”
GEOFFREY STEVENS, author, former Ottawa columnist and managing editor the Globe and Mail, resides in Cambridge, Ontario, and teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.