Twenty years after Walkerton, what’s changed?

In 2000, seven people died in the southwestern community. Advocates say government still isn’t doing enough to ensure safe drinking water for all Ontarians
By Tebasum Durrani - Published on May 21, 2020
A sign on a water fountain in the hospital in Walkerton on May 24, 2000. (Kevin Frayer/CP)



On a spring day 20 years ago, at the height of Ontario’s Walkerton water-contamination tragedy, Bruce Davidson was standing in his backyard with his nine-year-old son. The town’s hospital was just across the park from his home.  

As they watched an air ambulance take off, his son asked, “Dad, are they going to die?” 

“I really struggled … What do you say? That’s the third person on your street to be airlifted … How do you tell them it’s going to be okay?” says Davidson, co-founder of the water-advocacy group Concerned Citizens of Walkerton. 

By the end of May 2000, seven people had died and more than 2,000 had fallen ill — the result of the town’s municipal water supply having been contaminated with E. coli bacteria after manure washed into a groundwater well. 

Following the tragedy, Ontario enacted laws, including the Clean Water Act, to protect municipal drinking water. While municipal water systems meet provincial water-quality standards 99.8 per cent of the time, advocates are warning that more legislative changes are needed to ensure safe drinking water for all Ontarians. 

The act divides Ontario into source-protection areas, each of which is overseen by a local committee or conservation authority, and mandates protection for municipal drinking water at the source. It also requires the development of source-protection plans to identify contamination threats to water sources, and of policies to address those threats. 

But 18 per cent of Ontarians — more than 2 million people — either don’t live in a source-protection area or rely on non-municipal sources for their drinking water.

“There’s a creeping sense of complacency about drinking-water safety — and we need to shake that off,” says Richard Lindgren, a lawyer at the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

Last December, CELA requested a review of the act and called for its protections to be extended to non-municipal water sources and to prioritize systems that supply water to vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, and people in health-care facilities. 

“It’s a major gap that leaves a good chunk of our population vulnerable,” says Kelsey Scarfone, water-program manager at Environmental Defence, an advocacy organization. 

In parts of northern Ontario, many communities rely exclusively on private wells for drinking water. The Mississauga-Rideau Source Protection Plan notes that 89 per cent of the region is classified as a highly vulnerable aquifer, meaning it is susceptible to contamination. And approximately 25 per cent of the population in the region does not get its drinking water from municipal sources. 

The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks says it is not planning to conduct a review of the Clean Water Act. A spokesperson told via email that, acting on a recommendation from the auditor general, the ministry is assessing the feasibility of requiring source-protection plans to address threats to water sources supplying private wells and intakes — but that “it has been determined that the public interest does not warrant expending the resources required to conduct a separate, parallel review.” 

The ministry says the act currently allows a municipality to include non- municipal water systems, including private well clusters in a source-protection process; CELA says no municipality has opted to do so. The ministry also told that existing laws, including the Municipal Act enable municipalities to consider water-safety issues in land-use planning decisions.

But CELA says that these laws are discretionary and do not adequately address risks that arise from pre-existing activities that could lead to water contamination. “Municipal planning act protections … generally kick in when there is a development application being proposed,” says Lindgren. “But [the Planning Act] doesn’t do anything for existing land uses that are on the landscape that may be impacting water … it offers no tools to retroactively go after those folks.” 

Water safety is an ongoing issue for many First Nations communities in particular. According to last December’s Ontario auditor-general report, 22 First Nations communities are under water advisories. These range from do-not-use advisories to boil advisories, which advise communities to boil water for at least one minute before consuming it. 

As most of Ontario’s north does not fall under the jurisdiction of a local conservation authority, many First Nations communities are not part of source-water protection plans. Of the 133 First Nations communities across Ontario, just 27 are situated in a source-protection area; only three have passed band-council resolutions to include their water systems within the provincially regulated source-protection process. 

Chippewas of Rama First Nation is one of the few First Nations that has opted into the provincial process; it’s a member of the South Georgian Bay Lake Simcoe Source Protection Committee. “We … have always been cognizant of our neighbours and find ways to work with them in collaboration,” says Dan Shilling, the nation’s chief administrative officer. 

Shilling says that opting into the protection process allowed the community to identify potential hazards to water-intake systems and to develop expertise within the community to sustain the process. But he says many First Nations communities lack the capacity to maintain treatment facilities. 

Other First Nations communities have developed their own measures outside the provincial process. Whitefish River First Nation, an Anishinaabe community north of Manitoulin Island, developed a community-based protection plan with funding from various sources, including Health Canada. The community’s treatment facility provides drinking water to the vast majority of residents. “Water is life, and, if you don’t have good water, it affects your life,” says Murray McGregor, the manager of the water-treatment plant. 

McGregor says that many First Nations communities, including Whitefish River, face multiple challenges to ensuring safe drinking water, including a lack of stable funding for protection plans to respond to climate change and the environmental consequences of increased tourism activities. 

Reserve lands and resources are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, but provincially regulated activities can have an impact on the drinking-water sources First Nations communities rely on, says Lindgren. “It’s not inconceivable that where a [First Nations community] is reliant on surface water, there might be an upstream pulp mill or forestry or mining … provincially regulated activities that could potentially have an effect on the quality or quantity of the drinking-water source.” 

Lindgren says that many provincial approvals and permits must comply with approved source-protection plans. But if a First Nations community has developed its own protection measures, there is no compliance requirement — and he points to that  gap in the Clean Water Act: “Where a First Nation has gone through the process, and developed their own in-house source-protection approach … the Clean Water Act should have provisions to make those measures enforceable with respect to any provincially issued permits.” 

For Davidson, the focus on water issues remains as pressing as ever. Concerned Citizens of Walkerton initially formed as a grassroots organization pushing for an inquiry. It is now primarily focused on education, and Davidson makes presentations across the country on water issues.  

“When you look at our region, where half the people are receiving their water from private sources, that isn’t a reasonable way to proceed, and I think it does put people at risk,” he says. “When we are at an unknowing risk, we can be filled with a false sense of confidence, which is not properly placed.” 

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