Walkerton Inquiry Review: Public policy success equals clean drinking water for all

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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May 9, 2003: "Drinking water sources should be protected by developing watershed-based source protection plans. Source protection plans should be required for all watersheds in Ontario," so wrote Justice O'Connor in his chapter on "The Protection of Drinking Water Resources" in his Report of the Walkerton Inquiry in May of 2002.

O'Connor's advice led to the creation of an Advisory Committee on Watershed-based Source Protection Planning. Now, less than a year after the Walkerton findings, the report of this Advisory Committee turns O'Connor's original 17 recommendations about drinking water source protection into 55 recommendations that spell out a planning framework for getting the job done.

The proposed planning framework follows O'Connor's recommendations utterly. The first recommendation: "The government require the watershed-based source protection framework described in the Advisory Committee's report and recommendations to be used in all watersheds in Ontario."

Justice O'Connor will not be surprised.

Earlier this month, at a seminar in Toronto on accountability in government, O'Connor spelled out the Walkerton Inquiry's road to a public policy success.

It won public confidence. It was thorough. It considered all the options. It was timely. It demonstrated a spirit of working hard. The public did not lose interest. It was transparent, accessible and open. Everything was on its website. It was fairly run. Everybody was heard in an orderly fashion. It worked with the best people in Canada

The first part of the Inquiry had investigated what went wrong in Walkerton and was dominated by lawyers. The policy part of the Inquiry, also known as Part ll, and focused on future public policy, was independent from government and accountable only to the public for its policy advice and recommendations. Part II avoided lawyers and depended on researchers, experts and stakeholders.

The research agenda created the finest library worldwide of modern best practices for protecting drinking water. The 36 diverse groups that were granted intervenor status created a body of people who had something meaningful to say. They met with the experts in public meetings to narrow the issues and create policy options. In O'Connor's words: "The concerned stakeholders came together and developed the recommendations very cooperatively. It was a fantastic response."

The watershed-based source protection framework will soon reach onto our farms, particularly in areas where drinking water is vulnerable to contamination. When that time comes it will be imperative to look past the causes of contaminated water and the deaths in Walkerton. As O'Connor pointed out during the seminar, what happened in Walkerton had little impact on the Inquiry's policy recommendations. He suggested five percent. The source protection recommendations are, in fact, the result of stakeholder cooperation.


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Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.