Be involved; lives may matter - Keith Roulston editorial
In a week when Ontario Premier Doug Ford decided he was risking his government’s electability in pushing the sale of portions of the Greenbelt around Toronto for new housing, there was an even bigger scandal continuing in Alberta where 350 children in several Calgary daycares were infected with E. coli, with 20 severe cases.
Perhaps Premier Ford recalled that it was ambivalence about public health that undermined the previous Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris, which could be seen as leading to the infection of 2,300 Walkerton residents with seven being affected so severely they died.
If you were old enough to have been aware of the Walkerton tragedy, it’s hard to ignore the similarities to the Alberta case. In both cases, governments in Ontario and Alberta, with a detestation of interfering in the lives of the public, de-emphasized the role of provincial inspections, and in both cases the result was mass infections.
I was reminded nearly every day of my closeness to the Walkerton infection. The outbreak took place in May, but in January I had been in the building that was often shown in connection with the outbreak because it held the office of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (also a victim of the Harris government’s cuts), which was right in front of a Walkerton Public Utilities water well and pump house, where PUC employees (no longer worried about provincial inspectors double-checking their records) skimped on testing of the water. That water, unknowingly, had been infected by E. coli that drained into the area from a nearby beef farm (the owner of which was also a vet, sometimes speaking at those meetings at the OMAFRA office that I attended).
The news stories continued day after day as more and more people got sick and, in some cases, died. The truth about the infected, untreated, water eventually was unearthed and the employees were charged with their neglect of duty. While people disliked so much government interference in their lives, they realized, once again, that it was necessary. The Harris government’s pledge of less government control of our lives seemed hollow. Premier Harris resigned two years later and the Liberals took over the government in 2003 for more than a decade.
Liberals are definitely not about to replace the United Conservative Party (UCP) in Alberta, but Rachel Notley and the New Democratic Party (NDP) did hold power before Premier Danielle Smith regained control for the UCP and polls have her in a very competitive position if another election were held.
Also reminding Ontario government voters of the Harris government is the constant trouble with keeping emergency rooms working in hospitals in Clinton and Chesley. Under Harris’s health care proposals, both these hospitals were scheduled for closure. Today, the provincial government has shown little reaction to how staff shortages have kept these two - and many other rural hospitals - unable to staff their emergency rooms and keep them available for residents in need of care.
It’s a constant struggle for Ontario voters and Ontario governments. How do you, on one hand, give hospital administrators the staff they need, without encouraging them to hire more than necessary? How do you have regulations that prevent a Walkerton or Calgary water crisis, without, at the same time, allowing health care costs to mushroom?
Most of us want both - we want to be protected, but we resent paying higher taxes. In Ontario, this has meant we have alternated between Progressive Conservative governments that vowed to keep costs under control, and Liberal and NDP governments that promised to give us the services we wanted.
But there are also the party supporters hidden behind the scenes, such as the land developers in the case of the Greenbelt lands, who want governments to let them have free access in protected areas. In this case, the government displeased enough voters that it soon feared for the future of the party and its reign of power.
The result demonstrates how important it is for us to stay involved between elections. The Greenbelt lands are not simply potential land for houses (and making money for developers). That land is rare - prime food-growing land that can’t be replaced. That doesn’t matter to developers who worry only about building new subdivisions, but it is essential to the people who’ll live in the houses they build and who will continue to need to have Ontario’s surplus of food.
As the Walkerton or Calgary water crises prove and the loss of farmland in the Greenbelt demonstrates, we voters need to remain constantly on the alert as to what the end result of government actions is. Our lives just might be at stake.