I’ve been thinking about water a lot lately. It’s something we so take for granted here in Canada, even though I am well-aware that for many communities in our country it remains a struggle to have access to clean, safe drinking water. When you have water, you assume you will always have it and when your water is safe, you assume that it will always be safe. And so most of you probably give very little thought to the water you drink.
I’ve lived in places where water is always on your mind. As a child in Papua New Guinea, I remember helping my dad tap tap tap the water tank at the side of the house with a stone to determine just how much water we had left to get through the dry season. In Haiti, we received municipal water through the pipe into our cistern for just one hour each Sunday morning, and then we had to hope it would last the week. We recycled water to use in the toilets. And if a good rain fell, we ran for our shampoo and headed outside for a good long shower under the downspout. If the water in the cistern ran out, we did without until Sunday, or we paid for a “camion de l’eau” to bring us a truckload of water to fill up our cistern. In Kenya, I boiled and filtered all water for drinking or use in cooking. Actually, in all those places I lived, it was never safe to drink the water without boiling it. But boiling typically did the trick and dangerous water became safe to drink. It was just part of our routine, to have to question the safety of our water all the time. I guess you get used to worrying about water when you live in developing countries.
Weird thing is, the most dangerous water I’ve consumed has been here in Canada.
When I was a teenager in Elmira, we were suddenly informed that some pretty toxic chemicals had ended up in our groundwater thanks to the local chemical company. Suddenly, we no longer had access to safe drinking water. Concerned citizens groups had been trying to raise the alarm and most people ignored them or dismissed them as raging radicals. Even the company and the government admitted that they were shocked at the levels of toxins that had found their way into our water but could not deny the evidence once proper testing was done. No one had believed that the threat was real until the ‘highly unlikely’ occurred. It was front page, national news and everyone suddenly cared. The news cameras would pan across our sweet little downtown, always managing to include a horse and buggy or two. Reporters would ask us how we felt about our poisoned water. Many experts weighed in and tried to figure out what to do about the problem. How could this happen here? Why weren’t they stopped? What was the solution now that the water was contaminated?
For them, it was a political issue. For us, it was very personal. And it was very immediate and there was no undoing what had been done. We had been consuming the toxins for a while and now, suddenly, it was unthinkable to drink that water. We had to go to the fire station to pick up water that had been trucked in for our use. There were water coolers set up in the halls of the local schools. We were even concerned about showering and skin exposure to the toxins. Eventually, a pipeline was built to Waterloo because our local water could not be reclaimed. They say it will still be another few DECADES before Elmira's groundwater is safe for human consumption. In Geography class, we still show the ‘Nature of Things’ episode about Elmira's water as part of the curriculum. It's a cautionary tale. But here’s the scariest part: we are always waiting and wondering about the long-term effects of our exposure to those chemicals. We are waiting to find out just how many of us end up with those rare cancers that really aren’t so rare when everyone in the neighbourhood knows someone who is suffering from the same illness. That chemical company still operates in Elmira (under a different name), still provides employment in Elmira, still pollutes and harms the people of Elmira, and still makes profits in Elmira. And decades later, the people of Elmira still cannot drink the local water because the groundwater remains contaminated with toxins. This is where I am coming from when I say I am thinking about water.
Right now in Paris, we are fighting to keep this from happening to our town's water source. We have one last chance to save our water from being polluted by dangerous toxins, and so we (a group of freaked-out moms called the Rabblerousers) are trying to mobilize our neighbours to show up and show the tribunal chair that this is not okay. The Ministry of Environment has granted a permit to take water to a local gravel company, despite the recommendations of experts who say that there is a very real threat that the chemicals gathered from the gravel and concentrated in the washing pond will find their way into our aquifer, just one metre below the pond. Concerned citizens have been fighting tirelessly to ask for more testing and for limits on the operation. And it has come down to this appeal of the Ministry’s decision. A tribunal chair will decide if the company can go ahead with plans to endanger our water source in exchange for the extra profit earned from washing the gravel on site. We are asking that more testing be done to ensure that it is safe before the water is put at risk. Our children should not be lab rats, used to determine safe levels of toxic chemicals in our drinking water. I find that a lot of my friends and neighbours are hesitant to get involved, or to even comment on the issue. I guess, for them, it’s still a political issue and they just aren't into that sort of thing. And what I want to tell them is that it is insanely personal. Miscarriage after miscarriage is personal. Having a chronically ill child is personal. Cancer in the family is personal. Coming to grips with the fact that industry and government do not actually have your safety at the top of their list of priorities is personal. And waiting until after the damage has been done to find your voice is just tragic.
A book has been written about what happened in my hometown. Called ‘No Guardians at the Gate: The Elmira Water Crisis’, it explains the saga in this way: “The Elmira story sometimes has been cluttered with legal manoeuvering, appeals, and science that isn't easy to understand or explain. But, at its heart, the story is about a company that knew a lot about making chemicals, not much about protecting the environment; a provincial government that didn't have the teeth, manpower or political will to enforce its laws; and residents who were prepared to do whatever it took to protect their community.” That’s sounds a lot like what is happening here. I never want to relive that story, and I hope we don’t have to here in Paris. But I do hope, at the very least, that we are remembered as residents who were prepared to do whatever it took to protect their community. Decisions are made by those who show up. Changes are made by those who show up. History is made by those who show up.
My hope is that if you are reading this, and you are close enough to do so, that you will show up. We are asking people to bring their friends and family to Council Chambers here in Paris on January 11th at 7pm. The tribunal chair has set aside that time to hear from community members and it’s important that we show her that enough of us care. An empty room sends a very clear message to her that this community doesn’t care about the threat to their water source, so why should she? So, please, if you can, find a way to show up and be seen as someone who wants to see our water protected. Be the faces of the community that she looks upon as she makes her decision about the future of our water source. It is an easy yet personal way to show you care, and to model for your kids what it means to show up and to stand up for what’s right.
Find out more information about showing up at the tribunal here.
Read more about Elmira’s water story here.
Check out my funky little prezi about Paris’ water story here.
Join our group of Rabblerousers here.