Ontario Premier Mike Harris survived his appearance yesterday before the Walkerton inquiry. More than survived: He triumphed. Facing an orchestrated ambush by smirking union lawyers, hired activists and placard-carrying demonstrators, Mr. Harris rose so far above the low politically motivated smears of his prosecutors that many citizens of Ontario must now be wondering about the validity of the Harris caricature they have been fed for most of the past year.
Last May, a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria contaminated the water system in Walkerton, Ontario. A testing lab informed the Public Utilities Commission of the contamination, but, inexplicably, the PUC withheld the information from both the public and the government for the following five days. Not until the medical officer of health, alarmed by the soaring cases of bloody diarrhea in the town, conducted independent tests did the PUC confess its dirty secret. The information came too late: The contaminated water killed six people and sickened 2,000.
To have the cleanest tap water possible, the Mike Harris government has announced stricter regulations governing the testing of the Ontario water supply. This despite the fact that the testing of the water supply was the only component of the Walkerton water system that functioned properly in one of the worst outbreaks of E. coli poisoning in Canadian history. Not only did the private lab detect the E. coli bacteria in the water sample, the lab also immediately notified the municipality.
In the aftermath of the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario, media outlets quickly moved from examining human error as the cause of the infection to pointing the finger at the government for deregulation, off-loading, and privatization. The Tuesday, May 30, 2000 edition of CBC Newsworld’s "Counterspin," was titled, "Don’t Drink the Privatized Water." That show was inspired by the Ontario opposition parties who denounced the privatization of Ontario’s water supply testing as a possible cause for the outbreak.