On May 15, 2000, the small town of Walkerton, Ontario, was struck by an epidemic of diarrhea. At least 2,500 people were found to be infected with E. coli bacteria from the town’s water supply. At least seven people died as a result of the outbreak.
Then-premier Mike Harris blamed the tragedy on the previous NDP government, and called an enquiry, which eventually found that Harris’ own privatization policies had helped to create the crisis by replacing qualified government inspectors with a couple of guys with no training who drank on the job and faked test results.
On August 19, 2011, Stephen Harper was paying a visit to Haines Junction, Yukon, when he was asked about a federal plan to cut 21 of 23 water-monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories. Harper deflected this question by shifting the blame to the civil service. “That was not authorized,” he said, promising that Environment Minister Peter Kent would quickly reverse this bureaucratic gaffe.
It was at best a curious response. The most recent budget had slashed $100 million from the Environment Department. Everybody knew jobs and programs had to be cut somewhere. Was Harper suggesting that the decision on where to cut was left to the civil service, with no input from their political masters? Was shutting down 21 water-monitoring stations a clandestine action by some rogue bureaucrats, and if so how did they hide it? Were privy council and the environment minister’s staff all asleep at the wheel?
This week the Canadian Press released a 600-page internal government file, obtained through a hard-fought access to information request, which proves that Harper’s attack on the civil service had no basis in truth. In fact, Kent knew well in advance about the proposal to shut down water-testing stations. Not only was Kent informed by his own staff, N.W.T. Environment Minister J. Michael Miltenberger personally alerted his federal counterpart to the danger months before Harper’s visit.
To no one’s surprise, the Harper government fought tooth and nail to prevent evidence of this prime-ministerial misstatement from reaching the public. They withheld the internal review for six months beyond the legal deadline, and have successfully blocked all attempts to publicize a one-page Privy Council Office briefing note for the prime minister that might have shed light on whether his departure from the truth in Haines Junction was deliberate, or just bizarrely ill-informed.
The old Harris provincial government is well represented at the most senior levels of Harper’s cabinet. Jim Flaherty, John Baird, and Tony Clement were all on watch when tragedy struck Walkerton. How has the program changed?
We still see a blind commitment to tax-cutting resulting in a dangerous drop in government revenues that can only be solved by cutting essential services and programs. These policies did untold damage in Ontario and now they’re having the same effect on Canada.
The Parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, has been trying for months to get the Harper government to come clean on what it intends to cut in order to achieve the spending reductions laid out in the latest budget. A combination of mismanagement and ideology has led Harper and Flaherty to squander the surplus they inherited from the Liberals and pile up a record deficit, sitting today at around $26 billion.
Having created this fiscal crisis, Harper and Flaherty plan to fix it in the tried-and-false Conservative way – by slashing spending. There is no responsible way to go about this. Forget the guff about improving efficiencies and cutting the fat, you don’t get billions in savings without doing serious damage, whether to water monitoring, food safety, environmental regulation, infrastructure, education, health, defence, national parks, or social services. Somebody has to bleed. That’s why it’s so important to hide the truth from Parliament and from the public.
The people of Ontario would have been a lot less willing to follow Harris, Flaherty and friends down the path that led to Walkerton if they’d seen the sickness and death at the end. That’s why it makes so much sense for Harper to withhold the truth from Canadians.
When you’re leading the people to disaster, it goes a lot smoother if you lead them blind.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.