Will We See Another Walkerton Water Crisis in Ontario?

The Doug Ford conservative government unveiled new legislation last week that could risk the safety and security of Ontario’s drinking water supplies — changes that would roll back the safeguards that were put in place after the 2000 Walkerton Water Crisis.

According to an article written by Jennifer Pagliaro in yesterday’s Toronto Star,

“Nearly 19 years later, environmental advocates say Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is posing one of the greatest risks both the environment and public health have faced in decades. Last week, the government tabled a new piece of legislation, Bill 66, that, if passed, would allow commercial development to bypass several long-standing laws meant to protect the natural environment and the health of residents, including the Clean Water Act that was put in place following the Walkerton tragedy.”

The Walkerton water crisis is personal for me — on May 23, 2000, as the president of Frontline Corporate Communications, I was retained to assist the town of Walkerton with crisis communications support. I was there when helicopters would leave the local hospital and transport a very sick patient to University Hospital in London, Ontario — where seven eventually died. Studies after the crisis concluded that half the town’s population of 5,000 were sickened by the e-coli contamination of the local water supply.

Two years after the crisis, Ontario Justice Dennis O’Connor issued a damning report that placed much of the blame on the then Mike Harris conservative government and concluded that the e-coli outbreak could have been prevented.

On that January afternoon in 2002, according to a CBC report, Harris bravely appeared in Walkerton to accept full responsibility:

“A few hours after Justice O’Connor released his report, Ontario Premier Mike Harris arrived in Walkerton to express his “deep regrets.” Harris made a point of sipping on a glass of water while he answered media questions.

“I, as premier, must ultimately accept responsibility for any shortcomings of the government of Ontario,” he told a nationally televised news conference.

“I would also like to say to the people of Walkerton on behalf of the provincial government and the people of Ontario that I am truly sorry for the pain and suffering that you have experienced.”

Seven deaths were attributed to the E. coli outbreak. He said he regrets anything his government may have done that might have contributed to the contamination in the town’s water supply.

It seems like déja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said — a conservative government removing safeguards to protect our health and the environment. We know how this movie ended in 2000 — let’s not let the Ford government create another Walkerton. And if it does, it will be the end of Doug Ford’s political career, just like it ended Mike Harris’s days as Premier.

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The Crisis Leadership Approach (circa 2004)

I was rummaging through old file boxes this weekend and found a manuscript that I wrote in 2004 that I didn’t submit for publication — for reasons that now escape me. I’ve uploaded the unpublished manuscript to ResearchGate.

Here are my top 10 tips for organizations to develop and nuture a crisis leadership approach within their organizations (taken from this article).

Crisis Leadership Approach (circa 2004)

  1. Your senior management team has the vision and the leadership to anticipate crises within and outside your organization.
  2. Your team has identified the most-likely threats and challenges to your organization’s operations and you have written and tested effective response
  3. Your organization has a multi-disciplinary crisis management team established and ready to
  4. Your primary goal during a crisis is to attend to the immediate needs of the organization and your key stakeholders and resolving the crisis in the interests of your organization and the public.
  5. Your public relations staff/consultants have the necessary resources to manage a .. today.
  6. Your senior management team has delegated the authority to your crisis management team to make the critical organizational decisions during a
  7. You have identified your key stakeholders (employees, neighbors, shareholders, suppliers, customers) and have the means to communicate with them during a
  8. Your organization is committed to open, ethical and timely communication with the public during a
  9. You are part of a learning organization and have already put in place a ” lessons learned” process for your next
  10. You understand that effective crisis communication and management is a long-term commitment.

Interesting that I didn’t mention the words digital or social media as platforms such as FaceBook and Twitter either hadn’t been made public or invented in 2004.