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Walkerton and Long-Term Care Facilities: Avoidable Tragedies

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Mike Harris was the Premier of Ontario at the time, and at the start, the town affected was St. Thomas, ON. As the Premier stated, his priorities were reducing debt and supporting business, as part of his “common sense revolution”. In 2000 the small farms in Ontario were replaced by “megafarms” (The Globe and Mail in 2000 remarked that in 1985 each hog farm had 286 pigs, but that number rose to 917 per farm in 2000). The size of these farms produced noxious and harmful odors in the area, but the main problem was that waste was not treated like human waste, and it was known to produce e-coli.

The Hern family lived in Kirkton, 50 km north of London, they noted they had 10,000 hogs nearby and their waste was equal to that produced by 40,000 people. It would have been necessary to emphasize environmental and public health measures, not the protection of business. In fact, the main problem was that the definition of “farm” for such industrial operations was completely inappropriate. Deregulation, imposed by the government of Mike Harris did not keep pace with science, but essentially removed monitoring the controls, for the protection of the public. “The Common Sense Revolution” equal public protection with “red tape” and in 2000 the “Red Tape Commission” became a permanent legislative body.

The Ontario Water’s Objectives (1994) stated, “if the water contains any indicators of unsafe water quality, the laboratory will immediately notify the MOE District Officer who will immediately notify the Medical Officer of Health…however these guidelines were not mandatory or enforceable. As early as 1995 Walkerton was identified by Health Canada as a “high risk area of infection from e-coli”. As well, the Ontario Protection Act (OEPA) forbids discharging into the environment contaminants; but animal water, according to normal farming practices were exempt (R.S.O. 1990.Che.19, Section 6). Thus the erroneous definition of an agribusiness operation as “normal farming”, the later neither detailed nor defined, remains.

Further the Water Works and Sewage Works (O.Reg.435/93) specifies training measures for its operators, grade 12 education, and special training added every year. These measures were never implemented. The result was the Walkerton tragedy, with around 3000 deaths mostly the elderly and children. Two years later, a Walkerton inquiry was initiated, and Commissioner Judge Dennis O’Connor carefully established the lines of causality, the presence of numerous unchecked errors, and most of all the negligent actions of untrained, unqualified and careless personnel, who were neither supervised nor reviewed by the appropriate bureaucracies.

The last sentence of Judge O’Connor applies equally to the current treatment of people in long-term care homes under the leadership of Doug Ford. We see the same language, the same slogans, but also the same practices, and the results are similar as well. It seems that it was involved in more than making mistakes, that can soon be rectified, as we hear. The effects that we noted, criminal neglect and negligence, leading to the deaths of thousands who die alone, completely abandoned, starved, in indescribable dirt, until the Canadian Army intervened to offer some support, represents far more than a mistake to be rectified in some distant future.

A new inquiry should be called not only for the Premier, but for Mike Harris and his wife who are the owners of Chartwell Homes and other for-profit institutions, from which they continue to earn a substantial income with impunity.

Laura Westra, Ph.D is Professor Emerita at the University of Windsor and Sessional Instructor at its Faculty of Law and has been Visiting Professor, Faculty of Jurisprudence, University of Salerno. She is the author of The Walkerton Tragedy: Ecoviolence and the Law, 2004, Transnational Publishers, Ardsley, NY (p148-187).

[ Image by Jai79 from Pixabay ]


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