WALKERTON – It was 20 years ago this month that the Walkerton Inquiry summed up its investigation and made recommendations that had an impact on drinking water in communities across Ontario, Canada and around the world. On Aug. 24, the members of the commission reunited in Walkerton to reminisce and engage the current staff at the Walkerton Clean Water Centre in a discussion about the legacy of inquiry.
“These people changed the face of drinking water, not just in the province of Ontario … but for Canada and for many, many places around the world, who all started to fall in line when they saw what had happened in Ontario – the seven people who died here, thousands that were ill, many of them with long term illnesses,” said Carl Kuhnke, CEO of the Walkerton Clean Water Centre.
Dennis O’Connor, who served as Chief Commissioner of Inquiry opened up the discussion by reminding everyone that the key players pulled up stakes and relocated to Walkerton for the duration of the inquiry.
“It turned out to be for all of us one of the smartest things that we could have done and looking back for all of us, one of the most memorable things in our lives really to have participated in that,” he said. “When we worked on the inquiry we did it here but it was very much an ad-hoc group. There was no infrastructure, so to speak. We started with a blank piece of paper … We worked together and did whatever had to be done and we had a spectacular amount of help from experts who had been thinking about these … drinking water issues for years.”
O’Connor said that although he was a judge and investigation was one function of that work, they were fortunate that they were able to draw upon that expertise
“We’re used to investigating … and listening to the facts,” he said. “The more challenging and I’d say the more important part of the mandate was to make recommendations for the safety of drinking water in Ontario… That went beyond problems in Walkerton and so we were able to, because of the tragedy and the unfortunate issues, attract all sorts of expertise from engineers, health professionals, drinking water specialists and … it assisted us in conducting our hearing and putting together recommendations.”
According to O’Connor, it was a life-changing event and it was vitally important.
“I mean we knew early on that the tragedy was terrible,” he said. “We didn’t know early on that the other potential consequences in Walkerton were by no means an isolated incident. We learned the gravity of the situation as we went and that there were other Walkertons out there about to happen.”
He called the inquiry “a rather scary responsibility of actually trying to put this together in this sort of a coherent set of recommendations that could be implemented.” The fact that the recommendations were implemented was very satisfying for the commission.
O’Connor has returned to Walkerton several times in the years since the inquiry concluded its investigation, including attending the opening of the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, but for other members of the commission, it was their first time there.
“I can tell by the reactions – it is inspiring to us to see this centre, obviously of excellence, so well run and so committed to safe drinking water,” he said. “It’s hard not to become a bit emotional about it … To see all of you people who work here who are dedicated to that goal in carrying out all of that responsibility – what wonderful work.”
O’Connor took the opportunity to introduce the other members of the commission who were able to attend. Paul Cavalluzzo, one of the Commission Counsel was unable to attend for health reasons. Since the Walkerton Inquiry, he has been appointed to the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.
Madame Justice Freya Kristjanson was also one of the commission council. She was a lawyer at the time and she moved to Walkerton.
“Freya was appointed to the superior court of justice so she’s Madame Justice Freya … about five years ago so she’s a judge,” said O’Connor.
Brian Gover was one of the commission council as well, has gone on to be a highly regarded lawyer across Ontario and Canada and he served as president of the advocate society.
“He’s involved in all sorts of public enquiries and he just had a wonderful career,” said O’Connor.
When O’Connor was appointed to head the commission, Gus Van Harten was his law clerk.
Van Harten came into the office one day and O’Connor asked if he knew how to drive. When Van Harten confirmed that he did he was asked to be O’Connor’s executive assistant on the Walkerton Inquiry.
“He came and moved with us and he was wonderful,” said O’Connor. “He’s gone on to become an academic. He teaches at Osgoode Hall Law School. He’s written four books. More than I could ever dream of and he just finished a term as the associate dean at the law school.”
The final Inquiry commission member to be introduced was Paul Rehak, communications consultant and Inquiry media head. He is a journalist who used to be a producer with W5 on CTV.
“We asked him to do this and he was terrific,” said O’Connor. “Since then he has been the media relations guy for virtually every public inquiry in Ontario… He just finished doing one on COVID long-term care… Peter would say he was thinking of hanging up his hat but I think we convinced him he’s still a very young man and there are more public inquiries on the horizon.”
Although people tend to identify him with the Walkerton Inquiry, O’Connor said the entire commission put in a lot of hard work and sacrifice spending nights and weekends away from home and family.
“We said we were going to do the best we can and we were going to do it quickly – we are going to get this done before people forget about the tragedy in Walkerton,” he said. “It was people burning the midnight oil and working on weekends… I am eternally grateful to them although as I say the extent people pass credit around tends to fall unfairly more on me.”
Gover spoke of what it was like to move to Walkerton for the Inquiry 21 years ago.
“The boil water advisory was on and there were warnings not to touch the taps – to wash your hands in a restaurant you went to a drum that had a tap on it and there was water that was heavily bleached, there was chlorine in it,” he said. “If you got any on your sleeve it would bleach out your clothing. This was quite an event that I will never forget.”
The commission set out to get answers to the questions the public were asking as quickly as they could.
“My role was to lead the evidence of two of the main characters, the water operators – Stanley Koebel and his brother Frank Koebel,” said Gover. “One of the… answers that Stan Koebel gave has always stayed with me. He was asked – what happened? It didn’t have to do with falsifying lab tests necessarily, although it did, or under-chlorinating the water, although it did – he said ‘complacency.’ Overall that was the problem. Complacency among the legislators, the regulators and the operators.”
Gover said it was a rewarding experience to have been involved in the Walkerton Inquiry but a big part of that reward is coming to the Walkerton Clean Water Centre which he described as a “monument to diligence.”
“What a wonderful lasting legacy it is to meet you and to know the important work that you do every day in combatting that complacency so that we can go to a place anywhere in Ontario, anywhere in Canada and not fear that complacency has made the water dangerous,” he said.
A staff member asked if it was challenging to live in Walkerton during such an emotionally- charged period and remain impartial.
Kristjanson said that at the outset of the Inquiry a meeting was held at the Knights of Columbus Hall and community members were invited to come to speak directly to the judge.
“I remember sitting with a family who brought in their photo album showing us all the beautiful pictures of their little girl up until the day she had a glass of water on Mother’s Day at the Hartley House Hotel,” she said. “She died as a result. And so the album of the two year old ends with this and it was so unbelievable to me that someone could come and share with us to say this is why you are here, I have lost my daughter.”
Starting with that first connection with individual members of the community who shared their pain and their distrust of government – their potential mistrust of commission. Kristjanson thinks that made a huge difference.
“I know I always think of that little girl – always,” she said. “So when I look at you I think doing what you do could have saved that two year old. So that makes me very emotional. That’s why 21 years later safe drinking water to me is such an important thing and I know recently you’ve moved into some of the Indigenous drinking water issues which are, like all Canadians, a topic I find of incredible importance so it’s never going to change, the challenges to our drinking water but the people you’re protecting – for them you are the final frontier.”
O’Connor added that when they made the decision early on that they were going to hold the hearings in Walkerton, a small town, you could see it was going to be in emotional turmoil and some people had serious questions about it.
“You’re in a small town and you are going to live there – is this the proper place to try to conduct a truly independent inquiry? I decided it was,” he said. “Not even once was I ever approached inappropriately by anybody. There were divisions… People had different views about what should happen and where political blame should lie. So it wasn’t like everybody in Walkerton saw it through the same lens.”
O’Connor said it was striking for him as the judge because it was on television every day and everybody in town knew who the commission was but nobody ever did anything other than speak very respectfully and politely.
“There was zero pressure among the local people in the community that would be inappropriate to me acting independently,” he said. “As time went on it was the contrary. We felt great support from the community although I’m sure people had different views about what had happened.”
Gover said there was much discussion about whether they should name it the Walkerton Inquiry.
“There was some concern that would mean that forever Walkerton would be associated with the problem but of course we’re at the Walkerton Clean Water Centre now and Walkerton will forever be associated with the solution which has been very important to take ownership of the problem and to be a big part of the solution,” he said. “So I think we made the right decision.”
Another Walkerton Clean Water Centre staff member asked at what point later they realized the profound effect the Inquiry was having not only having on the province but further than that.
O’Connor said the beginning of the Inquiry was a bit of a whirlwind so he didn’t think too much about the recommendations going as far as they did.
“I’d say in fairness that there would be uncertainty as to how this might play out because there was a lot of political overtones to it and whether or not everything should be laid at the feet of the operators who we know, at least according to the press, had a lack of training and negligence,” he said. “I’d say we were all collectively committed to doing as thorough and a thoughtful job as we could but we didn’t know it was going to turn out well. There were several points throughout the Inquiry that could have gone sideways or gone bad. The experience of other enquiries is they often end up in court with challenges so you have all sorts of issues about how you collect documents, privilege in interviewing witnesses so we didn’t know at the beginning what that road was going to look like. I think we collectively had enough experience that we figured out what we thought it should be and one way or another we dodged the litigation challenge bullets.”
O’Connor said one thing they had going for them was that in Ontario the public was outraged by what happened in Walkerton and that helped mitigate potential political problems or interference.
“It wasn’t going to happen because of the strong public support that there needed to be a thorough inquiry,” he said. “With the people we hired and involved in making the recommendations for the safety of drinking water, again confidence built as we knew the quality of people who were dedicated to helping us so that part became not so much like a courtroom but more like a classroom or a roundtable at a university.”
According to O’Connor, amazing debates and discussions became part of the Inquiry and led to the recommendations that came out of it.
“I would say our confidence built as we went on that we were on the right track and that things were going to work out but I didn’t have any idea as to the huge impact outside of Ontario that the recommendations were having,” he said.
Gover said the impact of government policies, practices and procedures in tragedy gave the commission the ability to enquire into the state of the legislation, the state of the regulation by the government and as the Inquiry went on, they had greater confidence that this could have an impact in those areas.
Kristjanson said the odd thing about a commission is that when the report is handed in, that’s it, it’s game over.
“You don’t get to implement,” she said. “It’s up to the political process after that, so the gaining of confidence by the people and the anger of the people translates in this case to political parties wanting to ensure the adoption of those recommendations and they were practical recommendations backed both by science and the evidence as the people saw the terrible flaws in the existing system.”
Stacey Bell, manager of HR and communications at the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, asked if the commission’s vision of the recommendations came to fruition or if there is anything further that they would have hoped to see happen.
Kristjanson said when those drinking water regulations passed in the amendment of the Ontario Water Resources Act she could not believe that they changed the law to protect people in the future.
“I mean it is like a dream come true because you don’t have any control over that process,” she said. “For me to come here today… I can’t believe how beautiful it is, how much great work is done here, how it’s located within Walkerton… Imagine out of that tragedy coming something this forward-thinking, committed and important so it’s not often your dreams come true but there you go, they did.”
Delbert “Deb” Shewfelt, board member of the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, said one of the things that struck him about the Inquiry was the questions of the elected officials, in particular, why were they elected.
“I read through a lot of the stuff and followed it and the answer one of the elected officials was asked, why were you elected, and he said ‘to keep the water rates down’ – that has never left my mind,” he said. “Thirty years I’ve been in community service – mayor, councillor… It’s shocking. You are there to provide good water.”
Van Harten said that for about 12 years he’s taught at Osgoode Law School and always works into the presentation the fact that the greatest achievement in human history to save lives is communal water and sewage systems.
“I make the point that the people who are responsible for designing and implementing from the high-level politics down to the person who is fixing the machine or doing HR for the people fixing the machine, they are collectively responsible for saving more human lives than anything else in human history – communal water and sewer systems,” he said. “I make that point partly to law students because I try to stress to them, don’t get in the way of those people when you are a lawyer. Try to help them because lawyers can often get in the way of doing good things… I can say to you I envy you because you have one of the most unifying, great common purposes there can be which is to provide safe water to little children. That’s a wonderful motivator, so the daily grind will get to you especially in a crisis but I would just suggest trying to remember that purpose you all have.”
Shewfelt said there was a feeling after things settled down that there was nothing there to charge the elected officials with because the standard of care wasn’t there at the time.
“Now if the same thing happened, as I used to tell my councillors, you are all going to jail because you have the responsibility of supplying… safe water,” he said.
Van Harten said the critical thing about a public inquiry is the government on behalf of the public is choosing to prioritize the search for the truth over punishment.
“That there is a greater interest in finding out what went wrong, meaning we’re asking people to speak in circumstances where they would not have to speak under oath in a criminal trial and that’s the trade-off we make,” he said. “We give up on the blood lust for punishment when something has gone wrong because we want to find out what exactly went wrong to stop it from happening again and the fact that we were able to… quickly move to the issue of what to do with the shallow wells that were so vulnerable all over the province… so that’s the trade-off the politician makes in calling a public inquiry.”
Kristjanson said she thinks in the last 20 years we have come to expect more and more from our municipal elected officials.
“We have these integrity commissioners and… I think accountability in 20 years has fundamentally changed for municipal councillors,” she said.
Shewfelt said it’s important for new councillors to visit the water system because it’s the heart of their town.
“Yes, it’s job number one, safe water,” said Van Harten.
Lindsay Ariss, a technician at the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, said her role is mainly helping with the pilot testing and also teaching some courses.
“I teach the entry-level course… and this is a module in the course where we focus on the operator’s role to protect public health and provide safe drinking water,” she said. “This module to me – I wasn’t here, I didn’t live here in Walkerton during the time of the outbreak but… I always, every time I just tear up. I get passionate about it so basically, I wanted to thank all of you for everything that you did with the public inquiry and all of your hard work and for changing the industry drinking water regulations going forward. You are the ones, you’ve saved tons of lives with what you have done. It’s an honour to be here in your presence and… I think we tend to lose sight working here sometimes of how important our role is in all of this and I think, at least for me, you’ve really helped remind me of that and so I just want to thank you for that as well.”
Another Walkerton Clean Water Centre staff member commented on the number of documents the commission had to deal with, and whether they feel the recommendations went far enough.
Gover said part of gaining public confidence in a public inquiry is through exhausting every means of obtaining information and they executed search warrants at the Office of the Premier and the cabinet office.
“We interviewed and called the premier as a witness so it’s through a searching inquiry like that, that you can satisfy people as they deserve to be satisfied,” he said. “We also required deputy ministers in charge of entire ministries of government to certify that they had produced all relevant documents to us. That was just part of our due diligence exercise… and I’m still confident that we reached all the right conclusions.”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times