Canada/Essay

BETRAYAL OF TRUST

Once again, Canadians are asking, 'How could this, happen?'

Sharon Butala May 21 2001
Canada/Essay

BETRAYAL OF TRUST

Once again, Canadians are asking, 'How could this, happen?'

Sharon Butala May 21 2001

BETRAYAL OF TRUST

Once again, Canadians are asking, 'How could this, happen?'

Sharon Butala

Canada/Essay

I was raised in rural and small-town Saskatchewan. We children used to raft every spring on sloughs swollen by meltwater, falling in and splashing one another, and swam—our parents poised to grab us, so swift was the current—in the Saskatchewan River. I remember narrow, hilly, sandy roads lined with thick deciduous forest that we used to take instead of highways for sheer pleasure in the beauty. We didn’t have indoor plumbing until the early 1950s when we moved to Saskatoon. Like us, most small-town or rural people had pumps in the kitchen and outdoor biffies. We bathed once a week in tin tubs of water— melted snow in winter—heated on the cookstove. Yet we were more likely to suffer from gas poisoning from our coal-fired furnaces, or from a fall downstairs, than from illnesses caused by drinking or bathing in the water.

In the mid-’70s, when I moved from Saskatoon to the Butala ranch near the Montana and Alberta borders, I soon developed a problem

with diarrhea. I didn’t notice it had become chronic until one day I realized I had a halfdozen bottles of anti-diarrhea medication sitting on windowsills and shelves in every room of the old ranch house. I went to the doctor, who, despite testing, was unable to find a cause. But through happenstance, I discovered the origin of my ailment. It was the ranch water, which in this semi-arid region of southwestern Saskatchewan came from a well, the blessed presence of which decided where the Butalas would put their house and ranch buildings, in fact, whether they could live there at all.

My husband, Peter, and his family had always used that water, their bodies had adapted to it, but mine, accustomed to better quality urban water, couldn’t handle it. Testing showed the well water was so hard it was barely fit for human consumption. I weighed only 98 lb. at the time and the accompanying pain, fatigue and dehydration could conceivably have killed me, if my husband hadn’t immediately begun bringing me water from elsewhere.

Then, in the late 1970s, we built our new house only 20 m from the small Frenchman River, which supplies our household, our cattle and horses, and our local flood irrigation system. I was warned against using this water for cooking or drinking. A number of families, nevertheless, drank it as it was, without any attempt to filter or purify it. We, however, put nearly $10,000 into a seepage filtration well beside the river, plus various other paraphernalia to provide us with safe, clean water. No government helped us to pay for this, although if help had been available we would have accepted it. When it came to water, like most rural families, we were pretty much on our own.

When I was born, Saskatchewan had been a province for only 35 years. I think we all had a sense of “roughing it” in a raw, new place, and that in the years to come everything would improve. Well, yes and no. In a country the United Nations has declared for several years running to be the best in the world to live in, how can we

not feel it a betrayal that the water running from taps in homes, not just in North Battleford, Sask., but all over Canada, is no longer safe to drink; worse, the agencies established to provide clean, safe water apparently can’t be relied on to do the job properly. And as residents of Walkerton, Ont., and North Battleford would probably say, they can’t be trusted either to warn us when equipment breaks down, or when floods or other non-usual sources of pollution render the water supply questionable. Premier Lome Calvert has announced an independent judicial inquiry into the failure of the North Battleford system, so we’re also being treated to the sight of officials scrambling to distance themselves from blame for the presence of Cryptosporidium, the parasite that caused illnesses in the city’s water supply. In the year 2001, in the darkest part of the night, North Battleford residents must be asking, what happened? Why, when we are so advanced compared with 50 years ago, could the thing we trusted in most completely fail us, so that suddenly we feel ourselves no safer

than the much-pitied, poor of developing countries? I think that one answer lies in the reluctance of governments to provide money for projects that lack glamour. All over Canada, infrastructure for cleaning and purifying water is archaic in design and/or decaying, and the repair or replacement of such equipment hasn’t paid off in political capital, and thus, has been neglected. As well, we are suffering from the effects of governments buying into the odd idea that less government is better, and from the odious notion of user pay, an erosion of the most basic democratic principle of equality of opportunity for rich and poor, rural and urban alike.

The result, as the residents of Walkerton and North Batdeford know all too well, has been that governments began to pare services and to charge individuals for others that had been free. In Saskatchewan, for example, rural folk didn’t pay the provincial laboratory to test our water until about five years ago. And such testing has never been, and isn’t now, mandatory. Now people are asking, if governments refuse to be responsible for the provision of safe water, just what are our governments for? Are they there only to satisfy the demands of the corporate fat cats while the vast majority, the socalled ordinary people, must now fend for themselves?

Each province sets it own water quality guidelines for Cryptosporidium—and these can vary widely. But our whole idea of what constitutes a safe and adequate water supply has to be rethought. With a huge increase in human populations, and in animals held in giant feedlots and barns, all producing vast amounts of waste, water pollution is more likely to occur. And we continue to drain wetlands and mow down forests, our natural filtration systems, as if we didn’t know that doing so lessens our precious water supply and destroys its quality.

Today, just about everything has become a commodity, from trips into space to human embryos. In such a milieu, having to buy our drinking water, an idea that 50 years ago would have horrified people, has become normal. In all this uproar about water contamination in North Batdeford, and in the rapid backpedalling of officials, we seem to have lost sight of the basic, unadulterated fact that water is not merely nice to have, or pretty when in lakes or rivers: water is life itself.

Sadly, the great beauty that was once Saskatchewan is disappearing at a frightening pace. The trees that lined our country roads have been cut down; the fields of wildflowers plowed under; the sloughs drained and filled to make room for farms or urban sprawl. The wild, dangerous Saskatchewan River of my childhood is dammed, its once pristine waters no longer safe. Along with its purity, something else equally vital has been destroyed: the trust of people far from the centres of power in the ideal we were all raised with—that in a democracy, the government is not them, but that it is us.

Sharon Butala is an award-winning author of 12 novels and nonfiction books. Wild Stone Heart is her latest work.

Do you believe your tap water is safe to drink?