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Walkerton tragedy anniversary casts spotlight on Ontario Tories' promised cuts

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Fourteen years ago, a provincial government bent on cost-cutting and privatization contributed to a deadly water-borne disaster that unfolded over the Victoria Day long weekend — one that Ontario taxpayers are still paying for.

Now, a new would-be Progressive Conservative premier, Tim Hudak, is pledging to slash 100,000 public sector jobs — cuts far deeper than those that paved the way for the Walkerton, Ont., tragedy in May 2000.

Some worry history could be repeating itself.

"It can happen again," Walkerton resident Phil Englishman said of the public health crisis.

"(Cuts) can lead to another tragedy in other areas of the province — it doesn't have to be just water."

That message was not lost on Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, who took her election campaign to the midwestern Ontario town of 5,000 on Thursday to make that point.

Speaking at the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, built following the disaster as a water-quality training and research facility, Wynne took aim at Hudak's promised cuts.

"We need to learn from, and avoid returning to, the mistakes of Ontario's past," Wynne said.

"Decisions have consequences, cuts have consequences: Safe drinking water is not an optional service."

The E. coli outbreak that engulfed Walkerton killed seven people, including a baby, and sickened about 2,500 others, after floods swept farm manure into a vulnerable drinking-water well.

An exhaustive judicial inquiry faulted two brothers in charge of the water — they were later criminally convicted — for falsifying records and failing to maintain proper disinfectant levels.

However, the inquiry also found the cost-cutting government of former Tory premier Mike Harris contributed to the tragedy by privatizing water testing and axing Ministry of Environment jobs.

Hudak has said he wouldn't cut jobs that put people at risk, such as nurses, doctors and police officers.

In response to Wynne's comments, Hudak accused the premier of using the tragedy to score political points and insisted he would not chop water inspectors.

"I don't think anybody would even contemplate that," he said at an event in London, Ont.

Knowing just where Hudak does contemplate his cuts is critical, said former Walkerton mayor Charlie Bagnato.

"He's proving that he's a disciple of Mike Harris and what happened with Mike Harris ultimately was fairly negative," Bagnato said Thursday.

"Mike Harris came in with a flourish and appeared to be accomplishing something, but then we paid the price and we certainly just hope that never happens again."

To date, according to the latest figures, about $74 million has been paid to more than 9,000 victims of the E. coli outbreak — Englishman among them — but some compensation bills are still outstanding.

In addition, the province has forked out tens of millions of dollars more in legal fees, helping the town rehabilitate its water system, and footing the health-care bills for those affected.

Some of those who lived in the town at the time are still coping with the after effects of E. coli infection — like Kody Hammell, who was just shy of two years old when his kidneys were permanently damaged by the bad water.

Englishman blames the water for a stroke he had, and notes the trauma of those terrible days still persists — often in small ways.

"A lot of people, like me, still don't drink the water," he said.

The tragedy did lead to huge improvements in Ontario's drinking-water regimen, with the Liberal government implementing every one of the recommendations that flowed from the inquiry led by then-justice Dennis O'Connor.

Government, Wynne said, exists to help protect people.

"I cannot myself test my water. I rely on government to make sure that the water that I drink and the water that my children and my grandchildren drink is safe."

Campaigning in Toronto, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath denounced Hudak's plans.

"When you talk about kicking 100,000 families to the curb, you're actually endangering the services that Ontarians rely on," Horwath said. "That's irresponsible."

— With files from Will Campbell and Maria Babbage.

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