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Water Warriors: A small community’s struggle to keep water public


“Despite our shared mythology of limitless water…corporations are eyeing Canada’s water, setting up bottled water operations and bidding to run water services on a for-profit basis.” Maude Barlow, Honourary Chairperson, Council of Canadians

While reading Barlow’s Boiling Point (reviewed in Education Forum, Winter 2017) this quote hit me where I live, literally.

About two years ago, Nestlé came knocking on the door of an unused property in Centre Wellington, Ontario (better known as Fergus and Elora, pre-amalgamation). The owners of the Middlebrook Road property had a modest water-taking permit and had floundered with a “make your own” beer and wine operation. They also provided modest quantities of water for keeping construction site dust down and filling swimming pools, etc. The operation did not include any bottling of the water.

Unbeknownst to the community, however, the owners had renamed the operation as a “numbered company” and applied not just for a renewal of their permit, but for an increase that would allow the extraction of 1.6 million litres of water per day. The province granted the new, expanded permit, which made for a viable water bottling operation. This was suddenly a very valuable property.

Nestlé—a corporate water raider, as Barlow refers to them— made a conditional offer, and so began the waiting game for a permit for a water quality and flow rate pump test. It is worth noting that according to the Agriculture Trend Analysis on Water, 76 per cent of water bottled in Canada goes to the United States.

In 2010, the United Nations, after tireless work by Barlow (who, in 2008/2009 served as Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly and was a leader in the campaign to have water recognized as a human right by the UN) recognized the human right to water and sanitation, and acknowledged that “…clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. …It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”

Three years before that UN declaration, at AMPA 2007, OSSTF/FEESO passed a motion committing that “…no bottled water be purchased or distributed at any OSSTF meetings, trainings or conferences.”

OSSTF/FEESO Provincial office ceased bottled water purchases immediately after. Clearly, our Federation has been on the cutting edge of promoting public access to water as a fundamental human right.

While Nestlé waited, my community organized. We began to meet in a local café, and then moved to the downstairs of the local legion, to map out a strategy. What began as “Friends of Elora Water” morphed into “Save Our Water.” A local chapter of the national NGO, Council of Canadians, was also founded during this time, and ongoing work in collaboration with an existing group, Wellington Water Watchers, ensued.

As public awareness rose, a deeply committed community mobilized. Water warriors like Barlow, Mike Nagy (Wellington Water Watchers) and Donna McCaw (District 18, Upper Grand— TBU, retired) spoke to packed town hall meetings, and blue ribbons began to dot the residential landscapes as symbols of support for “Save Our Water.” Each and every Saturday, deeply committed activists attended the local year-round farmer’s market to hand out information and invite shoppers to sign postcards and mail letters to their MPPs.

Barn dances, silent auctions and floats in local parades were all undertaken as ways to raise funds and raise community awareness in the fight against packaged water.

The 2016 Dominion Day Parade through Elora saw the introduction of “Naida” the water nymph as almost 100 community members joyfully shared the message of water protection. “Participants carried bolts of blue and green cloth, and fanciful fish creating a fanciful river running down the main streets of Elora to remind onlookers of how important clean water is to our community and the need to protect it. This message was reinforced by signs that encouraged people to drink tap water. Friends chanted as they marched to drums, beat boxes and shakers, while onlookers joined to stomp, clap and hoot to the infectious rhythms. The parade ended with a group photo at the boardwalk in Bissell Park.” (

Not everyone was pleased with this display of activism, however. Chris DaPonte, editor of the local weekly newspaper the Wellington Advertiser, wrote that the water float “hijacked” the Canada Day parade, causing a temporary dissipation of the mood of “patriotism and revelry.”

Nevertheless, the community persisted. Initially, the Centre Wellington Town Council seemed unconcerned about Nestlé’s plans, apparently believing that a water bottling operation would create jobs in the community. This belief, it turns out, was false; the plan was for the water to be trucked out and bottled in Aberfoyle, in the southern part of the County.

The disposition of Council toward the plan has since changed—quite dramatically in fact. In the fall of 2016, leveraging the Jack R. MacDonald trust (a philanthropic bequest from a former resident of Elora), the Town Council submitted a secret, larger, and unconditional offer for the same Middlebrook property that Nestlé had conditionally purchased. Mayor Kelly Linton stated, “It was a very serious offer we put forward—it was a no conditions attached, serious money offer, and we knew one of the conditions Nestlé had was the results of the pump test. So we weren’t sure if they would agree to purchase the property without getting any results back.”

The vendor of the property accepted this new, anonymous offer forcing Nestlé to decide if they would remove their conditions. Nestlé had stated repeatedly that this property was only to be a “back up well” and not for regular use. However with the arrival of the second offer, Nestlé promptly removed their conditions raising suspicions that the property was not just for backup use.

Nestlé had purchased the property right out from under the community Town Council, and so began a David and Goliath story that caught the imagination of the global media. A firestorm of international headlines ensued:

  • Nestlé buys a water source…and threatens drinking water supplies from the Canadian city—Het Laatste Nieuws (Germany)

  • Petition calls on Canadians to boycott Nestlé over water grab—USA Today

  • Canadian town steams over Nestlé bid to control local spring water well— The Guardian

Mayor Linton was quoted in The Guardian as saying, “By 2041, we’ll be closer to 50,000 [almost double the current population] so protecting our water sources is critical to us.”

A 2016 report from Hunter and Associates, an environmental and engineering consulting firm, concludes that, even without Nestlé’s presence, the expected population growth in Centre Wellington will soon compel the municipality to seek out new sources of water. Allowing Nestlé to take large quantities of water from the Middlebrook well would not only “restrict the ability of the Township to secure an additional source of water within close proximity to the municipality,” but would also “remove this water from the aquifer system, thereby reducing overall available water in the Elora-Fergus area.”

Elora, Ontario has become ground zero in the struggle for better government regulation of groundwater moving forward. As a result of public pressure, the provincial government recently imposed a two-year moratorium on water- bottling permits. Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment at the time, stated on CBC radio that, “… part of the reason to have the two-year moratorium is to give us the runway to hear from people like Maude and others on what their best advice is on how we manage the international regulatory dimensions on protecting water today.”

Much controversy surrounds the operation of water bottling practices and the impacts of foreign trade agreements (NAFTA, CETA, TPP etc.). One local activist group, Wellington Water Watchers, has been tirelessly raising awareness and advocating for the protection of ground water sources. Their website states:

“We are concerned the Ontario government’s support for private water-taking by Nestlé Waters Canada contributes to the commodification and privatization of water and potentially our water delivery system. Wellington Water Watchers believes water must stay in public control. We believe that Water is for Life, Not for Profit. We honour our waters as a commons, not a commodity to be bought and sold on the world market.”

The Council of Canadians launched a “Boycott Nestlé” campaign in the fall of 2016, gathering more than 50,000 signatures to date, and continues to pressure the government to stop issuing bottled water permits.

In the spring of 2017, the Ontario government chose to increase the water bottling permit fees from $3.71 per million litres to $500 per million litres. This move was met with a range of criticism. Emma Lui, Water Campaigner with the Council of Canadians, said, “It’s good that the province has taken a step to increase fees, but what people across Ontario really want is for bottled water takings to be phased out. The new increase only amounts to roughly 1/20 of a penny per litre of water that companies like Nestlé sell back to the public. Severe droughts in recent years mean that we can’t allow water to be taken and exported out of watersheds, never to be returned again. Only a ban—not just an increase in fees—will protect vulnerable groundwater that communities rely on for drinking water.”

A poll conducted for the Council of Canadians by Oraclepoll Research surveyed 1,200 respondents between December 8–13, 2016. Its findings demonstrated that:

  • 93 per cent support the provincial government placing a priority on the drinking water needs of local communities over any pending applications from commercial bottling companies to acquire groundwater sources.

  • 68 per cent support the provincial government requiring Nestlé to sell the Elora well to the Township of Centre Wellington.

  • 65 per cent support a permanent phase-out of all permits for bottled water takings (water bottling operations) by the Ontario government.

No discussion of water is complete without the voices of Indigenous Canadians. In a letter to Premier Wynne and the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, the 133 Ontario Chiefs in Assembly state that they have “unanimously rejected all recent Ontario Water Resources Act Regulations,” as well as any efforts “…to take control and authority over natural waters, be they ground or surface, across the traditional homelands and/or treaty areas, within the Province of Ontario.”

The letter goes on to state: “First Nations’ water rights are explicitly included in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN- DRIP), for which the Government of Canada has fully endorsed. Article 25: ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, water…and to uphold their responsibilities to future generation in this regard.’”

While the Boycott Nestlé campaign continues, my community continues to joyfully rally around water protection, as evidenced by the day-long music festival, Waterstock, last June. In the spirit of Foodstock and Soupstock events, OSSTF/FEESO generously co-sponsored the “Water for Life Not Profit” campaign message from Wellington Water Watchers:

It’s not just about bottled water.

Nestlé and other large corporations have exploited out- dated provincial water taking bylaws that were originally intended for agricultural and value-added industrial use. Water is sacred but is becoming rap- idly commoditized, ‘bottled,’ and shipped around the planet for great profit, (to return, if ever, to our watersheds packaged in a piece of plastic.) The record drought of 2016 highlighted the urgency of the situation and how 2017 is the year to make a stand for water.

Farmers and communities face increasing water uncertainty, and recent polls illustrate the strong support for phasing out water permits for the purposes of bottling. Over 20,000 Ontarians have spoken clearly in support for the province to take action (edited to clarify: commenting on the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights). It is time to take a stand and be stewards of our farmlands and aquifers.

Each of us has a responsibility to challenge our desire for convenience and work to ensure that our provincial government does not choose profit over people. As Shelley Koehler (District 19, Peel—TBU) wrote at Waterstock, “Water is a necessity of life for all organisms. There is no value that can be placed on it as it is priceless.”

We know that billions of litres of groundwater have already been extracted on treaty lands “without free, prior and informed consent,” and if our government intends to move forward with a spirit of true reconciliation, it is essential to remember that, as the Ontario Chiefs have stated, “Ontario’s bulk permit to take water to commercial, for-profit bottling companies violates…inherent rights, treaty rights and title and international human rights of First Nations.”

There is a provincial election coming up in the spring of 2018. Now is the time to ask questions and consider the values you hold about the future of our planet and the legacy we leave our children.

“We never know the worth of water until the well is dry.” Thomas Fuller, 1732

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