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by Kathy Corrigan
It's been 9 months since the GVRD bowed to intense public pressure and abandoned plans to let a private company design build and operate the proposed Seymour Water Filtration Plant. Despite the passage of time, the significance of that victory for public ownership and control of water has, if anything, grown rather than diminished. We have a provincial government on an ideological rampage to privatize public sector services and jobs. Funding cuts and downloading encourage predisposed local Councils to claim that the cupboard is bare and that the only way to upgrade aging infrastructure is to let private companies have a piece of the vast, untapped water market. International water companies are poised at our border ready to take advantage of handy NAFTA access provisions, if they can just get their foot in the door. Gordon Campbell has promised that our own Canadian version of NAFTA, the Agreement on Internal Trade, will become law soon. There is no doubt that the Liberals would dearly love to clone Ontario's SuperBuild program. (SuperBuild is the Corporation created by the Ontario Conservatives, that controls allocation of federal-provincial matching infrastructure grants. Applicants must invite private partners into their projects).
So is all hope of keeping water services in public hands lost in B.C.? Not at all. Here's why. British Columbians don't want to go the private route, and the Liberals know it. The lessons learned in the GVRD fight of 2001 are not easily ignored. Thousands of irate citizens attended "information" sessions carefully staged by GVRD bureaucrats, and demanded that the plan be scrapped. Despite a studied lack of coverage in the mainstream media, somehow the word got round and determined citizens got to the sessions during a transit strike. By the way, the assignment editor of one of our daily mainstream papers (you have a 50/50 chance of guessing which) claimed that the issue wasn't covered because the meetings were at night.
Public opinion polls commissioned at the time, and since, overwhelmingly reject private control of water services. That sentiment is consistent throughout British Columbia and across Canada.
Lawyer Steven Shrybman's chilling analysis of the trade implications under NAFTA and potentially the GATS have proven disturbingly accurate. Governments in Canada, Mexico and the United States are backing off environmental and other legislation for the public good, because they are being threatened by powerful multinational companies with massive NAFTA claims.
Further, the Walkerton report sharply criticized a frenzy of regulation cuts, downsizing and privatization of labs as largely responsible for that tragedy. The present government, so entirely committed to the same slash and burn mentality is treading lightly when it comes to water, and in fact claims that water is being protected. The Ministry's own evidence is to the contrary, but that is another whole story.
As to the claim that money is lacking, most municipalities have lots of borrowing room at the Municipal Finance Authority, at interest rates far better than any company could get at a bank.
Last year's opposition to privatization of services was not limited to the GVRD. Kamloops and Ladysmith both backed off of water privatization schemes in the face of massive community opposition. And Oliver Town Council considered an unsolicited bid from Epcor to take over the water services in their town, and decided they didn't want to break up a winning team.
Municipalities continue to buck the privatization trend. Recently, the GVRD unanimously voted to oppose Provincial imposition of the Agreement on Internal Trade. Dozens of other municipalities throughout the province have passed similar motions. And when CUPE BC President Barry O'Neill recently asked Municipalities across the Province to pass motions supporting implementation of strong drinking water protection legislation, dozens of municipalities got on board, many of them demanding that drinking water services and infrastructure remain in the public domain.
Asked why CUPE BC has taken such a strong leadership role even where no CUPE jobs are at stake, he echoed the sentiment of most us: "British Columbians care passionately about accessibility to clean and affordable water. This is not just another good to be traded on the open market to the highest bidder. We want to protect drinking water in the communities across this province, now and for our children's children."
As the Provincial government looks down the privatization road, and increasing numbers of privatization disasters are uncovered, it is going to be an interesting time as ideology smacks headfirst into the public will. I for one, am betting on the public in this one.
The Columbia Journal
P.O. Box 2633 MPO,
Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada V6B 3W8
Phone: 604-266-6552 Fax: 604-267-3342