“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
— Winston Churchill
By now we should have learned that slashing government programs and inspectorates, deregulating and relying on self-regulation in important areas like the health and safety of a nation’s citizens have very nasty and tragic consequences.
In a 1991 Supreme Court decision, Justice Peter Cory noted: “Regulation is absolutely essential for our protection and well-being as individuals, and for effective function in society. It is properly present throughout our lives. The more complex the activity, the greater the need for and the greater our reliance upon regulation and its enforcement … of necessity society relies on government regulation for its safety.”
And yet, some governments continue to slash away at important safety protections.
The latest food safety scandal begs the question: does anyone sitting in the federal Conservative caucus remember the lessons of Walkerton?
It was, after all, just a little over a decade ago that Canada’s worst outbreak of E. coli in the water supply of the small Ontario community of Walkerton took place, killing seven people. Another 2,300 residents fell ill in the same tainted water scandal.
The deaths and the subsequent outrage forced then Conservative premier Mike Harris to call a judicial inquiry — an inquiry he, as premier, was also compelled to testify at.
Certainly federal ministers Jim Flaherty and Tony Clement should remember the lessons of Walkerton. After all, they were part of the Harris government that ravaged public services, privatized important safety tests and gutted regulations.
Justice Dennis O’Connor, in his January 2002 report into the Walkerton tainted water scandal, concluded that had funding at the Department of Environment not been slashed, the worst-outbreak of E. coli could have been avoided. In other words, government cutbacks were partly to blame for the death of seven Ontarians.
And here we are again.
Some of the faces are the same. Certainly the ideology is. Hacking and slashing government jobs, programs and services without a mind or a thought to how those cuts will impact or hurt Canadians.
We don’t need to go back to Walkerton for lessons learned, merely to the 2008 Listeria outbreak that took the lives of 23 Canadians.
In that case, the Harper government should be even more familiar given its own ordered investigation into the matter and the subsequent recommendations from the inquiry.
Globe and Mail journalist Bill Curry reminded us last week that four years after the deadly outbreak, the government has yet to deliver
a “widely accepted assessment
of whether Ottawa has enough inspectors to keep Canadian food safe.” This had been one of key recommendations resulting from the Listeria investigation.
Today Canadians are dealing with another food safety scandal. This time it is the largest recall of tainted meat, about 1.5 million pounds, in Canadian history as a result of an E. coli outbreak at a Brooks, Alta., meat processing plant. More than 1,100 products (by mid-week) had made it to the recall list.
Make no mistake, Canadians are beginning to lose faith in the government’s food safety program.
And whether the Conservatives can figure this out or not, this lack of confidence will end up hurting the very industries and businesses that government says it is trying to help with less regulation.
But nothing, absolutely nothing it seems, can sway the federal Conservatives from their ideological course — in this case gutting government regulations (they refer to it as red tape) and jobs in areas of Health Canada and the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency.
Not even another food safety fiasco is enough to alter them from their course of deregulation and self-regulation.
How many reminders, lessons, dead and sick Canadians does the Harper Conservative government need before it blinks in the face of its reckless cuts?
We depend on government to keep our food safe, our water safe. It is not much to expect — and yet apparently it is.
The Harper government has lost all sense of sober second thought.
Instead, the government will be going full-speed ahead with yet another round of government cuts, this time in the form of “red tape reduction” — a benign term that really ends up eliminating regulations that are designed, in many cases, to keep us safe.
Shockingly, the government proudly announced this “red tape reduction” smack dab in the middle of the biggest tainted meat recall in food safety history in our country — with barely a blink of an eye.
You have to wonder, are any lessons being learned or even if the Conservative federal government, so bloated with their own sense of ideology and power, can recognize what is right from wrong.
Clearly they are all drinking from the same Kool-Aid. Lucky for them it’s still safe to do so.
Lana Payne is president of the
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation
of Labour. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her column returns Oct. 20.