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Vancouver Sun Op-ed: Water is a gift for all, not a commodity to be sold

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Posted June 15, 2011 by Damien Gillis in WATER
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From the Vancouver Sun – June 11, 2011

by Barry O’Neil – CUPE BC President

It has always been my belief that one of the greatest
responsibilities of leaders is to protect the people they represent, to
act as their watchdog -always on the alert. A watchdog that falls
asleep on the job is a failure. But what words can describe the watchdog
that fights to let the enemy in?

One of the threats facing
communities today is the ambitions of large multinational water
corporations to operate water for profit in the context of a world where
water shortages are the way of the future, as global freshwater demand
is set to outstrip supply by 40 per cent in the next 20 years, and water
is rapidly becoming the new gold.

The world’s largest water
multinationals, such as Suez and Veolia, are based in Europe and their
European Union representatives are now negotiating a trade agreement
with Canada, called the Canada-European Comprehensive Trade Agreement,
that gives them unprecedented access to Canada’s water and waste water
systems, securing them with investor rights to trump (including suing
for lost profits) local government decisions that may negatively affect
corporate profit.

This trade deal is expected to be signed in
January 2012 and its immediate effect will be to lock in all water and
waste water privatizations and make “re-municipalization” or
contracting-in virtually impossible. In other words, once you privatize
your water services, there is no going back. I encourage everyone to
witness Europe’s disastrous experiment with water privatization at the
hands of these very corporations and the ensuing wave of
re-municipalization sweeping the continent, which is welldocumented and
told by the mayors and councillors themselves in a new documentary
titled Water Makes Money.

The Canadian way has always been to
operate our water as a public trust and to keep it in public hands;
today, almost all municipalities operate their own quality water and
waste water treatment systems with their own highly trained staff.

This
is because, historically, public operation of such vital services has
been found to be most cost-effective, transparent and accountable to the
public since there are no corporate privacy and profit interests
involved.

This past weekend, I joined hundreds of local government
councillors, mayors, regional district representatives, senior staff
officials and many others from coast to coast at a national conference
hosted by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Halifax, N.S. We
gathered to share ideas, exchange experiences and get a chance to see
new models, ideas and technology that could make our communities better
places to live.

At this conference I made myself available to
speak with municipal leaders about the common challenges we face and how
we can work together to resolve them, and enjoyed countless productive
discussions. There was, however, one notable exception.

That
exception was Mayor George Peary of Abbotsford. Before a stunned
national audience at a Federation workshop, he embarrassed his community
and council representatives with an aggressive rant about the
organization that represents his own city workers. This rant exhibited
disdain for the people who provide Abbotsford’s vital civic services as
well a profoundly anti-democratic attitude.

How
does Peary justify standing up before national municipal leaders to
seek support for his desire to “stop CUPE from going to public meetings
and speaking into microphones?”

Why would any mayor in a
democratic country want to stop his city workers and their organization
from expressing their opinion on any matter, let alone a matter of grave
public concern, such as the privatization of their water services?

Across
Canada, CUPE works constructively with municipal councils to strengthen
public services, increase efficiencies, improve service and reduce
costs. In fact, Abbotsford’s councillors thanked CUPE repeatedly for the
research and counsel they provided on the proposed P3 water project
after CUPE delivered a research presentation that was centred on helping
the council reduce costs and save taxpayers’ dollars.

In light of
this, how does Peary justify standing up at this national forum and
accusing CUPE of telling “lies” and being “ideological” and “irrational”
about P3s? His time would be better spent examining himself for these
faults.

It is not surprising that he did not find a single
supporter in the room. Even the proponents of P3s, who were hosting the
event , seemed taken aback by his disrespect for the organization to
which his own employees belong.

Municipal leaders, like all
elected officials, have a duty to represent and protect their people and
their vital public services -not to open the city gates and fight on
behalf of the profit interests of multinational water corporations whose
yearly revenue alone could meet all of Canada’s water infrastructure
needs for the next century.

Water is a gift upon which all life
depends, not a commodity to be delivered for profit to paying customers.
Access to fresh, clean and affordable drinking water is a basic human
right that ought to be guaranteed by a watchdog that barks for the
people.

Barry O’Neill, CUPE national general vicepresident and
president of CUPE British Columbia, represents over half a million
public sector workers across the country and 85,000 workers in B.C.

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About the Author

Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

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