They say that first impressions are what matter most. But after Monday night’s Prince Rupert city council meeting, I hope that’s not always the case. The meeting, held five weeks into the city’s boil water notice, could of been an opportunity for city leadership to build trust and to explain how we ended up in this situation. I arrived hopeful that we’d hear a government ready to work with residents to solve the problem together. How did I leave? In a word: Disappointed.
I can’t imagine that when a counselor spoke out against people concerned about the water issue, people who he called “newcomers” who had just moved to this city, that he was speaking about me. But perhaps he was, since last week I had been asked on CBC’s Daybreak North what it was like moving to a new city only be immediately hit with a boil water notice. My answer: I felt hopeful, because when I moved to Prince Rupert this summer, from across the Hecate Strait, I already knew that the people here are welcoming, warm, caring, and community-minded. I moved here to be part of a community alive with arts, events, sports, and good people. I assumed that this included good government, too.
The meeting was opened by acting Mayor Wade Niesh with a light hearted opening comment on expecting more pitchforks. Like Niesh, I was a bit surprised that just under a half dozen concerned citizens had were in attendance. I had expected at least a couple dozen more, given how all 12,000 of the city’s residents are affected by the city’s boil water notice. But then again, I came to this city hopeful — not jaded by experience. You see, people rarely go to meetings, or speak up, when they already believe that their voices don’t matter to those in power.
Very little about Monday’s meeting said that city government welcomes your questions and concerns. Instead, those in attendance were told that resident comments were not part of the agenda. (That would need to wait for another meeting in two weeks.) We were also told that citizens should be writing letters to MLAs and MPs, instead of complaining – like “trolls” — about the city’s lacklustre response to the boil water conditions on social media. To his credit, councillor Nick Adey stood out for making it clear that he welcomed civic engagement and that he wanted to hear and learn from citizen voices.
And to the city’s credit, the meeting did include a presentation that points to the city’s plan for securing public funds to pay for rebuilding our public water system. We also learned that local government did respond immediately after learning from Northern Health that a boil water notice was called for. Everyone would agree that it makes sense to have our primary water source up and running as soon as possible, and it looks like the city has submitted a grant to help make this happen. We also all expect city staff to put resident safety first, which is what they did when immediately informing us that a boil water notice had been issued by Northern Health.
The city also reported on details for the water system rebuild. As for that, starting repairs on the dam, and opening up an access road, might make sense. But only if all of this is actually necessary. That’s the question that I hope to raise at the next city council meeting. How much of the dam project is about clean water and how much is it about generating electricity? Would the rebuild go more quickly (and cost less) if it was only for clean water?
Aside from wanting to know more about which priority (clean water or electrical generation) is driving this process, I had hoped to hear more about how the city had planned, when it undertook to shift from the primary to the secondary water supply, to handle any disruptions that this may cause. Had the city considered contingency planning as part of the process? Did these plans include provision for emergency notification, providing drinking water to city residents who would not have access under a boil water notice, or any other measures?
Access to clean drinking water is a human right. Our local economy depends on this access. As a city, we cannot afford a years long boil water notice. We also cannot afford a repeating cycle of on-again, off-again clean water shutdowns. Public infrastructure affects property values, economic investments, and everyone’s health and wellbeing. That’s why we should all expect the city government to manage this part of its job well. If this crisis goes on for years, everyone’s bottom line will be harmed – in health, property values, and economic opportunities.
While I left Monday’s meeting disappointed, I remain hopeful that by working together we can help city government figure out how to do what’s needed to move forward as a community. Perhaps with greater transparency and more civic engagement we can do this.
Tom Kertes is a resident of Prince Rupert. He is helping organize Community for Clean Water, a grassroots group that’s committed to working together to get clean water back on tap for everyone.
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