in Moncton has long been a hot topic of discussion. Back in 1989, the
city councilors were
discussing the turbidity of the water. Moncton's
water was brown as a result of little particles that evaded the
filtration devices, in addition to pipes and water mains which were
old and in need of replacement.
There were a lot of complaints and the city began looking at
alternatives. Private companies were actively seeking city water
systems for management and presenting their systems as the logical and
efficient way of the future and presenting themselves as having the
most technical expertise, the best access to materials and
efficiencies of scale.
By the fall of 1993, Moncton's city council had decided to privatize the
entire water distribution system. This was never debated in public forum. It
was presented as the best way for Moncton to have good clean SAFE water.
Tenders were put out for a water filtration contract and the successful
bidder was actually a Canadian company, Hardman Group, later to purchased by
US Filter, a US owned company. And then several years later this company was
purchased by Vivendi, a French owned multi-national with activities in over
In the meantime, the water coming out of the tap had become very
brown and several boil orders were issued. US Filter promised quality
water coming out of the tap just like the best bottled water. Late in
1999, Moncton had its privately-owned filtration system in place and
clear water flowing, albeit heavily chlorinated and with other
invisible chemicals for cleaning purposes.
The next step was to upgrade the water mains. The city proceeded to
negotiate with US Filter/Vivendi to take over the renewal of the
entire water distribution and sewage disposal systems in Moncton.
In 2001, Canadian Union of Public Employees, CUPE, became concerned
about the jobs and the people working for the city in water
facilities. They were told that a private company could operate more
efficiently than a city crew. CUPE decided to take an active role.
Their studies have shown that privatization has meant higher costs and
less services. It soon became clear that the issue was even bigger.
Moncton citizens would not be in control of their water management and
a foreign owned company would be able to invoke international trade
agreements, such as the GAT, NAFTA, and WTO regulations, to possibly
gain access to fresh water across Canada for private profit.
The publicity that CUPE and the Moncton and District Labour Council
brought to the issue garnered the attention of Avi Lewis, moderator of
the national TV program Counterspin. In October, 2001, a townhall
discussion, televised nationally, on private versus public control of
city water systems ensued. The citizens of Moncton, who had been going
along, trusting their elected representatives to make the best
decisions for the city, became concerned about their public water
supply. A small group of people formed an action group, SOS Eau Water
Sankwan, to learn more and inform the public of their findings.
I first became involved in
January, 2002. I was visiting Beth McLaughlin and we had spoken
before on environmental matters and politics. Two other people
were coming to her house to sign a letter addressed to the
Minister of Supplies and Services, Dale Graham, and they were
looking for a fourth. The City of Moncton at this time was in
the process of awarding the contract to upgrade the water
distribution system, estimated to be anywhere between $70 and
250 million dollars, to US Filter/Vivendi. Studies and cost
estimates had never been done.
This contract would privatize the distribution of water and the
sewage disposal systems. Doing so, the City of Moncton was not
following the proper procedures required by provincial law according
to the province's Public Purchasing Act.
When a city has a large contract for work or supplies, they are
required by law to advertise and call for tenders on the contract.
Moncton had not done this. They had not brought the issue of
contracting out the distribution of water to a public debate and only
said that after all the details were in place they would let the
citizens of Moncton have two months to scrutinize the document. The
contract for water filtration is over 300 pages and the correspondence
that went into negotiating the new contract was over a foot thick. The
contract was being negotiated behind closed doors and it appeared to
us that once the city had a contract it would be very difficult for
the public consultations to have any influence on the deal.
The city manager, Al Strang, and the Mayor of Moncton, Brian
Murphy, are both involved with a lobby group called the Canadian
Council for Public-Private Partnerships. The city manager is on the
board of directors and the Mayor has traveled to conferences to speak
about how wonderful the public-private partnership for the filtration
of the water is between Moncton and US Filter. Neither of these men
consider this to be a conflict of interest. Both of these men plus
several of the city councilors traveled to Europe and to cities in the
United States, at the expense of the water company, to view facilities
in other places. These trips are not seen by the city as a conflict of
In January, SOS Eau Water Sankwan organized a Teach-In to inform
the citizens of Moncton about the effects of water privatization. This
attracted approximately 45 people who filled in registration forms
indicating how they could help. A core group began meeting every week.
We wrote a list of questions that we thought every person in
Moncton should be asking their city councilor about water
privatization. These questions were about costs, accountability, and
conservation. On this handout, we included the name, phone number and
email address of every city councilor. These questionnaires were
handed out at the market on Saturdays and distributed door to door.
Councilors did receive many phone calls with people looking for
answers to the questions.
We also organized teams of people to put posters, produced by CUPE,
up on telephone poles all over town, saying, "No to Water for
Profit." People were also encouraged to put these posters in
The Common Front for Social Justice, a group of university students
and Professors, and CUPE brought in international activist, Ricardo
Petrella, from Belgium to speak at the University of Moncton. He has
written The Water Manifesto, which is about the need for water to
remain a public good and the effect of water privatization in other
countries. In many countries, poor people are denied access to fresh
drinkable water because the do not have the money to pay for it. A
golf course is given higher priority than people. Money is all it
takes. Is it money that should determine how water is distributed?
One city councilor, Brian Hicks, spoke up and asked questions of
the Mayor, in public, and many times was told the contract under
negotiation could not be discussed in public. We went to the city
council meetings and asked questions. No one seemed to know what the
cost of upgrading the water distribution system should be. No studies
had been done, nor any independent cost estimates. It seemed they were
ready to hand the system over to US Filter and we would pay whatever
the cost came to. There was no way to compare what the cost would be
if US Filter did the work or if the city's current employees did the
work. There was no way to compare the cost of the city borrowing the
money for necessary upgrades from a provincial loan fund at a low
interest rate or having the money supplied by private investors.
The Federal government has programs for infrastructure renewal.
Moncton has received $10 million under this program. No one knew if
the city would be eligible for this funding if the water system was to
Both Vancouver and Montreal investigated privatizing their water
systems and rejected the idea. Montreal quickly discovered how much
more expensive it would be. Vancouver needed a citizens action group
to bring out the true nature of the contract before rejecting the
What we do know is that private investors need to have a profit or
they don't invest. There are only so many ways to make a profit: use
lower cost materials, cut the number of workers and cut the wages, or
increase the cost to consumers. At the time, Vivendi/US Filter was
involved in 281 lawsuits across the world. Some of their ventures have
resulted in local people demonstrating in their streets, some of which
have been killed. This did not feel like a trustworthy company to our
group. The World Trade Organization, the General Agreement on Trade,
and NAFTA all seem to side with big companies and profits against
governments and the rights of people.
Some members of our group
suggested guerilla theatre in front of City Hall. They donned
their flashiest business suits and little piggy noses and set
out to sell water to people walking by. Other people handed out
information to passers-by. We did this at lunch time when there
was a good chance of giving the information to the Mayor and
city councilors, as well as many office workers out for their
To further increase awareness, we partnered with the Council
of Canadians, and brought their water expert, Jamie Dunn, in for
a conference. We again went to the market and handed out
invitations to people. We targeted Main Street at lunch time and
gave out invitations. Even if people didn't come to the
conference, they knew something was going on with the water.
Quickly, it seemed the city was about to put the water agreement to
the public. We would have only two months to try to stop the council
from signing the contract. Only one councilor, Brian Hicks, was
opposed to the way the city had negotiated this contract. On March 4,
city council was set to table the contract. We went to the streets, to
the market, to our phones and to email, to get as many people as
possible to this meeting. About 100 people showed up. The matter was
dealt with swiftly. It seems that a private meeting had taken place
that afternoon at which the councilors decided to delay the process of
privatization until a study had been done on the actual costs. This
study has been out for public tender.
SOS Eau Water Sankwan continues to keep the issue of access to
fresh water before the public. We have written a Declaration on Water,
which has been distributed door to door along with background
information and a postcard to be returned to us. Before the council
meets, one of our members distributes the postcards to councilors so
they will not forget that we are still concerned. We will keep
informing the citizens about what is happening and continue our effort
for water to stay in public hands.
For more information, to contact us, to offer your assistance, we
have a website www.sosews.ca