By Diane Kalen-Sukra.

We’ve all heard that water is the new gold. Global water shortages, combined with the thirst of multinational corporations to profit from a resource that is essential for all human, plant and animal life, has created a gold rush. And Canada, which has seven per cent of the world’s renewable freshwater, is the new frontier.

The aim of these corporate gold-diggers is to secure guaranteed windfall profits through the creation and control of a market for the treatment and delivery of water, defined as a “commodity” which “consumers” literally cannot live without. There’s only one problem, as far as they’re concerned: for the most part, Canadians don’t view water as a commodity, and the vast majority of our water systems are in public hands.

To change this is a job for corporate activists. And, indeed, a veritable army of lobbyists, communicators, researchers, campaigners, lawyers, engineers and politicians, among others, has been working, wittingly or unwittingly, on behalf of multinationals to convince Canadians that private, for-profit, delivery of all public infrastructure and services is in everyone’s best interest. (They may not refer to themselves as “activists,” but they fit the definition perfectly, namely: “especially active, vigorous advocates of a cause, especially a political cause.”)

In the early 1990s, these corporate campaigners organized a national council to promote all forms of privatization, including water and wastewater. Their spin-machine quickly chucked the word “privatization” in favour of less alarming terms like “alternative service delivery” and “public-private-partnerships” (PPP or P3s), and called themselves the “Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships.”
They promoted a vision of a world where well-branded but faceless corporations provide (falsely promised) efficient, for-profit, community “McServices.” Their target audiences were universities, think tanks, newspapers and, most importantly, all levels of government.

Their efforts quickly bore fruit. Canada’s first major experiment with a full-bore (design, build, finance and operate) water and wastewater privatization scheme was in 1994 in Hamilton, Ontario. The experiment was disastrous and short-lived, but new communities were up for the taking. Cash-strapped Moncton, New Brunswick, privatized its water services in 1999. The next big P3 water project push was in 2001 in Metro Vancouver, where it was defeated in the face of massive public opposition.

Despite obstacles, these corporate activists marched on, learning from their failures, building alliances, and refining their often subversive strategies. Realizing that pushing P3s is expensive, they set their sights on finding a way to transfer the associated costs and risks to the public. That way, whether their campaigns to bring about privatization schemes failed or succeeded, the public, not their corporate masters or financiers, would foot the bill.

Before any of us caught on, the use of our taxpayer dollars to promote the privatization of our own public services became a reality. Alberta was first, creating a taxpayer-funded P3 government agency in 1999, joined by British Columbia (Partnerships BC) in 2002, Quebec in 2004 and Ontario in 2006. These agencies act as a kind of taxpayer-paid lobby group for corporations committed to turning a profit from the provision of public infrastructure and services — often referring to themselves as the “infrastructure investor class.”
Their big coup came in 2009. In that year, the Harper government created an ambitious federal agency called “PPP Canada.” With a staff of 40 and budget of $1.2 billion taxpayer dollars, its job is to promote the privatization of public services across the country. In effect, this agency subsidizes the profits of corporations by contributing millions of dollars of public funds to qualifying P3 projects.

Harper’s government further supports this corporate privatization agenda by presiding over Canada’s massive $130 billion infrastructure deficit while denying the use of federal funds (our tax dollars) for public infrastructure. It’s P3 or nothing.

Today, PPP Canada has declared water and wastewater privatization as one of its priorities and is focussing its “outreach” on cash-strapped municipalities and First Nations communities. It has been reported that there are currently as many as two dozen water privatization applications in this federal agency’s pipeline. Be prepared. P3 water may be coming to a community near you.

Charged with the job of busting open Canada’s water market, these corporate agitators knew that, to truly open the floodgates to privatization, they needed a model P3 water project; one of sizable proportions that they could point to as successful, and as the way of the future for water treatment and delivery in Canada.

Like a dentist searching for a cavity, they scanned our country for the “just right” community in just the right set of circumstances – one likely to bite the water privatization bait without much fuss. “Positive” community attributes being searched for included weak voter turnout, a conservative voting population, a compliant municipal council, and corporate-controlled local press. Water privatization proponents got all of this and so much more with the bedroom communities of Mission and Abbotsford, B.C., which share a joint-water commission. They were chosen for Canada�s largest P3 in the water sector: the proposed 25-year, $300 million Stave Lake P3 water project.

Generally regarded as the heart of Canada’s “Bible Belt,” Mission and Abbotsford’s communities are about two-thirds Christian, with the Mennonite business community being particularly influential. When conservative U.S. Christian groups like Focus on the Family and Insight for Living set up shop in Canada, this is where they are welcomed. Another significant faith community is Sikh, comprising almost 15 per cent of the population.

Abbotsford’s council had already embraced the P3 concept, championing several projects, including a P3 hospital and a major P3 recreation-entertainment complex. For the most part, “union” was a bad word in town and community groups like the Council of Canadians couldn’t be found within a 25-kilometre radius.

Both Mission and Abbotsford are represented by Conservative MPs, including Canada’s International Trade Minister Ed Fast. It’s no coincidence that this former Abbotsford councillor also served on the local joint water board and is currently involved in negotiating a trade deal with the European Union that aims to grant investor/profit rights to multinational corporations over Canadian municipal water services.

MP Fast’s efforts are right in line with this goal of busting open water markets on behalf of corporations. His part in the Stave Lake P3 water project sales-job was to dangle a $65-million carrot from PPP Canada before the people, warning them that if they rejected the water P3, if they refused to privatize their water services, they would also be throwing away this multimillion dollar “gift.” Imagine that, being blackmailed by your own government, with your own money.

The God-fearing Mayor of Abbotsford, a respected, no-nonsense retired school principal, adopted the Stave Lake P3 water project as his personal mission, and blamed all public opposition to water privatization on the municipal workers’ union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

By the time the residents of Mission and Abbotsford first learned about the $300 million Stave Lake P3 water project, PPP Canada, Partnerships BC, corporate legal and engineering firms like Deloitte & Touche and staff, had already been working on it for over a year, with more than half a million of local taxpayer dollars already spent.

The corporate activists had all their ducks lined up, but something went terribly wrong – the community fought back.

The stage was set for a classic David vs. Goliath battle. A ragtag team of concerned citizens and community activists, stunned by the news that their water was slated to be privatized, was up against a well-funded and organized steamroller campaign by federal, provincial and local corporate promoters colluding to bring about the largest P3 in Canada’s water sector. The public had only two weeks from the time they learned about the proposed water P3 to the time both councils had to vote on April 4, 2011, to either defeat the project outright, or move forward with a public referendum on the question during the community elections in November. The union placed ads in the local newspapers, calling on people to come out and keep their water in public hands.

Mission’s council was expected to back the project. However, in the face of passionate appeals to keep the communities’ water public, and a five-and-a-half hour occupation of council chambers by citizens opposed to water privatization, the vote was 4-3 on the side of the angels.

Abbotsford’s council heard from almost two dozen citizens opposed to P3 water, but decided to defer their vote two weeks. Despite public opposition and Mission’s rejection of the joint project, Abbotsford’s council ended up voting 8-1 in favour of the Stave Lake P3, and committed to campaigning for the P3 in preparation for the November referendum, which had been agreed upon.

Before I go on, I should let you know: I live here, in Mission, and love our community. My kids go to school here, and we go to church in Abbotsford. I also happen to work for the union representing the municipal workers. This is the same union that has been supporting Water Watch campaigns across Canada to help communities fight back against the privatization of their resources and infrastructure. It was clear, here in Mission and Abbotsford, that we needed to organize quickly, and “Water Watch Mission-Abbotsford” was born: an eclectic group of concerned citizens, stay-at-home moms, retired bankers and small-business owners, environmentalists, retired public servants, municipal leaders, church-goers, grandmothers and water workers, among others.

Our goal was to convince Abbotsford residents to vote “No” to P3 water, in the November referendum. Our slogan “Water is for Life, Not for Profit” aimed to express a shared, commonsense value that water is not a commodity and that it belongs to all. And with that, we committed ourselves to reaching out with open arms to everyone, regardless of their occupation, religion or political affiliation.

We found our friends and allies everywhere: among conservative-voting Christians, Chamber of Commerce representatives, candidates for municipal council, home-schooling moms, heads of Sikh temples, bible school leaders, blueberry and dairy farmers, teachers, real estate developers, museum curators, high school students, and the list goes on. Indeed, this is one of the main lessons to offer from from this experience: Never prejudge people in your community. Never assume that because they’re left wing or because they’re right wing, or because they don’t live on your block or because you’ve never spoken to them before, that they’re not interested in what you have to say. If you care enough about your neighbours to reach out to them in earnest, they will care enough to hear you. This is, after all, our community.

We reached out directly to the people in a face-to-face and online campaign. Supporters and volunteers joined our public water “brigades” and, for months, we set up booths and met with the public at community events. Our e-mail contact list quickly swelled to 1,000 supporters, who shared our message with their friends and family through word-of-mouth, e-mail forwarding, and by sharing the regular updates, information and videos we were putting out via our campaign blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed and YouTube channel.

The city’s heavy-handed $325K communications campaign (developed in concert with PPP Canada and Partnerships BC and then outsourced to a corporate PR firm) was no match for our on-the-ground organizing. Despite their iron grip on the local papers, and spectacularly biased coverage, the corporate campaigners found that the residents of Abbotsford were becoming fed up with the misinformation and fearmongering. (The council had even taken the liberty of hiring what they called a “P3 team” – 13 students to zigzag through the community handing out flyers, organizing town halls, and setting up booths to sell the Stave Lake P3.)

The city’s campaign included telling residents that if they didn’t vote for the P3 water project, Abbotsford would run out of water. The fire chief was paraded out to say such a water shortage would pose a fire hazard. And, if the image of widespread drought and the city going up in flames wasn’t fantastical enough, the Liberal provincial health minister helped nail the P3 coffin shut when he warned Abbotsfordians that voting “No” to the P3 water project could mean the community may never receive government grants again. Lord help us!

On November 19, 2011, Abbotsford residents shot back at corporate Canada’s privatization agenda by voting “No” to the Stave Lake P3 water project, by an overwhelming 74 per cent. They also swept out the pro-P3 mayor in favour of a singing chiropractor and first-time politician who opposed the water P3.

Remember that “Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships,” formed in the early 1990s to promote P3s? They just happened to be holding their annual national conference a day following the P3 water project’s humiliating defeat. In their delegate bulletin that day they lamented that “the darkest cloud over this year’s conference was the rejection of Abbotsford residents of a P3 for the Stave Lake water project, [highlighting] the risk of popular rejection of a P3 project. . . .”
Perhaps the lesson here is that God never intended for water to be turned into gold.

Diane Kalen-Sukra coordinated the Water Watch Mission-Abbotsford community campaign to defeat the $300-million Stave Lake P3 water project. This article originally appeared in Our Times magazine.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Diane Kalen-Sukra is a repeat survivor of internal union purges and is currently waiting for member-reinforcements to ignite and occupy Canada's labour bureaucracy, of which she is a part. Over the past 20 years, she has coordinated and led countless successful community and labour campaigns, most recently, the Water Watch Mission-Abbotsford campaign which defeated the largest proposed water privatization scheme in Canada's water sector.