I first met my cousin Mary Robinson-Ramsay in August 2014 at a family reunion at David Bryce’s cabin. Mary was from Walkerton, a central Ontario village notorious for an outbreak of E coli from a contaminated town well. She told me she had been on Walkerton Council in the years leading up to the outbreak in May 2000, and had brought up concerns regarding the water. As I listened to her in that hot noisy cabin I realized that the legacy of Peter Bryce lives on, and that’s when I decided to do a film on him.
Peter Campbell and I went to Walkerton two years later to interview Mary for the film Finding Peter Bryce. This was the first stop on a five day whirlwind filming trip in southern Ontario. We arrived in Walkerton after a five hour flight and a pleasant drive through miles of farmland. Walkerton is a prosperous small town along the banks of the Saugeen River and it was hard to believe that this had been the site of such a tragedy.
Mary had been a witness at the Walkerton Inquiry, and she was mentioned in the report. On page 236 it describes how Walkerton council had received a report from the Ministry of the Environment which expressed concerns about its water purification system and how the report ended up on the council agenda as an information item.
At that meeting, Mary Robinson-Ramsay, a municipal councilor, expressed her concern about the PUC’s non-compliance and the detection of E. coli bacteria. From her standpoint, the solution to these problems was to provide what she termed ‘regular and on-going technical expertise.’ She identified the options of either retaining a consulting engineer to take supervisory responsibility or hiring a municipal director of public works.
Council ignored her. “Their attitude was ‘oh you’re the new kid on the block,’ and I was a new councilor,” she told us. “So their answer was ‘we’ll get the water guys to look at it.’ But I don’t think they understood fully my concerns.”
Mary knew better because she had grown up being conscious of water quality.
“As a General Practitioner in a small town my Dad was also the medical officer of health and the coroner,” says Mary. “One of my Dad’s duties was to test wells in the area, so sometimes that was a conversation piece around the supper table about a well he was concerned with. I was probably more aware of water than most kids were.”
Later Mary and her husband worked in South Africa, where clean water is not a given: “In the country you had to be careful, there was Bilharzia and other diseases around and you had to be more aware.”
Most of us in Canada take for granted that we will have safe, clean drinking water. But it wasn’t that long ago that drinking water wasn’t that safe or clean. Devastating outbreaks of water-borne disease were common in the Canada’s early years. It wasn’t until Peter Bryce and the public health movement established clean water standards that the situation began to change. As well, in the 1880s and 1890s Peter Bryce faced pressure from many councils to relax standards. One editorial, written in 1904 when Bryce left the Ontario civil service for the federal government said “Dr. Bryce has always turned a deaf ear to salubrious legislators who came with appeals of this kind and was even willing to gently explain that such a request was unintentionally criminal.”
The results of not meeting standards are devastating, as the Walkerton tragedy so well illustrates. In a town of 5,000 people, there were five deaths, and at least two thousand other people who became seriously ill. The two men responsible for the tragedy were found guilty of a charge of common nuisance. One spent a year in jail, while the other spent five months under house arrest. The town of Walkerton had to replace parts of its water system.
Peter Bryce’s twin legacies come together in Mary Robinson-Ramsay’s story. His legacy to the country is a public health system that has helped it prosper and grow. The legacy to his family can be seen in his descendants – Mary’s father is only one example of a descendant who went into medicine. In another branch of the family is an uninterrupted line of five generations of people in public health. But Mary’s story describes another, more important legacy – and that is one of telling truth to power as she describes in the clip below.
There is one footnote to leave you with – according to Health Canada there are 138 boil water advisories in 93 First Nations communities in Canada outside of British Columbia. It seems the standards of clean water which most of us enjoy, are not being met in Indigenous communities. There is still much work to be done.
The documentary film Finding Peter Bryce is currently in post-production but it needs funding to be completed. If you are interested in contributing, you can give through our partners, the Canadian Public Health Association and receive a tax receipt in return. Go to How to donate to the Film to find out more. Click here to see the promotional trailer. If you have other questions, suggestions or thoughts, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org