Jaclyn Spitzig was just four years old when the water in Walkerton, Ont., made her sick. Her family worried and prayed as she spent about 10 days in the hospital.
She has few memories from that time. Spitzig knows her family had the choice to move her between hospitals by a helicopter but they chose a car (something she’s still bitter about). She also remembers the Barbie balloon she was given, which flew away when she was leaving the hospital.
She does think this time shaped her, though. She’s now a third-year medical student at the University of Ottawa, planning to study pediatrics or family medicine.
“From as far as I can remember, which is about four years old, I’ve wanted to go into health care to some degree,” she said.
As her rural Ontario community marks 20 years since E.coli contaminated its water, locals are dealing with the aftermath differently. Seven people died and more than 2,300 fell ill. Some people are still sick today with long-term effects like kidney damage.
“The majority of people would like to move on, have moved on,” said Chris Peabody, the area’s mayor. “We didn’t fold up and die.”
He was helping co-ordinate a memorial service to mark the anniversary — the first such event in many years — but it was cancelled because of COVID-19. He knows some locals don’t want to talk about it anymore.
“We don’t want to dwell too much on the negatives but it is part of our history,” he said. “I’m not here to erase history.”
Watch: archival footage of water testing during the Walkerton outbreak
‘I remember those children crying’
Dr. Paul McArthur and his wife were working in the emergency department at Walkerton’s hospital when the patients began arriving. Rumours had been flying about a problem, but he realized what was happening on the May long weekend.
McArthur remembers how chaotic it became — a flood of sick, weak locals coming in with bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain and fevers.
“It was either the water or the air, and these people didn’t all go to the same picnic,” he said. “The implication, which I shared with a nurse that evening, was that somebody’s going to die from this.”
The problem turned out to be manure spread on a nearby farm, which had contaminated the water supply. McArthur lost a family friend, a toddler who was playmates with his kids.
Nurse Jane Mullin remembers how packed the waiting room became — snaking out to the emergency department doors.
“I remember those children crying,” she said. “There were lots of children crying and that was kind of sad.”
Listen: Locals reflect on Walkerton’s water crisis
She also remembers kicking reporters who were trying to talk to sick locals out of the waiting room.
Mullin, now retired, kept a stack of newspapers and magazines from that time, which she recently found while cleaning her home. After 20 years, she’s decided to get rid of them.
“There was no sense keeping them any longer,” said her husband, Vince. “Honestly, they’re starting to smell.”
McArthur, who still works at the hospital, is happy that so much time has passed.
“I’m basically glad to see … people be a little bit confused about where Walkerton is,” he said. “Or get mixed up with Wiarton and Wingham and all the other W names around here.”
‘We became a stronger community’
Judge Dennis O’Connor headed an inquiry into what went wrong with Walkerton’s water. It ultimately faulted both provincial cuts and the area’s public utilities managers, who were brothers. Stan Koebel managed the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission, while his brother Frank was water foreman.
Stan Koebel knew the water was contaminated, but didn’t let authorities know right away, and lied as people started getting sick. The brothers pled guilty to criminal charges in 2004. Stan was sentenced to a year in jail, while Frank got nine months of house arrest.
But locals do not want to talk about blame. Some of those involved still live in the area — or have family there.
Joe Rys chooses to focus on the times the town has come together. He used to be principal at the Catholic high school.
After the outbreak happened, he wanted to take Walkerton on holiday. He arranged for more than 2,000 locals to take in a Blue Jays game in Toronto. They rode school buses and transferred onto a train, clad in matching T-shirts that read “Proud to be from Walkerton Ontario.”
“We all walked from [Toronto’s] Union Station, one big long line of Walkerton with their shirts on and people were looking,” he said. “The citizens of Toronto were saying ‘What in the name of God’s this?'”
He’s still upset the Jays lost 2 to 1, but said the trip helped take the community’s mind off water, if even for a few hours.
“The water crisis … led us to be stronger citizens, led us to be more conscious of other people,” he said. “That doesn’t sound right, but it is right … we became a stronger community because of that.”
Rys is Spitzig’s grandfather. She calls him “Papa.” The outbreak has come up in her medical classes, along with the crucial role clean water plays in keeping people healthy. It’s something she knows all too well but she said it’s important to recognize problems persist, particularly in Indigenous communities.
“I’m able to look at how it was addressed in our town and how it’s still a problem across Canada today even though you might not think about it,” she said.
“It’s interesting to see how to have clean water is not always as accessible as you think it might be.”