The Weekender: Guthrie Ain’t the Water Boogeyman You Want Him to Be

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It was announced last week that city council will be setting aside a whole Monday night on November 7 to let the public have it, a rake out against Nestle and water-taking from local and area aquafers for bottled water that is. Considering that a council motion to basically say just that, along with a preceding protest in front of City Hall, gathered hundreds of Guelphites together, it was a shrewd move on the part of council and the mayor to answer community interest in the issue by giving it a platform. Only one thing is standing in the environmental lobby’s way to give Nestle the swift boot out of town, and that’s the mayor himself, Cam Guthrie. Except, yeah, he’s really not.

Council wasn’t in session in August when the water issue started heating up, and it wasn’t too long after everything was back to business as usual when Councillor James Gordon decided to bring the matter front and centre. Gordon brought forward a motion asking council to submit to the Environmental Registry process that allowing the renewal of Nestle’s permit to take water was not in the best interest of the City of Guelph. It would be a powerful message to the Province of Ontario and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change that the political body of the largest municipality in the immediate area thinks that what the company is doing in Aberfoyle is a bad idea.

Then, on September 12, Mayor Guthrie posted to his blog that he would not be voting in favour of Gordon’s motion for reasons of procedure. He said that the motion was “premature” as Nestle’s application had not yet been posted to the registry for comment, and that staff reports on the matter were coming forward in November. Guthrie asked that Gordon withdraw his motion adding, “No matter what Councillor Gordon may decide around this particular motion, I know his intentions and his convictions on this issue is what should matter most.” Or, as the Guelph Tribune put it, “Guelph councillor, mayor spar over Nestlé motion.”

Perhaps it’s just modern political culture that makes us think that if someone’s for something then someone else has got to be against it. Or maybe it’s just Guelph tradition, if an issue is to have a hero, then they’re also going to need a villain; if someone on council is going to fight for an issue than he or she must have an equal and opposite force trying to stop them. CBC did it’s part to try and puncture the tension with the article headlined: “Guelph mayor denies trying to prevent debate on Nestlé’s water taking in Aberfoyle.”

In that CBC article, Guthrie said he was no “rogue mayor” nor was there a “hidden agenda here from the evil mayor.” It’s not the first time the typically affable former insurance agent who played drums in a band has been accused of using his smooth exterior to hide Machiavelli scheming. A pair of political cartoons published during the last election presaged a Mayor Guthrie releasing the hounds of rampant development or borrowing heavily from the Rob Ford playbook. In an ironic move considering the Ford comparisons, Guthrie was being attacked for wanting to get more information from city staff on water-taking before fully engaging in debate. (Rob Ford never needed more information.)

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised then when Guthrie posted to Twitter this week about a letter to the editor in the Tribune that mistakenly attributed comments made by Puslinch Mayor Dennis Lever to Guthrie when Lever said that Nestle’s water taking was a “drop in the bucket” as compared to Guelph. “He [meaning Guthrie] supports the water extraction for a fraction of one-hundredth of a cent inside a throw-away plastic bottle costing over a dollar in your local store,” John McMurtry wrote confusing the two mayors. “As we have come to expect with the anti-regulation, pro-corporation gang, they are not even coherently pro-business. No one with a coherent mind could support such an imbecilic market exchange.”

While the letter McMurtry was responding to didn’t explicitly identify which mayor the “bucket” quote was coming from, it seems as though his confusion fell neatly into a predetermined idea of how exactly he thinks Guthrie feels about the issue. The fact of the matter is I don’t know what Guthrie thinks of the situation personally. His mayor’s blog has had two posts on the subject, one that was a FAQ answering common queries about water taking and conservation, and the other outlining his objections to Gordon’s motion. If Guthrie’s made public comments in support of Nestle’s permit, I couldn’t find them. Perhaps in Guthrie’s admittedly pro-business mind he believes that Nestle is a legal company selling a legal product, but if that’s true it hasn’t stopped him from trying to engage the overwhelming tone of concern about water-taking from the public.

If there was an actual cabal involving Guthrie trying to bury the debate, they’re the most inept villainous puppet masters since Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil. Wouldn’t the interests of Nestle be better served if the motion were discussed in the middle of a Monday afternoon at Committee-of-the-Whole? And if there’s a group of councillors trying to stand up for Nestle and other water-taking businesses, why did the full council vote unanimously to refer the motion to the November 7 meeting? While it’s true there was debate from around the horseshoe, it had more to with whether or not the politics should be discussed before the staff report, and whether Nestle should be named specifically in the motion because perhaps they should rule on all potential water-taking companies. It’s almost like council is listening to the community…

It will be interesting to see if anyone comes out to speak in favour of Nestle and water-taking on November 7, Councillor Bob Bell actively encouraged such a person to come forward at the September 26 meeting. When the staff report comes back, and actual decisions have to be made, that’s when we’ll see for certain where the proverbial chips fall. For right now though, no one’s trying to stop anyone from talking about water-taking, and if you want to pick on someone that is, you need only look to Queen’s Park. Thanks to them, they’ve allowed Nestle to carry on taking water for four months after their permit expired, while they’ve had Nestle’s renewal application for six months and haven’t yet called for public feedback. Who’s the one that really doesn’t want to talk about?

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