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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Ontario's Mason-Dixon line: It all boils down to whether you can live with bears or not

By ROY MacGREGOR
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2003

WALKERTON, ONT. — Ron Fisk can't understand what's making the maple trees in his front yard so sickly.First the leaves dried out and curled in on themselves, then the branches shrivelled and the bark fell off, and yet he knows their withering illness had nothing to do with the cold, clear water still dripping from the hose at the side of his little bungalow in downtown Walkerton.

He cannot, however, say the same for himself.

Three years ago, this same water killed seven people after an E. coli outbreak in the town supply that would have been caught if responsible inspections had been carried out.

The 56-year-old court reporter became so ill through 2000 that he believed he would be the eighth. Today, more than three years later, he has a mortal dread of what will happen next to his rebelling body.

There was a time when his intestines felt as if "someone was wringing out wet sheets." There were months, then years of watery diarrhea and uncontrollable bladder problems that made returning to work impossible. There was the time of bloating in which he reached 218 pounds, 58 of which he has shed since January when, finally, a nutritionist he paid for out of his own pocket put him on a diet so specialized he says his choice in food has fallen "to less than 1 per cent of the grocery shelves."

There were years before all this when Fisk would make more than $100,000 as a freelance court reporter, but that meant no benefits, no safety net, and for the past three years he's been living on investments that have taken a battering in the stock market.

He considered returning to work but realized the one taking down the transcripts could hardly ask for a court recess every few minutes "just so I could go out and pee."

Recently he went and talked to a local pharmacist about ways that might let him try getting back to doing something useful, earning some much-needed money.

"He talked to me about pads and pants and a portable catheter and things like that. I thought about it a while and then I thought, 'Why should I have to do this? This isn't my fault.' "

It is, however, someone's fault, and while those responsible for the monitoring of the Walkerton water supply took the initial blame, the long and painful inquiry made it clear that there was more than enough blame to spread all the way to Queen's Park and the cutbacks in inspection the provincial government instituted.

That Walkerton was bound to become an election issue was never much in doubt, but it has been the meat-inspection scandal in another small Ontario town, Aylmer, that has raised the whole issue of government slashing on matters of public health that has put little Walkerton back on the front pages.

Ron Fisk, who considers himself not very political and has supported all parties in the past, says his anger is reserved for "the cutbacks that led to the lack of an inspection process.

"That," he adds after a pause, "and the Conservative Party in general."

What Fisk wants more than revenge, however, is help, help for him and help for those he says are still suffering from the E. coli that attacked this small community of 5,000 more than three years ago.

"I would guess there are 2,000 in the town still affected," he says. "But 1,800 of them have not come out to talk about it. They can't deal with it. They're depressed. They have tremors. They're ill. But they can't face it."

What he has done for his maple trees is cut off the sick limbs, peel off the bursting bark and paint the trunks different colours so that one dead maple is now a bright red cherry. He does not need to add -- not in Walkerton -- that human suffering is not so easily brushed over.



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