Water fight!

I’m getting a little tired and punchy over The story that just won’t die. What started as an effort to reduce the environmental impact of bottled water in our schools has turned into one of the silliest political debates in the city since… hmmm… I can’t think of sillier one.

I should declare my bias here, since conflict of interest is such a big part of this. I have already publicly declared my opinion that bottled water is one of the most egregious examples of the victory of cleaver marketing over common sense, good economics, and sustainability. Not on par with smoking in the personal-health-risk department, but probably more damaging on a global heath risk, and no less stupid. So my bias is that I agree with the students on this one, not the Board of Education.

I don’t know Lori Watt, I had never met her before the infamous school board meeting where the latest motion on bottled water was discussed. Frankly, I was not impressed with her unprofessional manner at the meeting, but it is not like being unprofessional stood out in that completely dysfunctional organization, where most if not all of the members have lost touch with what they are there to do. Speaking as an adult, I was embarrassed to have the students in the audience watch their elected representatives act like that. So for the two “slates” on the board, I say a pox on all your houses.

However, the claims of “conflict of interest” in this case seem a bizarre stretch, legal opinion notwithstanding. During the last election for Board of Education, Lori Watt worked as a staffer for CUPE, and was a member of COPE, and CUPE contributed to her campaign (as they did to Trustee Ewen and Trustee Janzen). These are not secrets, nor do they preclude her for running for the Board. People voted for her in spite of (or in some cases, I am sure, because of) these associations. Labour Unions are political organizations, just as multinational corporations are. They have political interests, and put their support behind those that reflect them. Watt is a member of a labour union (like about 30% of Canada’s working population), and quite possibly shares some of the same political ideas as the Union does. It is possible she even goes to Union Meetings and takes part in the democratic process of setting those policies. Of course, she can’t vote one CUPE policies, only COPE ones.

Note also that New Westminster is a “union-friendly” City. There are numerous union offices in town, the population mix is decidedly working class, and it is a longstanding labour-NDP stronghold since before the days when Tommy Douglas represented New Westminster in Ottawa. It is entirely possible that Lori Watt’s labour connection helped her get elected: that people voted for her because of her union affiliation. These people are her constituency: like it or not, that is representative democracy.

So a member of the Board of Education, elected as a union member, put forward a motion for a policy change, seconded by Trustee Graham (who did not receive CUPE funding) and supported by all members of the board, that happened to reflect the expressed interests of her constituency. That is the conflict of interest? Conflict of interest is now putting forward a motion reflecting the interests of her constituency that was immediately supported by the rest of the board? Huh? Is there any suspicion that she personally gained financially from this? Did she short-sell her PepsiCo stocks prior to this motion coming forward? If she didn’t bring the motion forward, would she be fired from her union job? Where was her gain here? Excuse the French, but this is so much ado about sweet fuck all.

But what of the legal opinion, you ask? Given sufficient money, I could have a legal opinion drafted up that says the sky is not blue and the ocean is not wet. When one of the world’s largest bottled-water selling multinational corporations (Nestle) pays for a legal opinion from the same law firm that represents another one of the world’s largest bottled-water-selling multinational corporations (PepsiCo), and that opinion comes back in favour of the position of the bottled-water-selling multinational corporations, are we to be surprised? We should be no less surprised that the Board’s own legal opinion said there was not conflict. Legal opinions are like children: there is no limit to how many you can have, even if you can’t afford them, and everyone thinks their own is the best.

Since we are on the topic of conflict of interest: we know O’Connor received some financial assistance from Nestle for his supposedly one-man grassroots campaign against Watt. We know there were other, so far unnamed, financial contributors, willing to spend money to support one failed Board of Education candidate, as the “public face” of the fight. Receiving secret funding to wage a personal campaign? No possibility of conflict there. If O’Connor was really concerned about openness and accountability, he would declare just how many people contributed to his “grassroots” campaign, and how he got the address of PepsiCo’s favourite law firm. Still, I have yet to hear Patrick O’Connor mention anything about the interests of students (remember them?) in this entire debate. It is pretty ugly on the face of it.

I am afraid the local “Voice for openness and accountability” is on the wrong side of this fight. They threw another shot across the bow last week in the form of a letter from the President to the News Leader, praising the Board for making a “balanced and thoughtful” decision on this matter. It is clear Neil was not in the room witnessing those discussions, as there was clearly little thought put into the fall-back position this board came to.

However, there are two things I think get lost in the language, but not the spirit, of Neil’s letter, and I hope to clarify them: the health concerns of NWSS water, and “freedom of choice”, two arguments used by Voice Board of Education Members, and reinforced by the Gentleman™ from Nestle™ at that board meeting.

During the meeting, there were three people expressing the opinion that the water at NWSS was not safe: Trustee Cook, whose nuanced argument included reference to a video he apparently saw on YouTube and a headline from the Vancouver Sun that he took out of context to create the perception that school water was laden with killer lead; The Gentleman™ from Nestle™ who made vague references to “immune-deficient people”; and some guy named “Paul” from the DPAC, who I didn’t know, but I seem to recall him saying something about commies and our precious bodily fluids:

But the funniest moment was shortly after this when Trustee Goring suggested (without a hint of irony) we need to educate the youth better, because he didn’t know where these rumours were coming from amongst the students that the water was unsafe…when there were numerous youth in the room arguing for a ban on bottled water, and it was only a few misinformed (or misinforming?) adults making these ridiculous claims…

For the record, the public health officer did not say the tap water at the school was unsafe. She suggested that a ban on bottled water should be applied concurrently with a ban on all single-serving drinks, including juices and sodas. Note, she was not arguing to maintain “freedom of choice”, but to remove all choices, leaving the school with only tap water, as this would be the healthiest alternative.

Which brings us to freedom of choice. This was big part of the Gentleman™ from Nestle™ argument, and something Trustee Cook was all over: give the students choice, and educate them to make the right choice. The false choice thing aside (with no facilities to easily fill refillable bottles, and big, glowing, pop machines everywhere you look in the school, just what is the message students are being given?) why would we give the students a choice that is the opposite of the recommendation of the public health officer? I am sure the public health officer would not suggest we install cigarette machines, then let the students “choose” not to smoke. Part of an education system is empowering the students to make the right choice by providing respite from the constant media bombardment to do the wrong thing. How do we effectively teach them to make the rational choice when we turn around and take money from a global multinational to advertise the irrational choice in the teaching environment?

On an almost completely unrelated note, you might have noticed this story about how Pepsi has slipped to #3 in the “Cola Wars”. Frankly, I don’t care what brand of malted battery acid you drink, but one number popped out to me: the United States annually consumes 1.6 billion cases of Coke. A “case” is an industry measure, equal to 24 x 8-oz containers, or 192 oz. That means the USof freaking A consumes 9.1 Billion Litres of Coke a year. To put this number in perspective, if you were to fill a 10-foot-deep swimming pool with this volume of Coke, the pool would need to be as wide as a CFL Football Field, and more than 100 km long! And that is just Coke Classic, we haven’t even thought about the Dr. Pepper effect. Freedom of choice indeed.

So, if the Board of Education was really concerned about the student’s health, they would immediately adopt the public health officer’ recommendation (see the recommendation here, on page 20) and begin the phasing out of vending machines in the schools. It is clear that the public health officer thinks tap water, supplied by Metro Vancouver and regulated by Vancouver Coastal Health is the helathiest, safest alternative. If Patrick O’Connor is really interested in cultivating his position as “maverick community activist” and not a bought-and-paid hack for Multinational Corporations, then he should stop taking their shadowy money, and if Voice is really interested in open and accountable governance, they should probably be backing away from this issue and Mr. O’Connor completely.

Oh, and everybody: apologise to the damn students for being such idiots.

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