Advertisement
Investigations

Inside the investigation that exposed lead-laced drinking water in Canada

WATCH: Would it surprise you to know drinking water in some Canadian cities contains unsafe levels of lead? A year-long investigation that has involved over 100 university students and journalists found some disturbing answers.

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 7:29 a.m. PT on Nov. 11, 2019 to remove an incorrect statement that Prince Rupert didn’t have a local newspaper.

Canada is often seen as a country of sparkling lakes and roaring rivers. But is the water coming out of kitchen taps in the country’s cities and towns as safe to drink as one would expect?

That’s what more than 120 reporters, including those from Global News, editors, students and faculty members, set out to explore in a national investigative journalism project of unprecedented scope. Robert Cribb, an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star, conceived the idea and proposed it to the collective group.

For the past year, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, the journalism students have been knocking on doors roughly 900 homes in 32 communities. Eventually, the journalists convinced these people to become citizen scientists who took their own tap water samples for testing.

Story continues below advertisement

The teams of student journalists ultimately collected 358 samples that were then sent to accredited labs for analysis. 

READ MORE: Is Canada’s tap water safe? Thousands of test results show high lead levels across the country

“We got hands-on experience by going out in the field,” said Brigitte Tousignant, a graduate journalism student at Concordia University. “I was amazed by the stories residents were willing to share with us. I’ve never had this type of learning experience from any other journalism class before.”

Most of the student teams were focused on lead, a neurotoxin that dissolves in water on its way from water treatment plants to people’s taps, usually from plumbing and pipes. The 2015 water crisis in Flint, Mich. had raised awareness of the issue across North America. Reporting across the country indicated that lead was an issue in many communities. 

The project, which was coordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, involved students and faculty at journalism programs at nine post-secondary educational institutions (University of King’s College, Concordia University, Carleton University, Humber College, Ryerson University, the University of Regina, Mount Royal University, MacEwan University and the University of British Columbia) and reporters from 10 partner news operations including Global News and its bureaus, as well as the Toronto Star, along with the Star Vancouver, Star Calgary, Star Edmonton and Star Halifax; Le Devoir; National Observer; the Regina Leader-Post and The Associated Press.

Story continues below advertisement

All of the journalism students’ and professional reporters’ research was pooled. It enabled emerging young journalists to learn about and execute investigative work, alongside seasoned professionals from across Canada.

 

Pauline Dakin, associate professor of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, said student learning is enriched by the collaborative nature of the project.

“Students work with teams across the country and professional journalist partners to get a higher-level understanding of the importance of the issue and the methodology in covering it, and a sense of the impact of their reporting,” Dakin said.

“Along the way, they also make great contacts that could be invaluable for their future careers as journalists.”

Divided into teams, the group set out to understand the scope of the problem. There are few databases or other authoritative sources to consult because, unlike most industrialized countries, Canada does not have national drinking water regulations, only guidelines. It’s up to the provinces to incorporate Health Canada guidelines into enforceable regulations. 

Wherever possible, the group standardized its surveys, interviews and freedom-of-information requests.

READ MORE: Investigation into lead in Canada’s drinking water spurs calls for action across country

In order to understand how different municipalities test for and respond to lead and other contaminants in their drinking water, the consortium filed more than 700 access-to-information requests at all levels of government, seeking data, reports, studies, memos, meeting minutes and internal emails.

Story continues below advertisement

Global News and its partners pored over hundreds of documents which revealed wide disparity in water quality and oversight. Some provinces are tackling lead, while it isn’t on the radar for others. In the absence of clear directives from provincial regulators, civil engineers and water treatment technicians look to regional health authorities for advice on how best to navigate public health implications of water treatment. 

Targeting high-risk neighbourhoods with older homes, consortium members sought out ‘citizen scientists’ willing to collect their own water samples according to a sampling protocol recommended by the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard. 

Many residents spoke of a downplaying of their results and the health risks posed by recurring exposure to the levels of lead typically found in drinking water.

“If we had known 10 years ago, of course we could have changed something,” said David Bruneau, a Montreal resident who found out there were high levels of lead in his drinking water.

“I know there’s many homes in this situation.”

The team worked collaboratively to conduct key interviews with leading experts in civil engineering, public health and environmental science. The whole team weighed in on questions to be asked. Altogether, the consortium conducted over 220 hours of recorded interviews, which were transcribed and made available to all members.

Story continues below advertisement

Global News and its partners then assembled the evidence to take to government officials across Canada and press them for answers and explanations about what was found.

The collection of results was made up of data from our own lead testing data, and that which we’d requested from municipalities. With variabilities in testing protocol accounted for, we found that Montreal, Gatineau, Regina, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and Prince Rupert had lead levels in their drinking water comparable to or higher than Flint’s in 2015. 

In summer 2019, reporters from partner media organizations began working closely with the consortium, and with the IIJ’s seven reporting fellows, to ramp up the production phase. Students accompanied reporters to Global News shoots in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, and Halifax. Le Devoir offered two Concordia students internships to work on the series out of their Montreal office. IIJ staff produced a How to Report guide to help orient reporters to the shared database, and created publication-specific Slack channels where they could respond to queries from reporters on an ongoing basis. 

NDP blast Ford government over lead-laced drinking water in schools
NDP blast Ford government over lead-laced drinking water in schools

The team also got a head start with its first story, published in July, that revealed advice from scientists to the Quebec government about the dangers lurking in the taps of schools and daycares across the province.

This report prompted some immediate reaction and some competition from other Quebec media outlets such as La Presse, which started chasing the story independently.

Story continues below advertisement

By October, Global News and Le Devoir decided to publish some of their major findings after a year of investigating the issues in Quebec.

And there was an immediate reaction from the Quebec government. Premier François Legault admitted he was learning for the first time that provincial regulations were not requiring municipalities to use testing methods that would detect the maximum amount of exposure in households across the province.

Both the Quebec government and the City of Montreal would eventually announce new measures in response to our reporting. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante confirmed details of her plan in an exclusive interview with Global News and Le Devoir.

‘I don’t want citizens to be worried’: Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante insists water is safe to drink
‘I don’t want citizens to be worried’: Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante insists water is safe to drink

Ainslie Cruikshank, environment reporter for Star Vancouver, worked closely with the IIJ and UBC journalism students to publish a story about a serious lead problem in Prince Rupert, B.C. — a community of more than 12,000 people. 

“These types of collaborative investigations are so important, especially now, as newsrooms face increasingly limited resources,” said Cruickshank. “Teaming up with the IIJ, the talented reporters in the UBC journalism program and our media partners meant there were more people to dig through government documents, data, and build relationships with sources.

“Ultimately, it meant the UBC team was able to uncover a major story in a northern community that has gone unreported until now.”

Story continues below advertisement

The collaboration is hardly over now that the first round of reporting is being published and broadcasted. As the project enters its second year, First Nations University of Canada and Université du Québec à Montréal are recent additions to the consortium. Ryerson School of Journalism’s Karyn Pugliese has joined the collaborative’s circle of advisors and Martha Troian is producer. 

— With files from Brigitte Tousignant.