Pressure from bottled-water giant Nestlé Waters Canada bullied a Canadian city into cancelling a screening of "Tapped," an award-winning documentary critical of the buying and selling of clean drinking water as a commodity.
Water activist Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, planned to attend Monday's screening of "Tapped" in Guelph, Ontario, but discovered that the event had been cancelled after Nestlé's director of corporate affairs expressed "disappointment" that the city was a co-sponsor of the screening. Nestlé questioned efforts by the city "to position itself as a business-friendly place to invest."
Barlow called Nestle's letter "bullying," and said in a radio interview Monday, "It really does matter who is going to make decisions around access to water in the future. Is it going to be a handful of corporations? Is it going to be service utilities? Is it going to be bottled water companies? Is it going to be water traders? Or is it going to be democratically-elected governments looking after water on behalf of their people?"
"Tapped" was scheduled in September as part of Water Conservation Documentary Nights, one of three films to be screened about global water conservation and management issues. The event was to be co-sponsored by the City of Guelph Water Services and Welling Waterwatchers.
Welling Waterwatchers has protested the practices of Nestlé, the largest bottling company in Canada, that include pumping water from the Grand River watershed, even during hot temperatures and drought-like conditions, the Global Edmonton reported.
Mark Calzavara, regional organizer for the Council of Canadians, told the Global Edmonton that "for a bottled water company to continue pumping throughout a serious drought, it kinds of adds insult to injury."
On Sept. 7, Guelph Mayor Karen Farbridge received a letter (pdf) from John Challinor, director of corporate affairs at Nestlé, that expressed "disappointment" that the city planned to sponsor the screening.
Challinor wrote that Nestlé expects "all levels of government to take a learned well-researched and even-handed approach to all matters that come before them," and argued, in part, that "'Tapped' … constructs a distorted and misleading picture of bottled water as a product."
Challinor noted the amount of investment by Nestlé in the Guelph region, and the efforts by the city "to position itself as a business-friendly place to invest."
Given that we are occasionally sought out by national and international business concerns to offer our perspective on Canada, Ontario and Guelph as places to invest, I would appreciate receiving your guidance about how we should respond to any future outreach by commercial interests regarding Guelph's suitability as a place to invest.
Although Farbridge responded (pdf) on Sept. 12 that city staff, "in recognition of local sensitivities referenced in your correspondence," agreed to pull its co-sponsorship, the screening was cancelled.
Farbridge later wrote on her blog that city staff had not seen the film before agreeing to screen it for the public, and that the Department of Water Services did have "professional concerns" about the documentary.
But she acknowledged her personal belief that one paragraph of the Nestlé letter was an attempt to pressure the city:
I personally feel Nestlé was attempting to exert pressure on the City of Guelph by including the following paragraph in their correspondence: “Given that we are occasionally sought out by national and international business concerns to offer our perspective on Canada, Ontario and Guelph as places to invest, I would appreciate receiving your guidance about how we should respond to any future outreach by commercial interests regarding Guelph’s suitability as a place to invest.”
On Monday, Tapped was screened at the University of Guelph before more than 350 people, according to Calzavara — far more than were originally expected before the controversy.
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