To privatize or not to privatize, that is the question.
Or is it?
Many of the activists hanging around Winnipeg City Hall say so. Their placards and stickers warn that a controversial city plan to partner with the private sector to upgrade and maintain Winnipeg's outdated water system is tantamount to selling off one of its most important assets.
Much more worrisome, they say, is that the Winnipeg water fight could be an early skirmish in a larger push to privatize and commodify water resources right across Canada.
"It may seem like a small decision - should the City of Winnipeg allow a public-private utility model - but it's part of a larger question that's being fought on the ground all over the world," said Maude Barlow, national chair for the Council of Canadians.
But advocates of the plan, which council will vote on Wednesday, scoff at the very mention of the P-word.
"Many people have thrown around that word, 'privatization,' " said Mayor Sam Katz. "But it has absolutely no basis in truth."
So what exactly is the water fight all about? For the past several weeks, residents have packed community meetings, scrutinized a business plan and crammed the gallery of City Hall trying to figure that out. It's proved a confusing endeavour.
The city needs to sink $1-billion into its water and waste infrastructure by 2012 to comply with new pollution rules imposed by the province, according to Mr. Katz. But he has found the customary process of putting mass public-works projects out to tender incredibly costly for the city.
"In the past when we've taken on this type of project, it's proved beyond our abilities to deal with it," he said. "And as a result, it's come in over-budget by a significant amount of money."
The mayor is endorsing a plan to split off the Water and Waste Department from the city and place it in an arm's-length corporation, much like some provincial Crown corporations, but with a major catch: The new utility would be a partnership between the city and a private-sector company.
The company would share the risk of construction financing and overruns. But that risk could come with a huge reward - the potential bonanza of expanding the utility to serve thirsty markets beyond city limits. Even before the business plan has passed, 15 companies have applied for consideration.
That expansion objective is just one aspect of the plan that has upset so many Winnipeggers.
"The focus seems to be solely on the money to be made from the sale of these services to exurban communities," said city councillor Jenny Gerbasi, who will submit a motion to delay the water vote until the fall.
During a session of the city's executive-policy committee last week, more than two dozen opponents voiced a slew of reasons to reject the plan, including a lack of transparency, reduced city-council oversight and the dearth of independent research that went into the proposal.
But the reigning grievance is the muddled language used in the proposal itself.
"It's very unclear," said Josh Brandon, a co-ordinator for Resource Conservation Manitoba. "What exactly are we signing on for?"
Even the mayor confesses that the public pitch has been vague.
"The wording was very confusing," he said. "I'll be the first to admit that."
Some opponents see a much broader issue in Winnipeg's water fight. Some 90 per cent of the country's water systems lie in municipal hands, and they fear conversion of Winnipeg to a private-sector partnership could set off a cascading effect across the country. Such a trend could create a continental market for water services.
"Who gets water and who doesn't would be determined by the market," said Ms. Barlow. "It would become just another commodity like electricity, running shoes or Coca-Cola."