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When the curtain rises on an Ottawa homicide trial early in the new year casting light on the drowning deaths of Cyndy Cadieux, 32, and her seven-year-old son, Aaron, their small hometown of nearby Calabogie will revisit a rare event that shook it to the core .

Rarer still, however, one of the three accused is not a person at all, but Ontario Power Generation Inc., the government-owned supplier of 70 per cent of the province's electricity.

Along with two employees, OPG is charged with two counts of criminal negligence causing death and seven counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

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The charges were laid in connection with a June, 2002, incident in which a rarely used gate at the Barrett Chute hydroelectric dam on the Madawaska River was opened to drain off excess water, engulfing a group of sunbathers in a surge of water that swept them over a 10-metre-high cliff and onto rocks below.

Homicide charges against a publicly owned utility appear to have no precedent in Canada, said Ontario Provincial Police Staff Inspector Ian Grant, who headed the exhaustive two-year criminal probe into the incident, which he terms "a very difficult investigation."

Moreover, the trial, which will be by a judge alone, is sure to focus on the decision-making process at Toronto-based OPG.

Employees have said that after the Mike Harris government's decision to deregulate the electricity market -- a move that took effect just weeks before the tragedy -- local control over dams such as Barrett Chute was transferred to a computerized dispatch system at head office.

"We were a slave to this electronic brain," an OPG dam worker told the Ottawa Citizen.

Police have had to pore through a small mountain of logged records, voice recordings and witness accounts.

"We had to take a look not only at what happened on the date of the event, but also at the corporation," Det. Insp. Grant said. "How things are set up, how everybody interacts and what decisions were made."

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The trial is to open Jan. 16 and is expected to last up to six months. Accused, along with OPG, is Robert Bednarek, 46, dam operator at the Barrett Chute generating station at the time, and John Tammadge, 51, manager of OPG's Ottawa River St. Lawrence Plant Group.

Prosecution evidence includes 150 CDs and DVDs and 23 volumes of written statements and evidence, much of it dramatic, first-hand descriptions of the terror that ensued as the deadly wall of water smashed down the dammed-up channel, where the more than 20 people were picnicking and sunning themselves on that hot June Sunday.

Weather was key in the chain of events, and not merely because it had drawn people to the popular spot known as High Falls, just downstream from the Barrett Chute dam.

A lawsuit filed against OPG by the Cadieux family -- one of several that have been settled on undisclosed terms -- claimed that above-average spring rainfall had resulted in a buildup of water behind Barrett Chute, one of seven interconnected dams in the Madawaska River system.

Then came that unusually hot June day, when the demand from air conditioners forced the system to function at near-maximum capacity. Just upstream from Barrett Chute is the Mountain Chute dam, which, after processing its water, sent the load downstream.

But Barrett Chute had one of its four turbines down for maintenance at the time, according to a published report, and could not handle the intake.

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That is why the Toronto-based dispatch system instructed Barrett Chute to open its gates, OPG employees have been quoted as saying.

Beyond listing safety measures that have been enhanced since what he terms "the accident," Chuck Pautler, OPG's vice-president of public affairs, would not say much about what happened.

"It was a tragedy for the Cadieux family and a tragedy felt by everybody here at OPG, from top to bottom," he said. "It continues to weigh very heavily on OPG. . . . It was taken very, very seriously."

In particular, Mr. Paulter would not discuss the corporation's chain of command "because you're into a matter that's before the courts."

Don MacKinnon, president of the 15,000-member Power Workers Union, was also reluctant to comment about events before and after June 23, 2002.

"Several improvements have been made, but I don't want to say more than that because of the trial and because it's in the legal system."

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But former Liberal MPP and cabinet minister Sean Conway, whose Renfrew-area riding encompasses the Madawaska River, has no doubt something went seriously awry that day.

"They've been producing power on the Madawaska River for decades," he said.

"I've spoken to people who've worked in hydro there for years, and for that time of year there appeared to be something extraordinary about the volume of water that was released that day."

Now head of the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University, Mr. Conway happened to be at a nearby church when the dam waters came coursing through, and he knew some of the people who were swept away.

"Someone I know said they heard this absolute roar, and the next thing they knew was this absolute wall of water coming, at a level they had never seen before.

"On the basis of what I was told, it was very fortunate that more people were not killed. People in that community need answers to some very important questions."

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