"He was the type of person that didn't back down from anyone ."
In recent years Canada has moved far from the vanguard of environmental stewardship.
Under the Conservative government public funding for scientific research and biological monitoring has been slashed and environmental review procedures relaxed to fast-track approval for industrial projects. Corporate polluters are rarely prosecuted. Renewable wind or solar energy schemes meet with stiff resistance. We’ve broken our international commitments to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.
We are so fixated, it seems, on getting ahead, we don’t care about the world our children will inherit.
Not Ken Willet. Not on his watch.
On April 16, 1979, Mr. Willet was working the night shift at a paper mill in New Richmond, Quebec, when his foreman ordered him to flush 80 tonnes of chemical pulp stock into a nearby river. He refused to obey, was sent home and later fined a day’s pay.
Word spread after Ken filed a grievance with Consolidated-Bathurst, the company that owned the mill and officials from the provincial environment ministry eventually forced the company to change its practices.
News that a lone paper worker had tried to stop his employer from polluting local waterways also made the rounds in Ottawa, where a young Liberal cabinet minister named John Roberts was determined to get environmental issues on the political radar.
Blowing the whistle on your employer is risky. Ken’s son Eugene can still recall how some fellow community members mocked her husband’s decision to dig in his heels. Canada’s environment minister saw things differently: Ken’s action was an inspiration that deserved to be honoured.
And so on October 16, 1980, at a ceremony held in Toronto, John Roberts presented 43-year-old Ken Willett, husband and father of three young children, with the first annual Canadian environment award. In 1984, he received a plaque from the Canadian Papermakers Union, recognizing his contribution. Ken died on January 30, 2008.
Ken’s widow Peggy and son Eugene spoke to StoryNet, remembering Ken’s life, his love of nature and the day he spoke truth to power.
Recorded in New Richmond, Quebec.