A button that was handed out by opponents of water fluoridation in Owen Sound before the city clerk’s office advised Fluoridation Free Owen Sound that the Municipal Elections Act requires groups to register at city hall in order to spend money on a campaign to encourage people to vote yes or no to a plebiscite. DENIS LANGLOIS PHOTO
Local anti-fluoride advocates say their campaign hit a major roadblock earlier this month that forced them to stop disseminating materials to people just weeks before a vote on the future of water fluoridation in Owen Sound.
Dr. David Ward of Fluoridation Free Owen Sound said the group learned from city hall Oct. 7 — while a member was inquiring about advertising during an election — that the Municipal Elections Act requires all individuals, corporations and trade unions wishing to spend money to encourage electors to vote yes or no to a question on a ballot to register with the city clerk by Sept. 12. Failure to do so could result in a $25,000 fine.
Ward said the group was unaware of the rule and, once it was brought to their attention and upon receiving their own legal advice, they immediately stopped handing out their anti-fluoride literature and buttons and took down signs they had posted in several downtown storefronts.
“People are frightened. If you hear a $25,000 fine, people can’t afford that. So it gave an immediate cessation to those efforts,” he said Tuesday in an interview.
While the fluoridation opponents are still talking with voters, canvassing the community and writing letters to local media to get their message out, Ward said a big part of their campaign was killed just three weeks before election day.
The Grey Bruce Health Unit, meanwhile, which has launched a campaign in support of water fluoridation, is not subject to the same rules. The agency was told last spring, after sending an inquiry to city hall, that boards of health do not have to register as a campaigning party under the Municipal Elections Act.
Owen Sound voters are being asked in this municipal election whether they want the city to discontinue its practice of adding fluoride to Owen Sound’s water supply, which it has been doing since 1965.
Fluoridation Free Owen Sound, which Ward describes as a loose organization of about half a dozen people, do not believe they will be penalized for spending money on their campaign before they knew of the registration rules, he said.
“We didn’t knowingly do this so I think we’re OK,” he said. “But by Oct. 7, when we knew that (information), we couldn’t even distribute any materials that we printed before we knew because now we knew that we couldn’t do it.”
Ward and other fluoridation opponents say the city should have told them about the rules before the Sept. 12 deadline, especially since they have made their plans to launch an anti-fluoridation campaign well known in the community and several people have voiced their opposition to fluoridation at council and public meetings.
Clerk Kristen Van Alphen said her office has informed several people about the registration requirements over the past several months. The information has also been on the city’s election website, under a “question on the ballot” section, since April, she said.
Ward, who was a family doctor for some 30 years, said he wants to make sure people are aware of the plebiscite on water fluoridation and understand the question.
Members of city council and people on both sides of the fluoridation debate, including the health unit, have expressed concerns about the wording of the question, which will ask voters “Are you in favour of the discontinuance of the fluoridation of the public water supply of this municipality?”
People who choose yes will be voting to stop the practice, while those who vote no will be telling the city to keep it in place.
Since city electors voted in 1997 to support continuing with water fluoridation, Ontario law says another plebiscite is needed — with the opposite result — before it can end.
Water fluoridation is supported and promoted by public health agencies, including the Grey Bruce Health Unit, and many dental practitioners as a safe and effective way to prevent tooth decay.
Opponents say it is an outdated, ineffective and obsolete practice that is not safe, poses a threat to human health and should not be forced on people.