The recent appointment of Prince County businessman and former potato farmer Warren Ellis to the Board of Health PEI is an affront to any Islander who cares about the environmental health of their province, and a reward to one of the Liberal Party’s most faithful contributors and local organizers.
Mr Ellis is what you call a big Liberal, active in numerous political campaigns over the years and a political ally of the current Minister of Health and Wellness, Robert Henderson.
Until a few years ago, Warren Ellis owned and operated a large potato farm at Mount Royal, near O’Leary, financed along with his car dealership in Summerside, in part with low interest loans from the provincial government.
The province had loaned $3.7 million to Warren Ellis Produce.
At a time when small local businesses across the Island struggled to secure investment and financing from the banks, it is astonishing to me that the Provincial Treasury, considered the bank of last resort, would have loaned money to a car dealership.
But then again, there are mysteries and unexplained events in the backrooms of government.
Mr Ellis sold his potato operation and got out of farming in 2013-14, and at the time questions were raised by the Conservative Opposition about the repayment of his provincial loan debt.
But it’s not really Mr Ellis’s longstanding party loyalties that bother me, or even his financial dealings with government, although it all should be put under a microscope in my view.
What nauseates me, and what I believe makes Warren Ellis unqualified to sit on the Board of Health PEI, is his terrible record of environmental stewardship as a farmer, and his careless use of agricultural pesticides which resulted in a major fish kill and poisoning of the Trout River Watershed in 2012.
The Trout River was once regarded as one of the best trout and salmon rivers in the province.
Mr Ellis was subsequently charged under the federal Fisheries Act, found guilty, and fined $70,000 for his negligent behaviour. He managed to escape conviction on several charges under the provincial Environmental Protection Act, but was found guilty of one charge under the provincial Crop Rotation Act.
Put Simply, Mr Ellis is a polluter, and his pesticide runoff and poor farming practises did major damage to our natural environment, a priceless resource which all of us own and have responsibility to conserve and protect.
With the growth of corporate agriculture and potato monoculture in particular, Prince Edward Island has become a toxic stew pot of pesticides and other chemicals, threatening not only our rivers and aquatic life, but also human health.
The incidence rate of cancer for Island men is among the highest in the country, 13% higher than the national average, and women have the second highest cancer mortality rate, 12% higher than the rest of Canada.
These are statistics that should be screaming out for answers.
But our government doesn’t want us to make any connection between agricultural chemical use and the staggering rates of cancers on the Island.
Instead, Islanders are preached to constantly about the economic importance of the Island potato industry, and the necessity of using pesticides in order “to grow high quality potatoes for consumers.”
The potato industry is a powerful lobby group, and typically potato farmers and processors exercise a great deal of influence around the cabinet table, led in the present cabinet by Ministers Henderson and McIsaac, together with the premier and his chief of staff, former potato farmer Robert Vessey.
The authority for appointment of individuals to most provincial agencies, boards, and commissions rests with cabinet, on the recommendation of a particular minister. When it comes to Health PEI however, the public board which arguably has the greatest impact on the daily lives of Islanders, the authority to appoint is the minister’s alone under the provisions of the Health Services Act.
That is how Warren Ellis was appointed to Health PEI.
His old political friend Minister Henderson whom he helped get elected drew his name from a box containing, that’s right, one name.
Islanders might be left wondering about the other prospective, eligible Health PEI board candidates, and their respective backgrounds and qualifications.
In his introductory message to Health PEI’s Cancer Strategy 2016-2019: Let’s Make a Difference, Minister Henderson says , “Government is committed to reducing cancer” in the province, and one of the strategy’s stated priorities is to “improve prevention”.
Buried in the strategy’s objectives is the commitment to reduce “exposure to environmental and occupational carcinogens.”
As the drift from sprayers wafts over rural school grounds and our air and ground water, not to mention our rivers, continues to be poisoned, it might be a good idea to take a serious scientific look at the human health effects of pesticide use on the Island, and for once put the interests of all Islanders ahead of the potato industry.
One of Health PEI’s more distinguished and eminently qualified directors is retired medical oncologist Dr Dagny Rossignol.
I can only imagine the cancer strategy discussions that will take place between she and Warren Ellis, and his fellow appointee Blaine MacPherson, who until recently was the vice president of Agricultural Services for Cavendish Farms.
I wonder whose viewpoint will carry the most weight and influence.