Maude Barlow, the organizer of the Canadian convoy bringing water to Detroit residents, took the microphone to talk to a crowd of people protesting shutoffs in Detroit on Thursday. / Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press
DETROIT - Protesters fighting water shutoffs in Detroit greeted a convoy of Canadians who traveled to the city with hundreds of gallons of water to help those who have been cut off because of unpaid bills.
Maude Barlow, a leading water rights advocate in Canada, and other activists brought 750 gallons of water in a seven-vehicle convoy that traveled through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel to deliver the water and the message that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's policy of shutting off service to delinquent customers violates the United Nations' 2010 declaration that water is a human right.
"What that means is that every country in the world is responsible for looking after their most vulnerable people," said Barlow, national chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, a social advocacy group. "It means that every country in the world is not allowed to turn the tap off of water that is already being delivered, and it means that nobody has the right to say no to water for people who cannot afford it."
It was the latest protest since the city declared a 15-day pause in shutoffs of residential customers as Detroit drew international attention for cutting water service in an effort to collect millions of dollars in unpaid bills.
Detroit says it has 90,000 delinquent accounts totaling more than $90 million. The city has been stepping up collections efforts since last fall, and in April and May alone cut off service to more than 7,500 customers - moves that have prompted outrage among groups that advocate for poor people in a city with deep unemployment and the scars of decades of neglect.
The shutoffs drew criticism from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who said the policy was giving the city a negative image even as it fights for its financial future in its historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy case.
City officials told him they're working to expand education efforts and to pull together more financial assistance for customers without the means to pay.
Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, also was in the convoy and said that, while the water the Canadians delivered was small, it was meant to be a symbolic criticism of corporate, right-wing policies that pit poor people against others.
"America is better than this," he said. "If the richest country in the world can bail out banks and bail out Wall Street with public money, then public money from the state level and the national level can be used to help the people of Detroit who are in harm's way health-wise without water."
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