Am I my brother’s keeper?

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Most likely you’ve heard the Biblical story about Cain and Abel (the sons of Adam and Eve). After Cain had murdered his brother Abel, God asked him where his brother was. Cain answered, "I know not; am I my brother’s keeper?" Cain’s words have come to symbolize the unwillingness of people to accept responsibility for the welfare of others. The tradition of Judaism and Christianity is that people do in fact have this responsibility.

This responsibility to watch out for and care for one another has however recently been turned on its head in Almonte. The precipitating matter is not so egregious as a murder; rather it is a less compelling though oddly motivating water usage restriction. Quite apart from the fact that the watering restriction may have arisen not from any shortage but instead from a malfunction of one of the pumps of the Town’s five artesian wells, there is nonetheless a perceived shortage no doubt nurtured by the pervasive drought in Eastern Ontario. People have generally become exceptionally sensitive about unnecessary water usage particularly for what are now considered such luxuries as lawn and garden watering.

In the various subdivisions throughout Almonte, where people are in close proximity to one another, the matter of an errant green lawn does not go unnoticed. Any use of water for other than mandatory purposes attracts considerable interest from one’s "brother". Indeed neighbours have become openly provoked and sometimes hostile about the matter, all in support of the common good. It appears that the environmental concerns have provided a springboard for enthusiasts who unfortunately have on occasion made more than an inductive leap.

For example, in one instance which lately came to my attention a woman (who accepted the propriety of the water ban) was draining the remaining water from her garden hose before removing it for storage to the garage. As fate would have it, a passing motorist saw the water being disgorged from the hose and immediately proceeded to take the time as a good neighbour to share his discountenance with this woman’s illegal activity. Mainly he looked long and hard down his nose at her. He was then joined by another more vocal neighbour who, upon observing the same sequence of events, suffered a lapse into the vernacular by pronouncing that the woman "didn’t give a #!*@" about the water restriction. I hardly need tell you that the combined effort of these two uninformed gentlemen was sufficient to cause considerable distress to the woman who hadn’t the strength under the circumstances to come to her own defence.

In another instance the occupants of a household were approached by a neighbour who wrongly concluded that the collection of water in a pool at the front of the other’s house was a mark of insurrection whereas in fact it was merely the residue of one of the few and brief rainfalls which had earlier transpired. So popular was it among other neighbours to draw the same incorrect inference that the householders were eventually obliged to manufacture a sign which they placed on their front lawn defining the source of the water.

Similarly several of those who are riparian landowners have come under severe scrutiny by others less well-positioned, and resort has had to be had again to public proclamations of the source of the water ("pumped from the river").

What it is that translates the concern for public good and well-being into something more closely resembling a lynch mob is hard to say. Yet it is regrettable that certain members of our community have had to suffer the indignity of trial without evidence. It amuses me to see how inflated some people become from an otherwise good and honourable cause. How quickly we capitulate our social niceties in the name of care and concern.