A potentially explosive parliamentary investigation into the Harper government's so-called "muzzling" of government scientists shows no signs of being released before the federal election on Oct.19, despite Canada's Information Commissioner digging into it for more than two and a half years.
“Voters need to know what the result of that investigation has been,” said law professor Calvin Sandborn, with the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre. “I think the public needs to know the extent of the muzzling… Our submission is that it runs very deep in government."
In February 2013, the university law group, together with Democracy Watch, filed a formal complaint to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, alleging federally employed scientists, with expertise from fisheries to fracking, are under a gag order from sharing their taxpayer-paid expertise and scientific findings with the press or public.
Two months later, in April 2013, Legault agreed to investigate the Harper government information restrictions as possible violations of Access to Information laws. She pledged to look into complaints at seven different government insitutions:
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency
- Department of the Environment
- Department of Fisheries and Oceans
- Department of National Defence
- Department of Natural Resources
- National Research Council of Canada
- Treasury Board Secretariat
But oddly, since then, there's been nothing.
National Observer has been writing the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada for months, asking: 'Will this report come out before the election? Why has it taken more than two and a half years? Is the office understaffed? Is the report itself being muzzled by the Conservative government?'
Via spokesperson Natalie Hall, the Office of the Information Commissioner has responded only by stating that "due to the strict confidentiality provisions of the Access to Information Act,” the commissioner cannot discuss the investigation nor its completion date.
Hall also assured that all of the commissioner's investigations "are conducted independently from government... [as described in the] Communications Policy of the Government of Canada."
The trouble could be cooperation.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that the information commissioner is taking the Prime Minister's Office to court, accusing it of refusing to release documents about four senators embroiled in scandal: Mike Duffy, Mac Harb, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin.
For journalists, long flummoxed by their inability to get the most basic of scientific information from government, the long-delayed report is not surprising, says the vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
“The Harper government has increased information control —both in terms of its control over the bureaucracy, the rules of engagement with the public and journalists,” says Sean Holman, a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“It’s not just about our ability to access scientists. It’s not just about our ability to access scientific information. It’s about our ability to access government information writ large."
'Joe Caller' can't get info either
Professor Sandborn says the controls even impair ‘Joe Caller’ from getting basic information from government.
“It became obvious to me as I phoned civil servants and asked, ‘Hey, how does your regulatory system work on dealing with carcinogens?’ You used to be able to have a conversation— citizen to scientist, and they would tell you,” said the legal expert.
"Now [they] tell you... you’ll have to file a written request, and then they give you a big runaround. Then it goes to [handlers]... to see if there’s going to be some political angle on whether or not Joe Citizen can have information, that Joe Citizen paid for!” Sandborn added.
In one incident, an Ottawa Citizen journalist asked the National Research Council about Canada’s joint research with NASA about snow. Although the journalist quickly got information from American government officials in a phone call, he was given the run around by the Canadian NRC and ultimately denied an interview.
"We will not accommodate your interview request.”
In another example, this summer National Observer attempted to reach one of Environment Canada’s top climate change modellers, Greg Flato, with questions about extreme weather trends. His credentials are impeccable: his government bio notes that he leads "Environment Canada's global and regional earth system models," and chairs a World Climate Research Programme.
But an Environment Canada media relations officer said flatly: "Unfortunately we will not accommodate your interview request.”
Note the words “will not." Not even "This scientist is busy," or "Can we help get you this information another way?"
In return, Environment Canada was asked why it "will not" respond. The department obfuscated, sent unhelpful United Nations reports, and concluded,"we believe that we have satisfied your request."
The crackdown on information flow has everything to do with a "Media Relations Protocol" introduced in 2007 into Environment Canada, about a year after Stephen Harper first became prime minister.
A federal presentation about that protocol (displayed at the bottom of this story) shows that reporters' questions on politically sensitive topics such as "climate change, wildlife, water quality and supply” or "the polar bear and caribou” have to first be vetted by "the Privy Council Office for approval.”
The environment minister herself, Leona Aglukkaq, can flatly reject a reporter's request to speak to a federal scientist.
The Professional Institute of Public Service of Canada—the union that represents 14,000 federal government scientists —says the Harper information controls are frustrating, “countless” and part of a larger Conservative push to control and “spin” all information that flows to Canadians, especially on matters of environmental protection, oil sands development, and climate change.
Taxpayer-paid scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding the health of Canadians and the environment are routinely "treated as second-class citizens by their own employers — chaperoned to conferences, and not allowed to present their own research to the public or journalists,” said the union's spokesperson Peter Bleyer in Ottawa on Thursday.
For some former federal scientists, the information commissioner's report can't come soon enough.
Thirty-two-year-veteran DFO fish biologist Steve Camapana says he was “disgusted” by the federal government’s "unethical" clampdown, and only spoke out about it after he retired this year. He then moved to Iceland to resume his research there, where he can easily share his scientific findings with the world.
“The intent of the muzzling seemed to be more to demoralize government scientists than anything,” Campana wrote from Reykjavík last week.
"I'm not aware of any government scientist who would be stupid enough to criticize government policy to the media, at the risk of being disciplined,” he added.
NDP, Liberals, Greens pledge more scientific freedom
NDP MP Laurin Liu said taxpayers have a right to know the scientific information that taxpayers have paid for. Her party put forward a bill, supported by the Greens, to establish the position of Parliamentary Science Officer.
“When we get elected into government, we will un-muzzle scientists,” Liu said from her Rivière-des-Mille-Îles riding north of Montreal. “It’s incredibly important that our scientists have the ability to talk to the public about their findings. We can’t just make decisions based on ideology — but on fact."
Liberals have also pledged to create a Chief Science Officer for Canada, and to let government scientists speak freely about their research.
“Canadians expect their government to embrace fair, evidence-based policy. Liberals are committed to re-establishing a respectful relationship with government scientists and making their publicly-funded research accessible to Canadians,” said Liberal critic for Science and Technology Ted Hsu in May.
Conservative campaign director Kory Teneycke was asked to comment on this story Friday. He did not respond.