It’s not too often you get a photo of a mutant fish in the mail.
In March of last year, that’s exactly what showed up at the offices of federal Environment Minister Peter Kent and Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield: a photo of a freakish,
goggle-eyed walleye (Sander vitreus).
It accompanied a letter by University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler, who pleaded with the ministers to re-open the Experimental Lakes Area in Northern Ontario. The research facility was shuttered after losing federal funding; the government said it was looking for a third party to take it over.
Schindler cited numerous studies that raised alarms about the effects of oil and chemical contamination on fish. Defects found in fish from the Athabaska River, downstream of Alberta’s tar sands, were found to be identical to those found after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the more recent Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico.
Schindler represents only one voice among many across the country rising up over the past year against the muzzling and defunding of government science.
Around the same time as the ELA funding was cut, Kent also announced an end to funding for the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. That body shut down in March of this year.
Days before its closure, Kent vetoed a plan by its acting chairman to post 25 years’ worth of research and analysis on a website run by the think-tank Sustainable Prosperity.
In what has become a common motif of duplicity in Ottawa, a spokesman for Kent vehemently denied the charge, but then suggested the work would be posted on the Library and Archives Canada website.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird admitted last year the Conservatives simply didn’t like the advice it was getting from the roundtable. Its closure saved them a paltry $5.5-million a year.
This undeniable shift towards the suppression of science was
documented in a lengthy report released this February by Democracy Watch, a non-profit organization that lobbies for government accountability. That report, replete with policy statements, email threads and other evidence, has spurred the country’s information commissioner to launch an investigation.
Among other things, the report reveals formal policy initiatives aimed at micro-managing hot-
button research from the highest levels. When asked for clarity on its policies, for example, Environment Canada provided a written response.
“Environment Canada stated that for media inquiries on certain subject matters, such as policy questions ‘… related to climate change, wildlife, water quality and supply’ or on the government’s processes ‘… to protect species such as the polar bear and caribou,’ as well as ‘any calls from Press Gallery affiliated reporters (and) major news outlets,’ Media Relations will ‘… send the request to the Privy Council Office for approval.’”
Ironically, Canada is late to the game of scientific revisionism. Under George W. Bush’s administration, scientists in the U.S. experienced similar government suppression and manipulation of data.
In one high-profile case, it was revealed a White House appointee to the Climate Change Science Program had busily edited scientific reports to infuse a greater sense of uncertainly about their findings. When President Barack Obama first took office in 2008, he quickly took measures to restore the independence of scientific study.
Stephen Harper may have helped create a juggernaut out of the Prime Minister’s Office, but his fate is still in the hands of Canadian voters. And an Ipsos Reid poll last week revealed half the country still feels he has some sort of secret agenda.
Dalhousie ecology professor
Jeffrey Hutchings put it best last month in a submission to the Toronto Star:
“The Canadian government’s current communication controls are clearly not the hallmark of a confident, mature and progressive society. We can and should do much, much better.”
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.