Category Archives: Politics

Canaries in the Coal Mine, Frogs in the Pot: Revisiting the Muzzling of Canadian Scientists

It hasn’t gone away. The muzzling of scientists by the Harper administration continues to represent a scandalous challenge to Canadian democracy. Good news though: the abuses have been solidly documented in a survey of federal scientists, and in a report to the Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who as a result, has launched a formal investigation.

scaly branchTo recap some well-know cases: Nature published “Unprecedented Arctic Ozone Loss in 2011”, an article by Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick that documented a hole two million kilometres wide that allows harmful ultraviolet radiation to escape. When a journalist contacted the federal media relations rep for an interview with the author (as protocol calls for) a spokesperson wrote back, “While the interview cannot be granted, we are able to provide additional information on the paper…you may attribute these responses to Dr. David Tarasick.” These “responses” however did not originate with the author but instead with the assistant deputy minister. The bureaucrats only relented in their walling off of the author two weeks later, after the media had moved on to other stories.

Case number two: Environment Canada scientists attending a Montreal conference, International Polar Year 2012, were shadowed by media relations contacts who sat in and recorded their interviews. If approached by a journalist, the scientists were required to brush them off, referring them instead to a media person. This is the sort of practice one would expect in Russia.

Case number three: University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler were provided with a package of scripted answers to expected questions from journalists on the subject of their paper on contaminated areas around oil sands developments.

Bark Dec 7, 2013

These are hardly isolated cases as has been made abundantly clear in a survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and conducted by the Environics Research Group. The scientists surveyed included those with responsibilities for the safety of our food, water, drugs and health products, the air, environment, children’s toys, scientific innovation and the economy.

“Faced with a department decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, 86 percent do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department,” reads the report.

Half the scientists surveyed reported being aware of actual cases in which the environment or the health of Canadians has been compromised as a result of political interference with their scientific work. Twenty-four per cent have been asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons. Sixty two per cent think the best climate change science has not been translated into policies.

(U.S. scientists endure nothing like this; they have only to make clear that when they speak, they are not necessarily representing their government’s position.)

Last March, Canada’s information commissioner launched an official investigation into the muzzling issue based on a 26-page report with 100 pages of appendices detailing cases, internal government documents, information requests, interviews with former and current federal public servants, journalists, non-profit organizations and university professors. Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic provided the document, which charges that current practices constitute a breach of the Access to Information Act.

If Commissioner Suzanne Legault agrees, she could “facilitate a solution”, which might involve mediation, or worst/best case, refer the matter to the Federal Court of Canada.

Commissioners report directly to parliament, free of the restraints of party politics, or so goes the theory, but all their power in tied up in influencing people. Their reports typically become the subject of hand-wringing editorials and that’s about it. If they’re especially good at getting heard, they might get blown off like the former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page. The Harper administration is used to scathing reports; this is the same government that seems so nonplussed about having been found in contempt of parliament.

Sumack Dec 7, 2013

Imposing a clogged artery between scientists and the media; insisting that scientists be shadowed by media flacks; denying them permission to speak about their already published work; supplying senior-bureaucrat talking points for media interviews; insisting co-authors on federal research projects submit to the same soviet-style restrictions as federal scientists; and delaying, delaying, delaying, these media management practices seem curiously off-tempo with the speed of light exchanges on the wide open Internet.

But actually, the feds media protocol fits perfectly with the larger phenomena of seemingly huge piles of data accumulating in the ether while fewer and fewer people seem to have the authority to tell us what it all means. They’ve been laid off.

The Harper government seems particularly keen on constraining the climate change wonks from messing up its plans, but something else is going on. This particular administration is diminishing the authority with which science speaks — all that independent, peer-reviewed, evidence-based, cautious, heavy-on-the-qualifiers thinking of those conscientious people who always did their homework and got good marks in school.  Reducing scientists to squeaky wheels and whiners slots them as a special interest group with an agenda, and one that can be tossed off to appease their base.

Sometimes of course the best-laid political operative’s plans go astray. Muzzling the scientists when added to Canada’s knuckle-dragging performance on the climate change file has made us an easy target in the XL Pipeline debate south of the border. We’re iconic bad guys now with not a whole lot of credibility.

If we can describe federal scientists as canaries in the coal mine, part of the warning system in a political culture determined to stream-out evidence-based analysis, then we must be the frog in the pot, cooking so slowly we won’t know we’re intellectually compromised until it’s over.

The Bill Chill: A survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada http://www.pipsc.ca/portal/page/portal/website/issues/science/bigchill

Muzzling Scientists: A Threat to Democracy http://democracywatch.ca/reports/

Stop Muzzling Scientists: A petition http://democracywatch.ca/campaigns/tell-harper-to-stop-muzzling-scientists/

A Damning, (and should be) Show-Stopping Report on Ontario’s Handling of Species at Risk from the Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller

If we hadn’t had our collective head stuck in the Rob Ford saga last week, perhaps more of us would have picked up on the special report on the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) by the Environmental Commissioner, Gord Miller. Laying Siege to the Last Line of Defence: A Review of Ontario’s Weakened Protections for Species at Risk describes: gross over-use of discretionary powers; procrastination; finger-pointing; shielding MNR policies from public input; and scandalous exemptions from the rules for the very proponents most likely to put species at risk.

The environmental commissioner reports directly to parliament. This is not a hackneyed political appointment, and Gord Miller is very good at his job.

Railway bridge with graffiti

It’s not possible to overstate the commissioner’s concerns when the title page reads, “wildlife preservation is a catastrophic, heart-breaking disaster.”

Chief among MNR’s failings is that through regulation, the prohibitions outlined in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) no longer apply to a large number of activities that have been directly responsible for imperiling wildlife in the past. They include forestry operations; hydroelectric generating stations; aggregate pits and quarries; ditch and drainage activities; exploration mining; wind facilities; infrastructure projects; and that’s not the complete list.

Proponents of these activities don’t have to get a permit, only follow “functionally unenforceable” regulations. If these vague, province-wide terms are met, the ministry can’t say no, no matter how important the affected area or the possibility of unacceptable cumulative impacts on a species at risk or its habitat.

In the old days, proponents had to provide an “overall benefit” from their activities; now they have to “minimize” their impact. Mitigation plans and monitoring records? MNR doesn’t want to see them. As a result the ministry doesn’t know what’s going on out there, either with the species at risk or the proponents. If landowners have a hands-on understanding of what’s actually happening to the critters on their property, MNR isn’t going to know about it.

One of the rationales for the new regs, which came into effect in July 2013, is that MNR claims it costs $24,000 or 500 hours to develop an ESA permit, but that’s an average of only 12 cases, one of which was the building of Highway 69/400: hardly typical. Even if permits were actually this time-consuming and expensive, the ministry has only itself to blame, reports the commissioner.

Graffiti tree

“By failing to develop clear and consistent policies to guide the permitting process, MNR created an inefficient and ad hoc approach to permitting that was unnecessarily lengthy, convoluted, costly and extremely frustrating for proponents and other stakeholders.”

The ESA’s mandate is to identify species at risk, protect them and their habitats, and promote their recovery. Currently, Ontario has 215 species identified as at-risk with more imperiled species in the chute awaiting their designation by an expert committee. The act allowed for a five-year window for the ministry to come up with recovery strategies for critters not covered in the previous legislation. The commissioner’s report found that nearly half of these strategies have been delayed with “questionable rationales.”

In some cases, MNR claims it is waiting for the feds, which has its own at-risk list and commensurate requirements, before coming up with Ontario-appropriate plans. But checking the files, the environmental commissioner found the province often waiting in vain, either because the province had overlooked the fact that the feds had already dealt with this matter, or in other cases that the critters in question weren’t on the feds at-risk list to begin with.

Some species may not get a provincial recovery strategy until 12 years after they were first listed.  Other species are waiting 20 years for a plan for “population maintenance”, when in fact the legislation stipulates that what’s required is a plan for “population recovery.” The commissioner’s report characterizes this behaviour as tantamount to MNR disobeying the act.

The reliance upon generic regulations  rather than specific applications that must be read, understood, declined or approved means that, “every place no matter how unique or important will be open to activities with the potential to adversely affect species at risk.”

Rescue Ring Don River

The public doesn’t know what’s going on. The requirement that the ministry post its permits online has been rendered moot by MNR’s selective no-permit-necessary policy. Although the public provided input on the regulatory amendments that established the rules for the new exemptions, a draft of the regulations was never posted, only a description.

“There is a clear trend of MNR deliberately shielding its policies on species at risk from public input,” reads the report. For example, MNR explained its failure to post its Best Management Practices with regards to woodland caribou on the Environmental Registry, by characterizing its BMR as  “technical information”, although it saw fit to consult a number of industry associations about them.

“MNR’s failure to post these policies [disguised as technical information] on the Environmental Registry for public consultation constitutes a shocking disregard for its legal obligations under the Environmental Bill of Rights and the process set out under the ESA.”

The environmental commissioner lays the blame for this crisis entirely at the feet of the ministry and not the act itself. “MNR has failed to do what is necessary to make the law work. The ministry has been stalling recovery strategies, crafting meaningless government response statements, delaying habitat protection, mismanaging the permitting process and deliberately ignoring public participation.”

The particular species designated as at risk are stand-ins for all the others who aren’t on the list—yet. When we fail them we are damaging the biodiversity of the province, making it more prone to collapse. When that happens, we’ll be the last to know.

http://www.eco.on.ca/index.php/en_US/pubs/special-reports/2013-special-report

Watermark, the movie and Canadian Water Guilt

“Watermark”, the latest film by Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal, is a companion piece to their earlier “Manufactured Landscapes”.  It opens in silence with what looks a cloud and then a tidal wave arching across the entire screen, which is then pulled back to reveal the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River in China. The movie takes in a tannery in Bangladesh releasing a torrent of blue-dyed water into a river, millions of people bathing in the Ganges River, California surfing, and Las Vegas water shows.

Hole in rock

Despite the long aerial tracking shot of a Canadian River, (It’s surely not possible to make a movie about water that doesn’t include this.) the movie is about man’s manipulations of water, irrigation systems, dams, landscapes left parched by its removal. This stops it from being a sentimental travelogue about beautiful water: no souring string sections or thundering brass, instead music that provides a subdued counter-point, music on a different current from the visual.

Still, Burtynsky can’t stop himself from creating gorgeous quilt-like patterns, watering our emotions with images of the fearsome power of engineering projects. By making us feel we ought to constrain our admiration for something that is obviously terrifyingly bad, he delivers an environmental equivalent of a pornographic hit.

As Canadians sitting on about 32 per cent of the world’s fresh water in the biggest country in the world with a population less than California’s, we watch this movie from a vantage point different from just about everyone else on the planet. We are bounced between the almost universal anxiety about water insecurity to our own water guilt for having so much.

(Maybe having so much environmental stuff that much of the world is short of, explains why we have a reputation for being quiet and self-effacing. We don’t want people to cotton on to what we have.)

But are we less likely to be profligate users of water after watching this movie? Are we more likely to want to throw up the barricades to keep the water-starved people out? Where are the adults to ensure  we don’t become xenophobic water hoarders but responsible conservationists?

You can read about “Watermark” at http://www.burtynsky-water.com