Mystery of the Muzzled Scientists

On Thursday, October 20th, 2011 in Island Tides

In reading this heading, ‘The mystery of the muzzled scientists,’ I wonder how many readers would be put in mind of the game Clue—‘Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench’. My mind tends to run in the direction of the absurd, particularly when I am dealing with surrealistic political nonsense. Many would not call this a mystery at all. It is abundantly clear that the Harper government is refusing to allow media interviews with scientists working in the Government of Canada. The mystery is twofold: why? And on whose orders?

It started years ago, when John Baird, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, was Minister of Environment. That was the first time a directive came down from the Minister’s office to say that no Environment Canada personnel could speak to the media without the minister’s permission. I remember it well, as friends in the department told me the weather service folks in Toronto didn’t know what to do about an approaching blizzard. Were they allowed to use the storm warning system, or did they need Baird’s permission?

The muzzling of government scientists now extends to communication with Members of Parliament. I asked a colleague in DFO a fairly innocuous question by email a few months ago. The reply explained that, now that I was an MP, he would need permission to respond. He promised to let me know when he had the ‘all clear.’ I imagine I will never hear from him again.

The mystery is now the muzzling of scientists whose work has already been published in peer reviewed journals. In July, DFO scientist, Dr Kristi Miller, whose work on viruses linked to fish farms affecting salmon had been published in the internationally prestigious journal Science, was barred from speaking to reporters. Science had sent a note promoting interviews with Dr Miller to 7,400 reporters worldwide, without imagining her own government would issue a gag order. Later at the Cohen Commission, she testified that she did not know when the ban, imposed by the Privy Council Office, would be lifted.

Since the House began sitting in September, several issues have come up about journalistic access to government scientists. Once again, the most bizarre bans relate to research that has already been published. On October 2, the online version of Nature, an internationally respected peer-reviewed journal, published the work of multiple researchers from around the world, with the disturbing news that an ozone hole had opened up above the Arctic for the first time. Back in the 1980s, the world mobilized to phase out ozone-depleting substances when an ozone hole began appearing seasonally, and growing, over the Antarctic, but this report was of the first ever Arctic hole in the ozone layer. One of the lead authors, Dr David Tarasick, works at Environment Canada. Numerous journalists, including Bob McDonald, host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, attempted to arrange an interview with Dr Tarasick. Margaret Munro at Postmedia sent me a copy of the email she received form the communications branch at Environment Canada: ‘An interview cannot be arranged.’

In the House of Commons, in response to questions from the NDP, the Liberals and me, Environment Minister Peter Kent first tried to create the impression that there were scheduling difficulties arranging interviews. He insisted, ‘We are not muzzling scientists.’ Then he implied that only ‘responsible’ journalists would be able to ask Dr Tarasick about his research. On October 7, with Peter Kent absent, newlyelected MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment Minister, Michelle Rempel, tried a new approach (or more likely read a new reply prepared by PMO), to the effect that scientists do not speak to the media because it is the Minister who speaks for the government. (Full disclosure, I like Michelle. She is a perfectly lovely young woman. No guile, no nastiness, but like everyone else in her caucus, she follows orders.)

I am struggling with maintaining respectful discourse in the face of answers that are patently false. Here is how I phrased my question after the Parliamentary Secretary replied identically to the NDP and Liberal critics with the boiler plate about how the minister speaks for the government.

‘Mr Speaker, my question is for the Minister of the Environment in an effort to continue to try to unravel the muzzling of government scientists. I accept that the minister would never knowingly mislead this House, but his answers do not accord with the facts. I have an email here to a ‘responsible’ journalist with Postmedia in which it states that ‘an interview cannot be granted’ with the scientist in question.

‘I would urge the parliamentary secretary not to tell us that the minister speaks for all scientists. The reality is that, if the minister is not muzzling these scientists, and I accept that he is not, will he investigate who in the Government of Canada is muzzling these scientists?’

It is increasingly occurring to me that all the muzzling orders are coming from higher up. We know Dr Miller’s gag order emanated from the Privy Council Office. The email to reporters regarding the published work on ozone came from civil servants within Environment Canada—not the Minister’s office. While the minister certainly should know scientists are being muzzled, perhaps he dwells in a land of willful blindness, allowing future ‘plausible deniability.’

If I am to treat Peter Kent as truthful, then clearly someone else is gagging scientists. Back to the game of Clue—he doesn’t have one. Just for laughs, I will set out Michelle Rempel’s reply. Some seasoned journalists told me afterwards that it was the worst answer in QP they had ever heard: ‘Mr Speaker, I know the minister has addressed this issue on numerous occasions. However, before I answer the question, I would like to congratulate my hon. colleague at Finance on Canada’s new job numbers. The global recovery remains fragile but this government is working hard right now to get Parliament to implement the next phase of our action plan.

‘I encourage my colleague across the aisle to vote in support of our budget measures, which include funding for climate change adaptation. And, ministers do speak for the government.’

Why is the Harper government forbidding scientists to talk to the media about work in the public domain? Because they can, and because they worry some scientist some day may express an opinion that puts the government in a bad light.

Who is doing it? My theory is that muzzling scientists and many other aspects of what would have been ministerial decision-making have been hijacked to top-down control. The chain of decision-making? PMO to PCO to direct orders to Deputy Ministers, leaving the political minister as a public relations spokesperson. I will continue to dig to test this theory as its implications are serious.

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  • Jeremy Nasmith

    All I can say is WTF!?!?! Any scientific research should be made publicly available immediately. It makes for interesting news!! I follow online mags like Gizmag and Gizmodo and Cnet and of course NASA/ESA, but this kind of news is of first importance! Not to be buried!!

  • k.maan

    we the people are the pay master of government ,so paymaster of these scientisrts too ,so we should have axcess to there work without interference from the govt.

  • Bill Logan

    Elizabeth, please keep up the excellent work. I have also read your article on the PMO controlling the PCO, that was an informative piece about how control is shifting right under our eyes and how the masses are not even aware of it.

    I am highly alarmed at the changes that have taken place in Canada over the last 5 to 6 years, as I become more aware (thanks to articles such as this) I am shocked that the media does not cover these topics in greater detail. How can Canada be one of two countries in the world to vote against the “Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation” at the UN General Assembly? How can Canada be one of six or seven countries in the world to vote against Palestine being admitted as a non-member observer state in the UN? How can Canada enter into a FIPA trade agreement (? is it a trade agreement ?) with China for 31 years and there is no (real) media coverage or (real) discussion in the House of Commons? I thought Canada was still a democratic country, or did that change in the last Harper omnibus bill?

    I do not have a Facebook account (I fear my privacy would be invaded), however I often look at my wife’s facebook account (yes, she knows and is OK with it). Were it not for people sharing links on Facebook I would not be aware of anything this government does.

    I wonder how long it will be until Harper starts to put restrictions on Facebook within Canada?

  • Dr. Ruth Simkin

    Elizabeth – I am SO glad you are out there doing this work. It makes me ashamed to be a Canadian when I contemplate things like the muzzling of scientists. Please keep at it – some of us, like myself, are no longer able to do the work physically, but still care very deeply about this country and simple basic rights. I can’t tell you how much it warms my heart to hear you in parliament and to know that you will not let this rest. Keep up the good work – you really do represent so many of us. Thank you. Dr. Ruth Simkin

  • pmunroh

    To paraphrase the late George Carlin,when the real owners of the government,’certainly not the People as they would have us believe’ see the formation of a dictatorship,they shut everything down.Factories are closed,jobs are lost etc.The top of all classes requires a middle class to do the work and continue productivity all the while the middle class requires the lowest class as an incentive to work hard.There is a fine balance in maintaining a stable form of government and I feel,looking at the evidence,that balance has been tipped

  • Ron Wall

    Glad that people are finally getting interested in this issue and that you are exposing it.

  • Bananajoe

    I am so grateful to you, Ms. May, for the thankless and tiresome job that you do. Harper does not represent me or my Canada, neither do his ministers. They feel more to me like corporate-bought bullies riding on the taxpayer’s coattail. Conspiring and colluding. The more they try to gag and hide, the more I want to know, the less I trust them (as if I ever).

    These two-bit opportunists forget too easily who put them in office and who pays their bills.

    As Gabriel Garcia Marquez would say; the government never represents its people.

  • Joe Gallant

    We are being hoodwinked people,Stephen Harper and his cronies are doing what all dictators do.The disturbing reality for me is the majority of Canadians voted for this goon twice.I am fearfull for what is coming.for my children and my children’s children.I am angry and losing hope for a fair gov’t that will represent all Canadians,not just the chosen few.

  • Carol Kilby

    That I might cocreate in the birthing of a new age of Earth community, I open to creativity.. this was our morning Advent reflection. Thank you for the opportunity to post this to Facebook and, hopefully, grow the resistance to this kind of governance. Come, O come, federal election and earth-caring consciousness.

  • Andrew Scott

    I commend you for this effort to expose the Harper government’s efforts to bend reality. I have just heard the Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Defense (I think) speaking on “the House” about the gov’s new approach to procurement of F-18 replacement. His tortuous circumlocution to avoid the phrase F-35 repeated a number of times was quite comical. The communications office “Newspeak” manual was clearly entitled 1984. We can assume that the hand of Big Brother is responsible.

  • Mavis Finnamore

    When I hear how our own scientists, paid with our tax dollars, cannot even comment publicly on their own research, I feel disheartened, embarrassed, and ANGRY. When I see further evidence of power concentrating in the PMO, I am infuriated. What can be done, short of revolution, to return real democracy to the people of Canada?

  • M. Taylor

    What classification does Harper’s “transparency” promise come under? Is there a way for us to gang up on him? Instead of complaining to each other, can we sue him for breach of promise? I’m for charging him with treason, but we can’t get behind his transparency to get evidence of what he’s really doing. We do know that he has taken the protection off our water so he and his friends can sell bulk export water to the highest bidder, and the profits will go to Corporations owned by his friends, and we the people will get nothing. Of course the Water Corporations will not have to pay any taxes…Harper will classify the water as food, exempt from tax.

  • Chris Armstrong

    Dictator Stephen Harper is an absolute disgrace to democratic
    governance, and, accordingly, I believe that he is perhaps the worst Prime
    Minister in the substantial history of Canada. I was a Conservative, until I
    discovered that his pre-election promise of transparency actually meant
    ZERO transparency. His de facto muzzling of scientists smacks of irrational ignorance and fear of scientific achievement. Again, Mr. Harper is a disgrace to Canada’s longstanding democracy.

  • Fiona

    Thanks Elizabeth! I would like to know why Health Canada is not monitoring the West Coast of British Columbia for air, ocean and fish radiation levels post Fukoshima? Why were stations closed right after the incident? Thanks, Fiona

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