Muzzling of Government Scientists

Ms. Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I am pursuing a question I asked the Minister of the Environment some time ago to which I received a response from the parliamentary secretary. The question was about a policy that was put in place in 2007 by the current government to limit access to journalists to scientists working within the Canadian government. This extends beyond the environmental portfolio. It affects scientists at the National Research Council and scientists working for Natural Resources Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

In point of fact, the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, a national organization, wrote to all federal leaders earlier this spring, expressing its concern that this policy of muzzling scientists had led to its calculation of an 80% drop in media coverage of the climate crisis. I will just list some examples.


I mentioned Dr. Kristina Miller in my initial question. She is a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist and is very proud of the fact that her research in science was published in this leading international prestigious journal. She was not allowed to speak to media by her department.

An Environment Canada team published a paper on April 5, in the Geophysical Research Letters, that concluded that a very dangerous rise in global CO2 increases, leading to a 2° global average temperature increase, was quite likely and might be unavoidable. Those scientists were also not allowed to speak to the media.

Scientists who were working on radiation monitoring in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan were requested to provide data to the news media about radiation monitoring and readings. That request to Health Canada was denied.

We also know there was an almost amusing story of a journalist attempting to reach an NRC scientist based in Victoria, whose research had been published internationally. This research related to a flood 13,000 years ago. That researcher was not allowed to speak to the media.

Then there is the very recent story of Dr. David Tarasick, referred to just moments ago by my colleague from Etobicoke North, who has been doing important research on ozone monitoring. That work, along with work by other international colleagues, was published in the prestigious journal Nature. It pointed out that a quite unprecedented ozone hole had opened up over the northern Arctic. We have heard of the ozone hole over Antarctica, which has been monitored and recorded since the mid-1980s. However, this was the first and historically unprecedented hole opening up over the Arctic. Interestingly enough, Dr. Tarasick was allowed to provide an interview to the media. It was a supervised interview with Environment Canada personnel present at all times, trying to steer him away from answering certain questions, but at least the interview was granted.

It is also troubling to me that as a member of Parliament, for the first time in my life when I contact scientists within the Government of Canada, they are no longer able to communicate with me. I have had them explain by emails that they will check and get back to me whether they are allowed to answer my question. In some cases, these are colleagues I have known for decades and because I am a member of Parliament, they are not allowed to answer my questions.

I ask the hon. parliamentary secretary this. How can the Canadian public have confidence in a government that does not allow its scientists to speak to the public, a public that is so proud of their research, that wants to keep Canadian research in the forefront on climate change, on ozone depletion, on fisheries science? How can we have confidence?

Ms. Michelle Rempel: Mr. Speaker, I would like to deal in facts and statistics tonight as well.

First, our department continually makes its experts available to both the media and members opposite, with ministers also acting as principal spokespeople for their respective departments.

However, since January 2011, officials at Environment Canada have completed over 1,000 media interviews. Specifically relating to science, we have provided 600 interviews with departmental scientists. We respond to requests from media for scientific information in a responsive manner. In fact, this year alone, we have met over 80% of reporters, often with very tight deadlines, and we were able to respond to 98% of the requests. Canadians know because of this they can count on Environment Canada for the information that they need.

We are also committed to sharing information with all Canadians about what is happening in the environment around them. That is why we take pride in the accomplishments of our excellent team at Environment Canada and the results that they deliver. Those results include: a sector by sector plan to align with the U.S. and achieve a 17% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020; addressing concerns with the sustainable development of the oil sands; and a world-class monitoring plan that focuses on water, air quality and biodiversity. We will continue to implement this plan with our team and with our partners in the provinces, industry and other stakeholder groups so Canadians can be assured of the environmental sustainability of our oil and gas industry.

We have also worked closely with provinces, territories, Health Canada, industry and environmental and health groups to develop things like the national air quality management system. This system will include new air quality standards that will improve the air quality for the environment and the health of all Canadians. These are tangible results that our team at Environment Canada is producing and these are tangible results it is communicating to the media.

We are committed to ensuring that Canada’s natural heritage is protected, while being cognizant of the need to be wise stewards of taxpayer dollars and to protect our country’s fragile economic recovery.


Ms. Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, could the hon. parliamentary secretary provide any rationale whatsoever for why this policy was brought in, in the first place in 2007? We have had Environment Canada operational in the country going back to 1970. At no time between 1970 and 2007 did any government feel it was necessary to have media, representatives and journalists go through a star chamber process to get access to our scientists. They could pick up a phone, send an email and get an interview with the scientists and researchers across the country.

What possible rationale is there for having this process at all, which often requires that our journalists go to scientists in other countries to get answers about work that has been done within Canada?

Ms. Michelle Rempel: Again, Mr. Speaker, to deal in facts, since January of this year, over 1,000 interviews have been conducted by officials at Environment Canada and over 600 interviews have been provided by departmental scientists. This shows that we are engaging with the Canadian public, as is our role, but that we are also providing tangible, quality, action-oriented results regarding the protection of Canada’s environment, and this is something of which our government is very proud.