Mystery of the Muzzled Scientists

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.