OTTAWA - The Conservative government is being accused of suppressing the release of scientific information in what an environmental law group describes as a threat to democracy and a breach of the federal Access to Information Act.
The Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and the ethics watchdog Democracy Watch are asking the federal information commissioner to investigate what they're calling "systematic efforts by the government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media — and through them, the Canadian public — to timely access to government scientists."
They argue that the federal access law's stated "principle" is to ensure government information is available to the public and that any restrictions be limited and specific.
"By suppressing scientists and stopping them from talking to the media ... that undermines the public's knowledge of what records actually exist," said Calvin Sandborn, legal director of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre.
The public is then doubly blind, Sandborn suggested, because it neither hears from taxpayer-funded scientists directly nor can it seek out their work through the Access to Information Act.
The complaint arises from a sweeping Conservative communications policy under which federal scientists must get permission before speaking publicly — permission that is often denied, delayed or limited to approved talking points.
The issue has again come to prominence following a report last week by Postmedia News that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is demanding that scientists on a joint Canada-U.S. Arctic research project sign a sweeping confidentiality agreement. The demand has been flatly rejected by some U.S. scientists.
The submission Wednesday to the office of Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault includes a new 28-page report that chronicles repeated examples across multiple government departments.
Law student Clayton Greenwood compiled examples of scientists being muzzled at Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, the National Research Council, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and National Defence.
The package includes copies of emails among government officials that detail the obsessive control exerted over even routine requests — such as a media inquiry about the National Research Council's role in a NASA snow study over southern Ontario.
A spokeswoman for Legault said a preliminary examination will take place to see if a full investigation is warranted.
Legault will not publicly comment on whether she undertakes an investigation or not. Her only power, should she find merit in the complaint, is to publicly report her findings.
Sandborn, a law professor, said he believes the request falls within Legault's mandate.
"I don't think there's a more important role than this for the access to information commissioner to address: does government have the power to suppress public access to publicly owned science and information?" he said.
"The whole idea of democracy is that the public can make wise decisions. But they can't make wise decisions if they don't have the facts, if government facts are hidden from them."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made much the same argument in the past.
In 2001, as head of the National Citizens Coalition, Harper wrote that "information is power."
"The less control the government has over the flow of information, the less control it can exert over its citizens."
Even since coming to office, Harper has occasionally preached that open access to information is critical to citizen freedom.
"We believe strongly that Canadians' freedom is enhanced when journalists are free to pursue the truth, to shine light into dark corners, and to assist the process of holding governments accountable," he told an ethnic media awards banquet in Markham, Ont., in November 2009.
Sandborn said access to information is at the heart of responsible government.
"If we don't resolve that, I think our democracy may be in deep trouble."
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Cuts To Science In Canada
A selection of programs and research facilities being closed, downsized or in jeopardy due to federal funding cuts or policy changes made by the Conservative government.
Advanced Laser Light Source Project (Varennes, Quebec)
May be forced to close in 2014 if new funding isn't secured due to moratorium on the Major Resources Support Program (MRS) at Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Several of the following MRS cuts are detailed in a <a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart.ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report_0.pdf" target="_blank">report by the office of NDP MP Kennedy Stewart</a>, opposition critic for science and technology.
Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (Bamfield, B.C.)
Losing a third of his research budget, worth about $500,000 a year. The money runs out April 1, 2014 due to MRS moratorium at NSERC.
Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen Research Cuts
Canada’s only icebreaker dedicated to research has received $2.8 million in total MRS funding. Moratorium on MRS will result in far less research and higher costs to charter; loss of four technicians out of six.
Experimental Lakes Area (Kenora District, Ontario)
The government announced the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in northwestern Ontario. The cuts will save it about $2 million a year — although <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/19/experimental-lakes-area-tories-scientists_n_2910022.html" target="_blank">sources told The Canadian Press</a> the actual operating cost of the facility is about $600,000 annually, of which a third comes back in user fees. (The Ontario government, working with Ottawa, Manitoba and others,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/04/24/ontario-ela-open-for-year_n_3146662.html" target="_blank"> announced April 24 that it would help keep ELA open</a>). The facility, an outdoor laboratory consisting of 58 lakes, laboratories and living quarters, has been in operation since 1968 and is credited with helping solve North America’s acid rain problem in the 1970s and 1980s among other breakthroughs in areas of toxic contaminants, algae and flooding by reservoirs.
Canadian Neutron Beam Centre, Chalk River, Ont.
$1.27-million shortfall due MRS moratorium. Training for users and students will be scaled back significantly.
IsoTrace AMS facility (University of Ottawa, Ontario)
High precision measurement of radiocarbon and other trace radionuclides for geological dating and tracing in the earth and environmental sciences. Operation in jeopardy. The facility recently received $16 million in funding from the Ontario government and Canadian Foundation for Innovation to set up new geoscience labs at the University of Ottawa. It was counting on $125,000 per year from MRS to maintain operations. That funding was to increase with new facilities. "It is shameful that our main funding organization for the sciences has decided that it should withdraw from supporting solid empirical research through funding laboratories," a spokesperson said.
Kluane Lake Research Centre, Yukon
The Kluane Lake facility, one of Canada's oldest research facilities, lost $106,000 due to MRS cuts. The facility is run by the Arctic Institute of North America, a joint U.S.-Canada research operation that is administered by the University of Calgary along with the University of Alaska, <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/07/10/f-kluane-glacier-research.html" target="_blank">CBC reports</a>.
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, Ottawa
Launched by the Liberal government under Jean Chrétien in 2000, the foundation awarded more than $100 million in grants for university-led research. In 2011, the federal government’s first omnibus budget bill killed the foundation. At the time, the government said it would replace some of the funds with $35 million to be distributed through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) over five years for all climate research activities.
Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (Nunavut)
Located on Ellesmere Island near Eureka, Nunavut, it is one of the most remote weather stations in the world and does key research on climate change, ozone and air quality. Closed after it lost $1.5 million in annual funding due to the closure of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.
The Canadian Centre for Isotopic Microanalysis (University of Alberta, Edmonton)
MRS moratorium means the centre no longer has an open door policy for Canadian researchers or a special reduced NSERC rate for research conducted by Canadians in the labs. "The long-term prognosis for the geochronology labs is not good," a spokesperson said.
The National High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Centre (Edmonton, Alberta)
Program in jeopardy due to MRS moratorium, <a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart.ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report_0.pdf" target="_blank">according to the NDP</a>.
The National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids (University of Ottawa)
The facility will close without MRS funding, leaving $10 million in capital equipment idle, including the only Canadian-based 900 MHz Bruker Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer,<a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report 0.pdf" target="_blank"> according to the NDP</a>.
Office of the National Science Adviser
The office, created in 2004 by the Liberal government of Paul Martin and led by Arthur Carty, pictured, was intended to provide independent expert advice to the prime minister on matters of national policy related to science, ranging from nanotechnology, high energy particle physics and ocean technologies to climate change and the environment. The Harper government closed the office in 2008.
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy
Funding for the arm's length, independent advisory group was cut in the 2011 budget and the group wound down in 2012. Since 1988, it had been producing research on how business and government policies can work together for sustainable development — including the idea of introducing carbon taxes. The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/14/national-round table-on-the-environment-and-the-economy-funding_n_1516240.html" target="_blank">Tories confirmed they cut funding because of the group's focus on carbon taxes</a>.