Information commissioner to investigate Harper government’s ‘muzzling’ of federal scientists

The federal information commissioner’s office is launching a sweeping investigation into complaints that the Harper government has been ”muzzling” and restricting access to scientists.

Seven federal departments and agencies, from Environment Canada to the National Research Council of Canada, have been told Suzanne Legault’s office plans to act on complaints about “the 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.”

“A notice of our intention to investigate and a summary of complaint has been sent” to the seven departments, Emily McCarthy, assistant information commissioner, says in a March 27 letter to Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria.

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The UVic centre and the non-profit group Democracy Watch asked Legault in February to launch an investigation arguing the Canadian public has a right to know about the science financed by tax dollars.

The two groups pointed to several instances where federal scientists have been “muzzled” and the tactics the government has been using to control discussion about everything from the oilsands to polar bears.

“With the resources of the information commissioner’s office we hope to get to the bottom of it, “ Sandborn said in an interview.

He is also hoping “policies change so that Canadian taxpayers can get access to scientific information that they paid for.”

The Canadian government should “emulate democracy to the south of us,” Sandborn said, referring to U.S. government policy that “encourages” scientists to speak freely about scientific information and findings.

Canada’s federal departments of the environment, fisheries and oceans, natural resources, defence, the National Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have been notified about the investigation, McCarthy says in the letter to Sandborn.

“We have also determined that the Treasury Board Secretariat should be included in your complaint because of its role in relation to the development and implementation of government policies,” McCarthy says.

The commissioner’s investigation comes after years of controversy over the way the government has tightened the leash on Canada’s federal scientists, who used to be encouraged to discuss their work.

In several cases, documented by Postmedia News and the Postmedia newspapers, scientists have been denied permission to speak to the media about studies about Arctic ozone loss, prehistoric floods, and in one case, snow.

The UVic lawyers and Democracy Watch allege the federal Access to Information Act is being violated by government policies, practices and guidelines restricting how and when scientists can discuss their work.

“There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the ability of the public to access scientific information produced by government scientists – information that their tax dollars have paid for,” the groups say. “We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.”

Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear rejected “the premise of the accusations” in February, saying the “government provides significant access to federal scientists.”

In a 128-page report sent to the information commissioner, the UVic lawyers and Democracy Watch catalogue how scientists now need permission from Ottawa to give interviews and are instructed to follow “approved lines” when speaking with reporters.

The report, Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, says the government has implemented policies that “routinely require political approval before scientists can speak to the media about their scientific findings.”

It points to Fisheries and Oceans Canada where communications staff “now comprehensively control interviews” with scientists: “No journalist is to be granted an interview until the minister’s own director of communications has been notified.”

Natural Resources Canada has adopted “particularly strict rules restricting the ability of scientists to talk to the media about ‘climate change’ and ‘oilsands,’” the report says.

And Environment Canada “specifically forbids scientists from speaking to the public on identified issues such as climate change or protection of polar bear and caribou until the Privy Council Office gives approval,” it says.

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