Watchdogs Call for Investigation into Federal Muzzling of Scientists

A letter from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre (ELC) and citizen advocacy group Democracy Watch asks Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault to investigate “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.”

It argues, “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. We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.”

This investigation is necessary, the groups claim, “because Canadians cannot make smart choices about critical issues such as climate change, oil sands development and environmental protection if the public does not have full access to the Government’s best scientific knowledge on those issues.”

The impetus for this letter came in the form of a 128-page report from the ELC entitled Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, which outlines the numerous documented cases of interference from Government of Canada Media Relations in journalists’ efforts to attain accurate statements from scientists on political hot button issues such as climate change.

Examples from the report include the case of scientist David Tarasick who, documents show, was prevented from speaking about the research he published in Nature Magazine under the title “Unprecedented Arctic ozone loss in 2011” for two weeks.

It also cites examples involving from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, the National Research Council, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and the Department of National Defence.

The evidence of muzzling reached a new level in the case of scientist Scott Dallimore who was forbidden to communicate with journalists about a study that involved a flood that took place in Northern Canada “almost 13,000 years ago.”

According to the report, Natural Resources Canada’s “media relations manager wrote to Dallimore ‘we will have to get the minister’s office approval before going ahead with this interview’ because the reporter represented a 'national news outlet' and the subject matter of the interview had ‘wide-ranging implications.’”

The report also contrasts American and Canadian policies, pointing out that while American scientific policies have made significant movement toward transparency under the Obama administration, “Canada has moved in the opposite direction under Prime Minister Harper. Since 2006, Prime Minister Harper’s government has gradually tightened the media protocols that federal scientists and other government workers must comply with.”

Commissioner Lagault has admitted in the past that the Canadian government is “not the most transparent,” and lags in the area of Access to Information, though she has yet to respond to the call for an investigation. 

Meanwhile, Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear told The Province via e-mail “we reject the premise of the accusations.” He claimed that the “government provides significant access to federal scientists.”

This comes just two weeks after American scientist Andreas Meunchow reported on his blog that he refused to sign a Canadian confidentiality agreement saying, “it threatens my Academic Freedom and potentially muzzles my ability to publish data and interpretation and talk timely on science issues of potential public interest without government interference.”

In response to the many loopholes that exist in the access to information laws across Canada, as well as the lack of enforcement and audits to ensure people are following the law in some jurisdictions, Democracy Watch and the Open Government Coalition call for the following 8 key changes:

  1. any type of record created by any entity that receives significant funding from or is connected to the government, or was created by the government and fulfills public interest functions, should be automatically covered by access to information laws and systems (as in the United Kingdom);
  2. all exemptions under access to information law should be discretionary, and limited by a proof of harm test and a public interest override (as in B.C. and Alberta);
  3. the access to information law and system should require every entity covered (as in the United Kingdom, U.S., Australia and New Zealand): to create detailed records for all decisions and actions and factual and policy research; to routinely disclose records that are required to be disclosed; to assign responsibility to individuals for the creation and maintenance of each record, and; to maintain each record so that it remains easily accessible;
  4. the access to information law and system should allow anyone who does factual or policy research for the government to speak to the media and publicly about the topic;
  5. severe penalties should be created for not creating records, for not maintaining records properly, and for unjustifiable delays in responses to requests;
  6. the Information Commissioner should be given explicit powers under the access to information: to order the release of a record (as in the United Kingdom, Ontario, B.C. and Quebec); to penalize violators of the law, and; to require systemic changes in government departments to improve compliance (as in the United Kingdom);
  7. funding to the access to information system and enforcement should be increased to solve backlog problems instead of increasing administrative barriers, and fees for access should be lower overall and standardized, and;
  8. Parliament must be required to review the ATI Act every 5 years to ensure that problem areas are corrected.