Putting the gag where it belongs

By Judith Lavoie, December 2015

Scientists and policy experts on the Harper government’s well-loathed practice of replacing scientific evidence with PR spin.

Stephen Harper finally gaggedDetails of the Harper government’s freakish control of information, with mundane requests often having to wend their way to the Privy Council or Prime Minister’s Office level, are becoming clear as scientists speak out following the new Liberal government’s lifting of restrictions.

The new freedom-to-speak is sparking calls for a national conversation on the role of science, along with warnings to the BC government to heed the public anger that developed over the secrecy and information control exerted by the federal Conservatives.

The life-under-Harper revelations confirm suspicions that the government used teams of communications staff to obfuscate and prevent the public from obtaining information that could raise questions about government oversight or hinder the policy agenda—whether around development of natural resources, climate change or support for salmon farming.

Simultaneously, environmental regulations were gutted and research funding dried up for projects that did not appear to support the government’s agenda.

“The federal government was firing scientists and hiring PR spin doctors, basically to manipulate the public. It’s a bit of a 1984 scenario,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic.

Government scientists, working under the former Conservative government, were not only forbidden to speak to media unless they stuck to pre-approved talking points that frequently had nothing to do with the topic, some were also told they could not attend events where reporters might be present.

“For the longest time during the Cohen Inquiry [into the decline of sockeye salmon] we were curtailed from going to any meeting or event if the public or media were going to be there,” Kristi Miller, head of molecular genetics for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said in an interview.

“It was just so weird to be in a job where you feel like these freedoms have been taken away from you, but they have not been taken away from everyone else,” she added.

On occasions when contact with media could not be avoided, Miller was given lines pre-approved by Ottawa, which she described as “more propaganda than information.”

Sometimes spokespeople used already-approved media lines, even though they were originally compiled for another topic, said Miller, explaining why reporters often received bizarre answers that had no relevance to questions asked.

“You had to stick to the script. I wasn’t comfortable. I turned down [interviews] I could have done because it wouldn’t have been true to my beliefs or true to the science,” said Miller, who was not allowed to answer questions about her research into the 2009 sockeye salmon collapse, even though it had been published in the prestigious journal Science. The extent of the gag order became apparent in 2011, during Miller’s Cohen Commission testimony, when she was accompanied to the hearings by a security guard and communications specialist.

Miller’s research showed there was a specific genomic signature indicating that massive die-offs of salmon could be connected to a viral infection—a finding that made the aquaculture industry nervous.

The disdain with which the Harper government treated reporters was initially ignored by many Canadians, but, over the years, there was increasing awareness of the democratic harm that comes from stifling information or giving only answers that reflect government ideology.

“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,” said a 2013 letter from the Environmental Law Clinic asking the federal Information Commissioner to investigate the muzzling policy.

Harper’s defeat and the growing public uneasiness with information control should act as a warning to the provincial government, Sandborn said.

“My biggest concern is that other governments are emulating the Harper government and have decided that the way to political success may be to basically censor government people and keep information away from the public and hire a bunch of public relations people to spin information in a political direction,” he said.

“My concern is that the province is not far behind the Harper government in suppressing information, hiding it from the public and misleading the public,” he said, pointing to controversy over triple-deleted emails, as well as the reaction to the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse that tried to emphasize the government had been doing a great job of oversight, and the habit of using ministry spokespersons to issue bland statements in answer to questions.

 

Fallout from the Harper government’s secrecy extends beyond the insultingly irrelevant answers given to media and members of the public.

For almost a decade, the Canadian public knew nothing about groundbreaking scientific work, usually funded by taxpayers, including studies and research that could affect their environment.

The cone of silence included cutting edge research done by Miller’s laboratory at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Nanaimo that could help pinpoint causes of declining salmon stocks.

Research at the lab continued, even though Miller’s government research funding was cut. Much of the work is funded by outside sources such as the Pacific Salmon Foundation and Genome Canada. Scientists in the lab developed a new monitoring tool to look at which microbes that could cause diseases are present in wild salmon 

The molecular platform can simultaneously screen for dozens of viruses, bacteria and microbes in 96 fish at a time—a breakthrough that is ahead of the human health field.

“A lot of people were very nervous because we are looking at microbes that have never been studied in BC,” Miller said. “We are saying let’s first find out what is carried by salmon in BC because a lot of diseases described in other parts of the world have never been studied here…and it makes the government nervous when you can’t even guess what you are going to find.”

Biologist Alexandra Morton, a tireless advocate for wild salmon and an opponent of salmon farms, believes the information that can now be released gives us a chance to save wild salmon.

Miller’s work allows scientists to read salmon immune systems and figure out how to turn those systems back on, said Morton, who is hoping the research will help show why Fraser River salmon are dying before spawning.

Morton slowly exhales when asked what differences she expects to see now that scientists are allowed to speak publicly about their work. “I feel like I am stepping out of the dark ages,” she said. “Thank you Justin Trudeau. I am enormously grateful for this.”

The next step will be to see whether funding is restored to programs that have been cut, Morton said, claiming that Canada has become a laughing stock in international fisheries circles because the science is seen as tainted.

“Unlocking science really is the key to our survival. It’s that important. We can’t bluff our way through this…If we don’t use science to bring us within the limits of our planet we are headed for extinction,” she said.

Peter Ross, a former research scientist with the federal fisheries department, whose ocean pollution research program at the Institute of Ocean Sciences was cut in 2012 after the government decided to leave ocean pollution research and monitoring to the “private, non-profit and academic sectors,” is also hoping for the restoration of programs that monitor the health of the oceans.

And he believes the removal of restrictions on talking about research will benefit Canadian science and serve as a good first step towards a public conversation on the role of science.

“Science works best when there’s debate, when there’s dialogue, when experts are able to speak and when they can be criticized, said Ross, who now heads Vancouver Aquarium’s new ocean pollution program. “I think science benefits from transparency and the Canadian taxpayer benefits from having the ability to weigh in on the conversation.”

Ideally, science and programs dealing with vital concerns such as ocean pollution or the survival of sockeye salmon should not be at the whim of government, Ross said. “There’s a real need for us to remind ourselves that Mother Nature will not stand idly by waiting for a new program, new resources or the new flavour of the month,” he said. “Let’s not make the ocean or the ocean creatures suffer from dramatic shifts in Ottawa or elsewhere.”

Miller agrees that science and policy need to be integrated and she regrets the lost opportunities of the last decade and losses that will not be recovered, including scientific libraries and the expertise provided by librarians.

But her hopes are high that changes will come fast under the Liberals. “I am, by nature, really optimistic. This is all behind us and now we are going forward,” she said. “I think science is absolutely essential in ensuring the policy decisions that are made are taking us in the right direction.”

Those decisions flourish in an open environment and Sandborn hopes the BC government is learning from the anger that the voting public demonstrated during the federal election and the general euphoria that followed the unmuzzling of scientists.

“Democracy is kind of intoxicating, whereas autocracy is a burden on the public. I think people feel a bit lighter now that there’s a democratic process within government and we can exchange information and try and find solutions without being manipulated,” he said.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith