Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Accessing scientific info no easy task in Canada

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OTTAWA -- A scientist discovers one of the biggest holes in the ozone layer ever found is sitting over the Arctic, but after his report is published in a respected scientific journal, the Canadian government won't let him speak and writes his responses to media questions for him.

Scientists at an international conference in Montreal are shadowed by government communications staff to make sure they comply with an order not to speak publicly on the issue of polar science.

A reporter can't get information from Canada about a scientific research experiment but gets the information from an American agency in mere minutes.

It may seem like part of a paranoid 1984-like dreamland, but these are all things that actually have happened in Canada in the last few years.

The Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and the national lobby group Democracy Watch say it has to stop.

The two last week wrote jointly to federal information commissioner Suzanne Legault, asking her to investigate whether the government is violating the Access to Information Act by enacting policies that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the public to even know what kind of scientific research is being done and therefore unable to know what records to request.

"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 wrote in their letter Feb. 20. "We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed of the facts."

A 128-page report, Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, was attached to the letter. It was the result of research done by law student Clayton Greenwood. It lists numerous examples of scientists being muzzled or forced to deliver certain responses and specifics from government communications policies that clearly lean toward not telling the public much about anything, ever.

The fundamental disagreement is over who owns the information. Is it the politicians who run the government of the day or the taxpayers who actually paid for it and whom the government is supposed to serve?

The answer should be obvious. But then there is politics.

The concern of the government seems pretty clear. According to the muzzling report, Environment Canada in 2007, for example, enacted its first-ever formal media relations policy that includes requiring approval from the Privy Council Office before anyone can answer questions from the national press gallery or major media outlets.

The policy says the department should speak with one voice, have co-ordinated messages and even notes "interviews sometimes result in surprises to ministers and senior management."

Oh, the horror.

So it's all about controlling the message. But it also leaves open huge leeway to simply not report to the public the findings of scientific research or to report in such a way it doesn't conflict with government policies or ideology.

If there is a project that has leaked toxic substances into the water supply or the soil, wouldn't you want to know about it up front, not through some rainbows-and-unicorns version that lets the government downplay the problem, or worse, not tell you at all?

If there is a scientist who can explain why salmon are disappearing in a B.C. river, why can't she be allowed to speak to the public about her research?

Some may think this is the media whining about not getting information, but the media, be they mainstream outlets or independent bloggers or even a private citizen tweeting or posting information on Facebook, are the main way most Canadians get information about what the government is doing.

It's all well and good to have a communications strategy -- in fact, it's a necessity in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. But the strategy should be about facilitating the government's ability to respond, not about facilitating ways not to.

It will be very interesting to see how Legault responds to this latest request. She already doesn't think the government is that open. Just two weeks ago, she said the government's response to access-to-information requests has hit an all-time low. Legault even said Canadians should be "angry" about it.

But if Legault finds the government is in fact muzzling civil servants and violating its access to information law, there isn't much she can do about it. Unlike her counterparts in Britain and Australia, Legault can't order the government to do anything. All she can do is recommend changes.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2013 A5

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