Premier Greg Selinger says he sees "a glimmer of hope" Ottawa will reverse a decision to close down an internationally recognized water quality research program in northwestern Ontario.
Selinger said Friday he was encouraged the federal government might try to save the Experimental Lakes Area program after a recent conversation with federal Environment Minister Peter Kent at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.
"I did detect a glimmer of hope because he (Kent) said they were looking at other institutions that may want to pick it up," Selinger said in an interview from Halifax, where he was attending a meeting of provincial premiers and territorial leaders.
Selinger said Kent seemed to recognize the case he and others were making about the need to retain the ELA -- and how the program had contributed to dealing with such issues as acid rain and nutrient-loading in lakes.
"I took from the conversation they were looking for ways and means to keep it alive," he said.
Selinger first told of his conversation with Kent in an interview with the news service iPolitics.ca, which published his remarks on Friday.
The Environmental Lakes Area is a unique network of 58 lakes used by scientists for more than four decades to conduct research on ecosystems. Their work has influenced environmental decision-making across North America and around the world.
Ottawa has said it will eliminate ELA's $2 million in annual funding as of April 1. In May it informed employees their jobs were in jeopardy. The program has 17 staff (there are also 10 vacancies). It's believed Ottawa will declare remaining staff "surplus" some time next month.
"The Conservatives were completely taken by surprise by the overwhelming backlash from their rash decision to terminate the Experimental Lakes Area program," said Diane Orihel, head of the Coalition to Save ELA, on Friday.
The coalition has received letters of support from around the world, and more than 18,000 Canadians have signed a petition to be tabled in the House of Commons this fall, she said.
Orihel said Selinger's comment is the first positive news she's heard since the coalition began its fight more than two months ago.
"So far, the Conservatives have dug in their heels on this decision, saying it's final. So I'm very pleased to hear that there might be a little crack in the door that they're willing to reconsider," she said.
But a decision needs to be made soon before research staff find other work, Orihel said. Some, seeing the writing on the wall, are already applying for jobs elsewhere, she said.
Meanwhile, Kent's press secretary said Friday the government has not changed its position on the ELA.
Adam Sweet said in an email Ottawa still hopes to transfer the facility to "another research agent."
But ELA supporters are pessimistic a transfer could be carried out by next April -- even if someone was willing to take over the program. Orihel said the liability issues alone make such a swift transfer unlikely.
While Ontario owns the land, Ottawa is responsible for any lake rehabilitation or remediation, she said.