Fast-forward a decade, and we've become a true north suppressed and disparate -- where unregistered civic demonstrations are inhibited and repressed, rebellious Internet activities are scrutinised and supervised, government scientists are hushed and muzzled, and public information is stalled and mired by bureaucratic firewalls.
This is a guest post by David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington. It originally appeared on Science Matters.
Access to information is a basic foundation of democracy. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms also gives us “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”
We must protect these rights. As we alter the chemical, physical and biological properties of the biosphere, we face an increasingly uncertain future, and the best information we have to guide us comes from science. That scientists – and even librarians – are speaking out against what appear to be increasing efforts to suppress information shows we have cause for concern. The situation has become so alarming that Canada’s Information Commissioner is investigating seven government departments in response to a complaint that they’re “muzzling” scientists.
The announcement comes in response to a letter sent by the non-partisan citizen advocacy group Democracy Watch and The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) at the University of Victoria earlier this year. The letter included a 126-page report signed by ELC Legal Director Calvin Sandborn that called to attention several instances in which communication between scientists and media had been delayed, discouraged or prohibited.
The depth of the Canadian government’s tar sands PR strategy was further revealed yesterday in a collection of nearly 1,000 pages of emails between Canadian diplomats in the United States. The correspondence dates back to August 2011 when protests movements focused on the Alberta tar sands began to spread across the continent. Toronto-based conservation group Environmental Defence obtained the documents through access to information legislation.
In an effort specifically designed to promote the Keystone XL pipeline south of the border, the government has been targeting journalists from major American news outlets, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Time and prominent trade publication E & E Daily, in order to “develop Canada’s network of reporters covering energy issues.” Canadian diplomats took reporters to lunch and then filed reports about strengthening the relationship between diplomats and journalists.
Chris Plunkett, a spokesperson for Canada’s Washington embassy, indicated these efforts were just par for the course when it comes to activities that have an impact on the Canadian economy. He said the Canadian government “strongly supports the expansion of the Keystone pipeline and the embassy continues to advocate for its approval which will contribute to energy security and economic growth for both Canada and the U.S.”
Adding emphasis to apparent intentions to sway American media, a series of emails going all the way up to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird shows the extent of the Conservatives’ response to negative media attention. An editorial in the New York Times that maligned the Keystone project prompted the department to draft a letter to the editor signed by Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer.
Sunday marked the beginning of Freedom to Read week, an annual event reminding Canadian citizens of the intellectual freedom they are constitutionally guaranteed. It also reminds us we are governed by other citizens with the capacity to permit or limit that freedom. These are citizens that we can hold accountable only to the extent that we know how they make their decisions and what consequences those decisions have.
The event this year stands out on the Canadian political landscape, an uncomfortable reminder of just how frustrated the free flow of information has become in this country.
The timing is significant, as the event arrives on the heels of a University of Victoria study that highlights the Harper government’s efforts to restrict media access to federal scientists.
The Harper government knew in early 2012 that proposed regulatory reforms tabled in the contentious Omnibus Budget Bill C-38 would be "very controversial." As a result a parliamentary secretary to the minister of Environment Canada was directed to seek the cooperation of a major tar sands developer, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), regarding the proposed changes, saying "the reforms, when introduced, may be very controversial. I hope we can count on your support."
Companies responsible for two separate oil spills in Alberta failed to provide adequate oversight for their operations, according to federal government documents released by Environment Canada through Access to Information legislation.
The documents detail how Devon Canada and Gibson Energy violated environmental laws, including the federal Fisheries Act, when their operations cause two oil spills into fish-bearing waterways in 2010.
Gibson Energy, a midstream pipeline operator, spilled a few hundred litres of oil into an Edmonton creek after failing to properly abandon an unused pipeline. According to a warning letter issued to the company from Environment Canada, "Gibson Energy ULC made a business decision to keep the Kinder Morgan lateral full of crude oil and to not purge it with nitrogen."
The federal government has repeatedly decided to forego prosecution for oil, gas and pipeline industry violations, according to Environment Canada documents released to Postmedia News through Access to Information legislation.
According to the documents the federal government issued 'warning letters' to companies like Devon Canada, a tar sands oil producer, and Gibson Energy, a midstream pipeline operator, after two separate oil spills proved the companies' respective facilities were in violation of the federal Fisheries Act. Violations of this sort can attract fines of up to $1 million, or three years imprisonment, the letters warned.
According to Postmedia's Mike De Souza, letters of this kind were sent to several companies in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec for various offenses including the pollution of air and water as well as inadequate emergency preparedness and shoddy record keeping.
Environment Canada indicated warning letters are effective in gaining industry's attention. Prosecutions, on the other hand, are both expensive and time consuming. Yet, the released documents suggest that when it comes to monitoring and enforcement of industry's actions, the government may not be acting in the public's interest.
The Canadian government is working hard behind the scenes to cover up the negative effects that tar sands extraction is having on the local environment, wildlife, communities and the global climate. According to Access to Information documents obtained by Postmedia's Mike De Souza, the Stephen Harper government has actively suppressed the release of vital information regarding the spread of tar sands contamination by muzzling federal scientists.
The government of Canada and the government of Alberta denied the correlation, saying local waterways tested showed no signs of toxic contamination and reports of mutated and cancerous fish downstream from the tar sands were unfounded.