Muzzling Enviro Canada

Canada's largest environmental body, once a rich source of scientific information, is hiding from the public.

Pre-Stephen Harper, Environment Canada was regarded as the most accessible, educational federal department. Its scientists were in the media, at conferences, even in classrooms, assessing human impact on the natural world. Now, three reports in as many months have slammed the department for its inaccessibility and lack of accountability.

The Climate Action Network, a national coalition of climate change organizations, released its report "Troubling Evidence." CAN criticizes EC for cutting its funding to university climate research, failing to publicize its own research and placing a gag order on its scientists since 2007---forbidding them from openly discussing their work with the media.

The gag order was issued via a PowerPoint presentation emailed to department staff. It required staff scientists to obtain government permission and approved written responses before taking questions from journalists. It was leaked to the press in 2008.

In March of this year the Montreal Gazette reported on another leaked EC document, this one evaluating the fallout from the gag order. The document notes, "Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 percent...our scientists are very frustrated with the new process."

In April, the Information Commissioner of Canada---who reports to parliament---released "Out of Time," an assessment of how 24 federal institutions responded to access to information requests. EC got an F for its backlog of 276 information requests and taking an average of 97 days to complete a request.

Scott Vaughan, commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development for the Office of the Auditor General, has more experience than anyone getting information from EC. He's reported on the department's exaggeration of Canada's greenhouse gas reductions and the general ineffectiveness of government environmental programs. "I've noticed a change in the past few years," Vaughan tells me via phone from Ottawa. "A lot of NGOs say they can't get Environment Canada scientists at conferences and events to share their scientific expertise."

Vaughan has noticed EC's website has become increasingly obfuscatory, with important documents buried deep in the hyperlinks. "You often have to know the exact title and give your email and name, which deters people." He says EC's mandatory annual reports to parliament are all two to four years out of date.

In May, the Canadian Newspaper Association took its shot at government accessibility from a journalist's perspective. Fred Vallance-Jones, an investigative reporting instructor at King's, authored CNA's "National Freedom of Information Audit."

"Environment Canada needed three extensions and completed none of the requests within 30 days," Vallance-Jones tells me. "If you're a journalist and need timely information this is hardly a good performance." EC got seven out of 30 on CNA's test, a D+.

I gave EC's responsiveness my own test. I phoned a 1-800 line and left a voicemail asking the scientific rationale for basing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets on a 2005 baseline, rather than Kyoto's 1990 baseline. I received a call back promptly and an emailed response on my deadline. The email said no spokesperson was available but the "target and base year are aligned with those of the United States [which is] necessary given the level of economic integration between the two countries."

Interesting, but that is a political explanation, not the scientific one I asked for, making it slightly better than useless.

Several EC employees have complained, off the record, about being muzzled. "I've had extensive conversations with people inside Environment Canada and they all say the same thing," says Mark Butler, policy director at Ecology Action Centre. "They're told, 'Don't rock the boat, don't do your job.' It's a scandal that the largest environmental agency has been castrated and nobody's talking about it."

Butler says his organization and Sierra Club British Columbia---both vocally critical groups---have been denied funding without explanation, despite formal requests for an evaluation. "We can handle being turned down, but we want to know why and we want the process to be fair."

Brad Walters, an environmental studies prof at Mount Allison, says the political interference at EC is a disservice to taxpayers. "We pay for this expertise and the scientists are prevented from meeting their responsibilities. Fewer and fewer first-rate scientists will want to work for the feds."