From the floor of the United Nations to the pages of The New York Times, the Harper Government’s war on research, reason and environmental law is being watched by the world.
On Tuesday, September 23, 2014, 125 world leaders gathered at the United Nations office in New York City for the UN Summit on Climate Change. The summit was touted as an attempt to “galvanize and catalyze climate action,” and featured appearances from some of the planet’s most powerful men, many of whom represent countries responsible for the largest carbon emissions in the world, including American president Barack Obama, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Conspicuous by his absence was Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who, despite being in town, opted not to attend and sent Canada’s environmental minister, Leona Aqlukkaq, in his stead.
The move shocked and outraged some activists, but to anyone who has paid attention to Harper’s environmental policy over the past eight years, this snub comes as no surprise. Since taking control of the Prime Minister’s office in 2006, Stephen Harper’s government has waged a legislative war on scientists whose research stands in opposition to his government’s political and economic objectives. In early 2014, the CBC’s the fifth estate dedicated an entire hour to the ways in which the Harper government dismissed and defunded scientists working on research that didn’t fit the administration’s ideological objectives, effectively amounting to silencing scientists. In one particularly jarring scene, Dr. Pat Sutherland, a long-time world-renowned Canadian scientist, recounted the way she was unceremoniously dismissed from her post.
“They told me, ‘You have five minutes to collect important personal things,’” said Sutherland, an archaeologist who had worked with the Canadian Museum of Civilization for over 30 years. “I said, ‘Everything here is important.’”
And it’s not like Dr. Sutherland was a slouch, either. Her Arctic research was in the process of discovering groundbreaking evidence of some of the earliest interactions between First Nations people and North American settlers, and has garnered international acclaim, including a spread in National Geographic. Her story is typical. Nearly 2,000 scientists have been dismissed or defunded since Harper took office, many of them for engaging in research that didn’t match the Harper government’s objectives. To make matters worse, earlier this year, the Harper government was responsible for closing seven of eleven of Canada’s internationally acclaimed Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries, citing a consolidation and digitization effort. Many close to the situation said the transition was done carelessly and hastily, and neglected to take proper inventory of a variety of unique documents, including research on aquatic safety, water safety and other forms of environmental life.
The rest of the world is taking notice. A frequently cited 2013 op-ed from The New York Times took Harper to task for the way he has policed science since taking office, stating, “The [Harper government] is doing all it can to monitor and restrict the flow of scientific information, especially concerning research into climate change, fisheries and anything to do with the Alberta tar sands.” Comparing Harper’s environmental record to the one the United States faced under the George W. Bush regime, the newspaper concluded, “[Bush didn’t] come close to what is being done in Canada.”
In October 2014, a letter signed by over 800 scientists from 32 countries called on Harper to reverse the alarming trend of defunding and stalling the progress of decades worth of research. “Canada’s leadership in the basic areas of environmental, health, and other public science is in jeopardy,” the letter read, before it urged Harper to restore government science funding. According to the Professional Institute of Public Canada, the Harper government has budgeted $2.6 billion in cuts to federal government ministries and departments between 2013 and 2016. On top of that, there’s a laundry list of environmental laws that Harper has drastically weakened or outright eliminated, including the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Fisheries Act, the Environmental Act, and perhaps most infamously, the Kyoto Protocol, which Canada signed and subsequently backed out of. Despite the success of the Harper government’s ability to muzzle scientists, there may be a silver lining.
We are flying along in an airplane, and we’ve put curtains over the windshield of those pilots, of that flight-crew, and we’ve turned off the instruments.
A July 2014 editorial in the Toronto Star written by Rick Smith, the executive director of progressive think tank the Broadbent Institute, wrote about how Harper’s sustained attacks on the environmental movement in Canada has actually reinvigorated activists and led to a focused resurgence of the movement. Looking around the country, there are bright spots that suggest he may be right. First Nations blockades against corporate giants like Imperial Metals and Coastal GasLink have gained steam in BC; Green Party leader Elizabeth May led a sizable Canadian contingent to a protest — dubbed “the largest climate change rally in the history of the world” by some — outside of the very UN summit that Stephen Harper snubbed, and in November 2014, the CBC’s Rick Mercer centered his patented “Mercer Rant” on Harper’s attacks on the Canadian scientific community.
But are these steps enough to combat an administration hell-bent on guiding the country’s environmental policy by ignoring experts whose research conflicts with policy objectives? Some scientists are concerned it may be too late. “What we have done in Canada is turn off the radar,” Dr. Peter Ross, the country’s sole marine mammal toxicologist told the CBC’s the fifth estate early last year. “We are flying along in an airplane, and we’ve put curtains over the windshield of those pilots, of that flight-crew, and we’ve turned off the instruments.”