Harper's Code of Silence

Gagged Urania
Gagged Urania

The Canadian government under Harper hasn’t–yet–abandoned science in its entirety. After all, science is still the best means we have of discovering reality, and reality is useful when setting policy, even if you choose to ignore it. What they’re doing instead is making sure that the Canadian people don’t have access to the same science they do.

Last year, Kathryn O’Hara, then president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, wrote an extraordinary letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the leaders of the other national parties.

In that document – remarkable because it was written in a leading democracy not a paranoid dictatorship – she pleaded with government to unshackle its scientists by allowing them to speak freely with the media.

The CSWA represents more than 500 science journalists, publicists and authors in Canada. Ms. O’Hara recounted a series of incidents that occurred during the year leading up to her letter in which requests for interviews with researchers had been bluntly refused by public affairs handlers, or thwarted by them through endless bureaucratic delays.

Kristina Miller, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist who has done groundbreaking work on emerging salmon diseases on the West Coast, was one of those who was denied permission to talk to the media, even though her research had just been published in the prestigious international journal, Science.

The government’s stifling of Dr. Miller was so extreme that she was even told by DFO officials not to attend workshops at which experts were discussing salmon issues, out of fear media might attend and hear what she had to say.

So, what can you do about it? Well, that’s a pretty good question. If you’re Canadian, you could try complaining to the Harper administration directly. However, they have their majority, and they’re pretty comfortable with it. A better strategy might be to go to your (particularly conservative) MPs and let them know that you’re not going to be as complacent in the next election as you were in the last (however complacent or not you were then). Being kept in ignorance by your government hinders democracy, and they should know you expect them not to support any policy that is so blatantly undemocratic. A majority can be divided.

If you’re press, by whatever definition, find other ways to report these findings when they’re published. Canadian scientists have colleagues outside the country who will also be able to provide insights on published papers. And when you report, don’t leave out the fact that you’re not talking to the author(s) of the paper only because the government insists that they control access to these people.

If you’re a Canadian government scientist and you don’t already work with people both outside of government agencies and outside of Canada, it’s time to start. Make sure others can competently and publicly spread the word about your work when you can’t. Scientific collaboration isn’t something the Harper administration can control, not without an even bigger fight than this will bring.

None of these will be a magic bullet to keep information flowing freely, but all of them will help, and all of them will be strikes at Harper’s anti-democratic policy.

Harper's Code of Silence
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13 thoughts on “Harper's Code of Silence

  1. 2

    Damn, hit the submit button by mistake. Meant to add that at least her research was published. Perhaps is any of us hear about this happening again, we bloggers can post links to the paper to ensure as wide a distrubition as possible.

  2. 3

    Sadly, a paper published in Science isn’t going to be available for general reading, even if we do link to it. Publishing in an open-access journal is also going to help get around Harper’s restrictions, although I understand the appeal of publishing in a prestige journal.

  3. 5

    A better strategy might be to go to your (particularly conservative) MPs and let them know that you’re not going to be as complacent in the next election as you were in the last (however complacent or not you were then).

    Good point, I emailed my MP (I voted CPC last election), and asked her why this is happening. My MP is a back bencher in a closely contested seat, she won her seat by about 500 votes. Hopefully I will get some questions answered.

  4. 6

    Beth @4; This (Harper) government is in bed with corporations and anybody else with a fist full of money and basically cares less than zero about the environment. They have been silencing their own scientists for years now and apparently now plan to fire about half of them.
    Salmon diseases from fish farms in coastal BC threaten to wipe out our magnificent salmon runs as well as our American neighbor’s fish. If this occurs it would be a catastrophe greater than the disappearance of the great herds of bison that roamed the prairies.
    Harper was held in check by virtue of only having a minority government prior to the last election. Now that he has the power, count on seeing him do everything he can to put Canada on a reactionary path.
    He’s made it clear what he plans for science, the environment, and weakening the health care system. Who knows what else he has planned.

  5. 7

    The goal is to prevent the public knowing that the government is aware of the damage they are deliberately allowing, in particular with regards to the environment.
    This government is anti-environment and would like to push through a number of profit making (for their friends) projects that they know are very damaging environmentally. Their scientists are responsible for environmental reviews, and they don’t want the general public to know how bad they turn out when they approve the projects.
    Science/environmental programs they have censored/cut so far:
    – monitoring of oil products in the watersheds around the oil sands.
    – a government funding program that supported a network of local environmental groups nationally has been cut
    – they changed the navigable waters act to allow development of seasonal waterways without treating them as waterways
    – they passed a law allowing mining companies to declare natural lakes “tailings ponds” so that mining companies wouldn’t have to prevent toxic mining waste getting into local watersystems
    – studies on the effects of fish farms on wild salmon have been hidden
    – the ENVIRONMENT minister presents to the public on behalf of industries setting up new pipelines through an ecologically important and sensitive area in BC – he says pipelines never leak, contrary to all the known data

    It’s a national disgrace

  6. 8

    I forgot to add: Harpe’s conservatives have also run their election platform on their economic policy. If the environment were allowed to get in the way of resource extraction, which is Canada’s main source of income, then Canadians would see how poor of shape our economy is really in, with the exception of that one sector. The conservatives would (rightly) be heavily criticized for failing on their biggest promise/claimed strength.

  7. 9

    @ A Bear and CanadianSteve

    Thanks for the lesson. I had no idea. Sounds similar to the Republican (and all too often Democratic) strategies in the U.S.

  8. 10

    I voted CPC last election

    Why on earth did you do a dumbshit thing like that? Seriously, after all the crap they pulled with a minority government, you wanted more of the same? Damn.

  9. 11

    Considering that the Harper administration appointed a schmuck like Gary Goodyear, creationist and chiropractor, as the governments Minister of Science and Technology, this comes as no surprise.

  10. 12


    I’ve written to my MP a few times since Harper was elected. I’ve written to various cabinet ministers, the PM himself, and the Governor General too. It feels more and more futile – the Cons don’t care what anyone thinks, and my local MP is a stand-upNDP guy who I really like but who, as an opposition MP facing a strong Tory majority, can’t really do anything more than send rather amusingly ranty replies saying, essentially, “I agree but I can’t do a damn thing about it”.

    I’ll write another couple of emails, and keep signing the online petitions, but the only real solution for this problem is a time machine or a strong and unified opposition with a fresh and inspirational leadership. The former currently seems more likely…

  11. 13

    This just makes me miss Jack. I hope the Liberals or NDP get their act together before the next election…and I should move to somewhere that my vote would actually count as opposed to a very tiny little voice against one of Harper’s spiritual advisers. I’ve given up writing to her because her office always responds with a wordy version of, “You just don’t understand how this is good for you.”

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