Canadian Government Scientists Unmuzzled

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In April 2013, a man posing as Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to have placed gags on fellow protesters dressed as a librarian and a scientist during a demonstration against the muzzling of federal government employees. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

For nearly a decade under Conservative rule, the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office exercised tight control over the release of information.  Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s swearing-in on Wednesday, however, things seem to be changing. One Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) producer requested an interview with Navdeep Bains, the new minister of innovation, science and economic development.  She heard back within the hour.

“It was very exciting,” said Information Morning Cape Breton‘s Nicole MacLennan. “That’s the quickest I’ve ever heard back from a PR person for many a year.”

Alain Vezina, regional director of science for the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, confirmed that scientists at the institute are now allowed to speak openly to media. Vezina said the authorization came from the assistant deputy minister of science at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect. That is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public,” Minister Bains said in a written statement. “We are working to make government science fully available to the public and will ensure that scientific analyses are considered in decision making.”

The previous government of former prime minister Stephen Harper brought in a restrictive communications policy that required national or international media requests to speak with federal government scientists to be approved by a minister’s office, and all communications with government scientists to go through a government communications office.

Kristi Miller, a scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, told CBC News Friday that she was excited at news the newly elected federal government had lifted the muzzle from its researchers. “We [are now] free to speak to the press without contacting media relations,” she said. “And in fact we are encouraged to get back to them quickly.”

It’s a far cry from 2011, when Miller was shocked to find herself prevented from discussing her research into the 2009 Fraser River sockeye salmon collapse following its publication in Science magazine.  “I was told at the time that the problem with the study was that it was talking about dying salmon, and that wasn’t a positive news story,” Miller said.

She eventually discovered that the decision to stop her talking came from the top — directly from the prime minister’s office. She was only allowed to talk publicly about her work in response to questions while testifying at the Cohen Commission Inquiry.

“That whole decision really backfired on the government, and I was really surprised they never reversed it. I think that my paper, for good or for bad, got more press because I wasn’t allowed to speak. I don’t believe I have ever been interviewed about that paper.”  She says the oppressive regime led to many scientists quitting.

A Facebook post from the mother of another unmuzzled British Columbia biologist went viral, shedding more insight into the changes in the control of information since the new federal government took office.  Jody Paterson, the mother of a fisheries biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, shared a “spirit-lifting” message from her son in a Facebook post on Friday:

 Jody Paterson FB post

Paterson says her son has been working with the department for about a year. She shared his message with her own Facebook friends, adding a few comments of her own. The post now has more than 11,000 likes and 8,200 shares.

“I’ve had people tell me they cried when they read that post, and now I’m seeing comments from others who are talking about crying during the swearing-in ceremony, crying on the day after the election,” she told CBC News in a written statement.

“These are regular people who are not particularly political, and they had been stuffing down their feelings of rage and helplessness for so long that when it was finally over and the Harper government was vanquished, all the emotions flooded out.”

 

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