David Schindler is the Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta. World-renowned for his research on water pollutants and acid rain, Schindler has earned a number of prestigious national and international awards, including the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal, the First Stockholm Water Prize, the Volvo Environmental Prize and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.
Canada was once regarded as a world leader in environmental protection, spearheading efforts to reduce ozone depleting chemicals and supporting innovative research projects such as the Experimental Lakes Area, to address issues of acid rain and algal blooms. However, since the Harper Government has been in power, they have significantly and systematically weakened laws that protect the environment and environmental research in order to further industrial development. The Harper Government has also taken measures to reduce the flow of essential information from scientists to the Canadian public. These environmental laws and research projects were intended to form the foundations of Canadian policy regarding the threats posed by climate warming, biodiversity loss, industrial damage to ecosystems, and other factors that are critical to Canada’s long-term security and environmental sustainability. Here, I make the case that cuts to science, particularly environmental science, have gone much too far, threatening the very underpinnings of democratic decision making in Canada.
Erosion of Key Environmental Laws through Omnibus Legislation
The Fisheries Act
The Fisheries Act was once a law that afforded general protection of fish and their habitat (broadly interpreted to mean both the ecosystems they inhabited and the food that fish eat). The Harper Government has passed legislation that has eroded it to one that now protects only so-called CRA species – those that are deemed important parts of Commercial, Recreational and Aboriginal fisheries. This distinction allows smaller or non-sport fish species to be destroyed with impunity. It further allows any species to be eradicated if it lives in remote areas not currently used by humans – i.e. it is not part of a current fishery.
While the bill was under review, I flew to Ottawa to protest the proposed changes to the Parliamentary Committee charged with examining the proposal. I was joined by two former Federal Ministers of Fisheries, and national First Nations leader Shawn Atleo, among others. Conservative Parliamentary committee members, none of whom had significant experience in either fisheries ecology or administration of policy, told us that we were wrong: that the proposed changes would not weaken the Fisheries Act. How could they possibly know this, and cavalierly dismiss the concerns of experienced ministers, scientists and native leaders without discussion? It was an eerie feeling, like talking to pre-programmed zombies.
In another proposed change, the government would exempt the aquaculture industry from key provisions of the Fisheries Act. Finally, on energy related projects, the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans quietly handed powers to the National Energy Board (NEB) to determine whether a project will violate the Fisheries Act. Despite their claims to the contrary, there is little evidence that the NEB has the necessary fisheries expertise. Clearly the motivation for the changes is not to protect the environment, but to create an uninhibited pathway for industrial development.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act sets out rules related to environmental assessments at the federal level, including when they must be conducted and what stakeholders must be involved. Under new legislation passed by the Harper Government, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act no longer requires hearings for all proposed projects. Resources dedicated to the Environmental Assessment Agency have also been cut. Federal agencies that can trigger a review have been reduced from 40 to just 3. Provincial reviews of projects will be accepted in lieu of federal reviews, as long as they meet a rather vague set of standards. Even very large projects can escape review if there has been a similar previous development – i.e. a previous mine for the same mineral. The government has blatantly said that its purpose in making the changes is to streamline a cumbersome review process in order to expedite the development of natural resources, including oil sands, that Canada can sell abroad. It is no surprise that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers endorses the plan.
The Species at Risk Act
The Species at Risk Act (SARA), intended to protect Canadian plants and wildlife and their habitats, is another victim. Politicians now have the final say in whether or not a species in decline can be listed under the act. Since it has taken power, the Harper Government has delayed the listing of 67 species, even though listing them would protect them only on federal lands, which make up a very small part of the Canadian landscape. Some species, such as woodland caribou, are in extreme jeopardy. In addition, the Harper Government has opted out of almost all of the 76 resolutions adopted in 2013 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This is an action unprecedented in CITES history. As in the case of the Fisheries Act, the National Energy Board, with little to no demonstrated expertise in protecting at-risk species, now determines whether development proposals will potentially require action under SARA.
The Navigable Waters Protection Act
The Navigable Waters Protection Act was also weakened via its inclusion in an omnibus bill. It became the Navigation Protection Act, removing provisions that would have challenged or delayed the construction of pipelines, bridges, dams and other major projects in order to protect navigation. These same provisions were historically important to protecting aquatic ecosystems from harm. Most of the discussion in parliamentary committee regarding this topic was about expediting industrial development, not about protecting the environment, navigation, or the rights of indigenous people potentially affected by the changes.
In short, the Harper Government has used omnibus bills to reduce protection of Canadian wildlife, plants, and their habitats, including marine habitats, by eliminating consultation with experts and concerned stakeholders and putting decision-making in the hands of politicians and their appointees. These changes have been made to ease the way for industrial development, and have the additional benefit of reducing citizen involvement and understanding in the process.
Erosion of the Canadian Citizens’ Right to Know
But weakening legislation is not the only anti-environment action taken by the Harper government to expedite resource extraction. Federal environmental science departments, once among the world’s strongest, have been severely cut, and their ability to perform vital scientific investigations has been greatly compromised. According to the Professional Institute of the Public Service, over 2000 scientists have been laid off. Many of the remainder, a group which incredibly still includes a sprinkling of world-class scientists, are approaching retirement age. Without a strong recruitment program, Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Parks Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service, and Natural Resources Canada will lose even more of their strength in environmental research. In the craze to balance the federal budget regardless of cost, and given the Harper government’s lack of regard for environmental science, such a recruitment effort is unlikely in the near future.
Gone are the days when Canadian government scientists (myself included) received international awards for public communication of science. Under Harper, government scientists have been muzzled. Any interview with the media must be pre-approved, with rigid speaking lines determined by the Prime Minister’s Office. Often, this process takes so long that the opportunity to speak publicly on a new discovery passes, or the approved speaking lines are so inane that a credible scientist would be embarrassed to utter them. On at least one occasion, government scientists traveling to sensitive international climate meetings were accompanied by political appointees, in order to ensure that they did not speak words that were at variance with the Harper agenda. In short, some of the world’s top experts in their fields are being told what to say by non-scientist PMO appointees. The last time I have seen such ideologically driven actions was in the former Soviet Union, where, in the 1970s, KGB agents were routinely sent to monitor the statements of scientists attending international meetings.
With further long-term implications, several internationally-renowned science projects have been cut by the Harper Government. The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), world-renowned for producing science that underpinned successful policies throughout North America and Europe to reduce the impacts of algal blooms and acid rain, was terminated in 2012. When questioned publicly, various ministers stated that the ELA no longer addressed essential environmental problems, and that the same work could be done at other government sites. These statements ignored recent media coverage of recent ELA studies on mercury, climate, endocrine disruptors and hydroelectric reservoirs. After huge international public protests, including a “Death of Evidence” march on Parliament, the Harper Government changed its story: It did not really want to cut the ELA, but rather, it wanted to transfer it to a more suitable owner. Two years of negotiation resulted in a transfer of the site to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, with interim funding guaranteed by the provincial governments of Ontario and Manitoba.
The arctic Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), which investigates the science of climate change, was yet another Harper casualty, losing significant long term funding. ELA and PEARL are but a few of the many cancelled science projects identified by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and displayed by the CBC on its exposé “The Silence of the Labs” (see Table 1).
But gutting environmental laws and weakening scientific personnel was apparently not enough to stop the information flow. A year ago, the federal Department of Fisheries (DFO) closed 7 of its 11 libraries, each connected with a major fisheries station. It was called a cost- cutting measure, and it was explained publicly that few ever used these libraries. This explanation does not agree with my own experience at one of these libraries, the world-renowned Eric Marshall Library at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg. While I was there, the library was heavily used by DFO scientists, and by faculty and graduate students at the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg, whose own libraries were not as complete in environmental sciences. Colleagues at other institutions also say that the libraries were heavily used. Department officials explained that all valuable documents were scanned and would be available electronically. So far, this has been shown to be untrue. There are well-documented descriptions of libraries being looted by consulting companies and private citizens, and trucks of valuable books being sent to recycling or landfills. Overall, the reduction of historical information appears to be part of the plan to allow unfettered industrial development. It was likened by a retired DFO director to a medieval book burning.
University environmental science programs have been similarly cut. The success rates for Discovery Grant applications by established researchers in small universities dropped from 80% to 58% in the past few years. Obviously, it is believed that a scientist at a small institution cannot possibly do science of any consequence! Minister Greg Rickford has stated:
Our government has made record investments in science. We are working to strengthen partnerships to get more ideas from the lab to the marketplace and increase our wealth of knowledge. Research is vibrant and flourishing right across the country.
This statement makes it clear that the Harper Government wishes to downplay environmental science to promote the development of widgets for Canadian companies to flog abroad, serving industry’s research and development needs. And as someone who works closely with scientists from a number of universities across the country, I know that research is anything but “vibrant and flourishing.” I have never seen morale so low, nor been asked so frequently to write references for younger colleagues seeking to move to institutions outside of Canada.
As if silencing government scientists and throttling environmental research were not enough to prevent the informing of Canadians on environmental matters, the Harper Government has also chosen to audit environmental charities, to ensure that they are not exceeding criteria for political activity. Such audits are time consuming and invasive, silencing many environmental groups who otherwise bring environmental issues to public attention. The government says that all charities are being audited, but facts uncovered in November 2014 suggest otherwise. Conservative charities like the Fraser Institute, which most Canadians would regard as one of the most politically active in Canada, are exempted from audit, while small environmental groups are being targeted for “political activities” as innocuous as writing letters to ministers protesting use of bee-killing pesticides. Obviously, the government’s philosophy is that the less Canadians know about the dark environmental consequences of its shameless promotion of extraction industries, the better. In the words of George Orwell in 1984, “These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”
Canadians should care greatly about what is happening. The long-term health of our environment and our status as international leader in environmental research and protection has been put at risk to pursue Harper’s dream of becoming an energy superpower. Even that dream is delusionary - Canada produces less than three million barrels of oil daily in a world that is consuming 90 million barrels a day. Three percent of the total would not constitute “superpower” status, nor would such status be attained even if oil sands production were doubled. As a country, we are facing numerous important problems that require scientific study: climate change, significant loss in biodiversity, water shortage, water pollution, acid rain, and many more. At the same time, the Harper Government has eroded protections designed to address these problems, and has actively impeded scientific research and education which can help Canadians understand changes to our environment and make informed decisions about future development. Without scientific underpinning, the prospect of foresighted policies to protect the environment that our grandchildren will depend on is very bleak. It is time for the Harper Government to go.