Chloe Shantz-Hilkes is a member of Our Right to Know and a Master's candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. The focus of her research is the relationship between public education and young adults' political participation. Chloe is also the author of two non-fiction books for young adults, and a former CBC Radio journalist.
In the winter of 2013 (and again this year), residents of central and eastern Canada were rocked by the so-called polar vortex—a punishing onslaught of cold air, driven south from its usual confinement at the North Pole. When it first began, the cold weather phenomenon grounded thousands of flights and led to widespread power outages. I was working as an associate producer at CBC Radio at the time. For over a week, our top story was the havoc wrought by the polar vortex. In particular, we – and our listeners – wanted to know if there was any connection between the record-breaking weather and climate change. Could the gradual warming of the earth somehow be causing the frigid temperatures and unprecedented snowfall? Could winters like this become the new norm? Many scientists and science journalists were speculating as much. But finding someone to discuss the theory proved no easy task. For whatever reason, Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips was a notable exception. If David was available for the interview, you were all set. (To this day, I remain grateful to him for his candid and accessible insight.) If David was indisposed, however, there was a sense among journalists – myself included – that you may as well not bother trying to contact a government scientist. Instead, we approached academic researchers and, in many cases, U.S. climate experts. Often, we found these Americans notably more amenable to talking about their research than their Canadian counterparts.
Communities affected by the polar vortex did eventually thaw. The chill on Canadian scientists’ ability to speak to the media, however, endures. According to leaked federal government documents, a communications protocol implemented by the federal government in 2007 led to an 80% reduction in media coverage of climate change within its first year. Today, these rules continue to require government scientists to seek permission before giving interviews. In some cases, they must also have their responses vetted. This is in keeping with the alarming findings of a more recent report by the non- partisan organization Evidence for Democracy, entitled ‘Can Scientists Speak?’ which gave policies governing federal scientists’ communication with the media an average grade of C- for discouraging timely responses, failing to protect against political interference, and more. More troubling still, a report from the Professional Institute for the Public Service of Canada found that over half of federal scientists are aware of cases where the health and safety of Canadians has been compromised because of political interference. Sadly, the list of examples of the muzzling of government scientists in Canada grows ever longer each day. I recently joined the organization Our Right to Know (previously Scientists for the Right to Know) in its efforts to document these abuses and curtailments of free speech and unfettered inquiry. At times, we can scarcely keep up.
Canadians are paying for government research. And Canadians have questions that are going unanswered. By all accounts, the silence of Canadian scientists in response to these questions is not voluntary, but imposed. Whether to promote unrestricted oilsands expansion or to disrupt efforts to assist low income Canadians, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has proven himself willing to routinely deny Canadians their right to know about themselves, their environment, and their country. The silencing of scientists, defunding of basic research, and political interference in free inquiry needs to stop. A decade of muzzling is more than enough.