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Ottawa blind to dangers of firing environmental scientists

Tom Muir – Mon Oct 29 2012 00:01:00

I read recently that the federal government signed a revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with the United States. As a retiree of Environment Canada, with friends still inside, I say a new agreement doesn’t matter because the federal government has largely destroyed its capacity to deliver it.

Over the past seven years the two governments spent talking, what was a trickling loss of environmental science capacity in Canada is now a flood. In Burlington, where I worked for 30 years at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters (CCIW), there about 80 research scientists on staff in 2004. I’m told that by this year, there are about 20.

Making things worse for the Great Lakes scientists remaining is their secondment to the Alberta oilsands. The government has an oilsands study under way, but it is coming out of the Great Lakes program.

More targets in the omnibus budget make things worse. Fisheries and Oceans scientists, doing contaminants monitoring and research across Canada, including the Arctic, are being fired, and their labs closed.

These scientists work with Great Lakes colleagues on overlapping problems, all relevant to the Great Lakes agreement.

These layoffs are particularly alarming as these people are irreplaceable. Their work cannot be contracted out effectively. Their function is early-warning radar — monitoring the canaries in the coal mine. The freshwater and marine fish, mammals and wildlife, are sentinels for humans. But now nobody will be watching.

I guess Canadians don’t need to know that Arctic beluga whales pass many chemical contaminants, like PCBs and flame retardants, to their fetus. Maybe people will get concerned about the same chemicals in their own fetus. This transfer in the belugas was shown by Fisheries and Oceans scientists located in B.C. It won’t happen again. Some of these scientists are fired, and survivors will get the message.

In Winnipeg, Fisheries science finds flame-retardant chemicals in freshwater fish and Arctic marine mammals. These chemicals cause thyroid disease and sex hormone disruption in fish, and act in ways that may contribute to prostate cancer in humans.

I guess Canadians shouldn’t be bothered by concerns about these health effects either. They won’t be again — the entire lab is being closed, and the staff fired.

Downstream, other Fisheries laboratories find similar contamination and effects in St. Lawrence belugas and Atlantic fish. Canadians won’t be bothered with this concern any more — these researchers are fired too.

Is there some kind of disconnect here? Fisheries scientists working on fish health, and ocean scientists working on ocean health, getting fired? With climate meltdown happening in the Arctic, the scientists monitoring health in Arctic fish, mammals, and wildlife are fired?

The dismantling of environmental science in Canada has more stories. The Experimental Lakes Area, in northern Ontario, is to be shut. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Fisheries Act, have been radically reduced in scope and effectiveness. The Species at Risk Act is next, but it has been never used, no one knows how it works.

None of these acts was meant to stop projects, just monitor, make people accountable and try to avoid mistakes.

Now does anyone else see a pattern? Like others, I too see it as positively Orwellian.

Public ignorance is government strength. Remove the right to think by removing the facts to think about; ensure public servants do not serve the public.

These events reflect a war of attrition and suppression waged by the government on environmental science for years, and particularly under Prime Minister Harper’s watch since 2006.

Environment has been politicized and bureaucratized, especially regarding chemicals and climate. Threats, fear, and paranoia are the tools of staff relations.

No scientist can do anything, or say anything, or go anywhere, without running the gauntlet of supervisor, senior management, communications, policy, the deputy minister’s office, the minister’s office and the prime minister’s office. Media inquiries often don’t make it through. Everything is laced with ambiguity.

Like the proverbial three monkeys, science first had its tongue cut out. Now as target of the omnibus budget, the eyes of science are being blinded and its ears deafened. The deaf, dumb, and blind monkey is the governments’ designated spokesperson.

I have to ask if the government understands what it is doing to destroy environmental science?

If this were an enemy of Canada, who wanted to knock out our intelligence capability for early warning of foreseeable threats, they would be hard-pressed to improve on the strikes made by environment and fisheries managers against key positions that comprise this capacity. And under orders from our own government.

Do they want everyone to be in the dark? What is next?

These are terrible mistakes, that can bring terrible harms. But it is not too late to reverse these cuts.

If not, then whose side is the government on?

Tom Muir lives in Burlington, and worked for Environment Canada at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters from 1974 to 2004, when he retired. Since then he has remained professionally active working as an independent researcher.