Concern over the the federal government’s alleged muzzling of government scientists culminated this spring with the launch of an official investigation by the information commissioner.
Meanwhile, Canadian author Chris Turner was quietly working away on an investigation of his own, the results of which will be released as early as October.
Turner, the author of The Leap and The Geography of Hope, was encouraged by Greystone Books to write a more in-depth accounting of the government’s approach to science after publishing a feature on the topic in Corporate Knights magazine.
Tentatively titled The War On Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness in Stephen Harper's Canada, Turner's latest project examines the government’s “muzzling of scientists, cuts to basic science, and cuts to environmental monitoring,” and why Canadians should care.
Last summer hundreds of scientists and concerned Canadians marched on Parliament Hill and held a mock funeral to mourn the death of science. That march, Turner says, will form the opening scene of his book.
After landing the Berton House Writer’s Retreat, Turner spent about a month this spring in Dawson City, Yukon, working on The War on Science, as well as his first novel. It was during his residency that photographer Jesse Winter and I had a chance to sit down with him to discuss his latest projects.
For years, people have been asking what Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government’s “secret agenda” is, he told us, seated in the Berton House living room with a cup of coffee in hand.
“Well, there’s no secret agenda; it’s in plain sight,” he said.
“They’re trying to reduce the ability of the government to detect environmental problems and tell the Canadian people and the Canadian government itself about the scale of those problems, because those things get in the way of resource extraction.”
Chris argues this is something all Canadians should be concerned about, not just the scientists he says are being muzzled.
“Since the dawn of the enlightenment, one of the fundamental aspects of democratic governance has been that you find the best available evidence and data ... and then you build public policy based on that evidence,” he said.
“We’ve inverted that.”
Concern about the issue has spread beyond scientists and environmental activists, all the way to Canada's information commissioner, Suzanne Legault.
Legault confirmed in April that her office would launch an investigation into the allegations that the Conservative government is gagging scientists, following a complaint filed by Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Clinic.
But according to the minister of state for science and technology, communications policies for civil servants have not changed recently.
“Government scientists and experts are readily available to share their research with the media and the public. Last year, Environment Canada participated in more than 1,300 media interviews, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada issued nearly 1,000 scientific publications, and Natural Resources Canada published nearly 500 studies." Gary Goodyear said in a statement. "However, we take ministerial accountability very seriously and as such, ministers are the primary spokespeople for their departments,"
Fans of Turner’s work can also look forward to the release of his first novel, tentatively titled Canadian Shield. The book is still in the early stages of a first draft, Turner said, so there isn't a strict timeline for publication just yet.