19: Scientists Fight to Roll Back Darkness

Carol Goar, Toronto Star, October 3, 2014

A year ago, a handful of Toronto scientists decided they could no longer watch helplessly as the government of Canada systematically stifled information on everything from climate change to drug safety.

They formed a collective called Scientists for the Right to Know.

They compiled a list of all the public agencies that have been eliminated, all the science and knowledge-based programs that have been discarded and all the strictures that have been placed on public officials. They created a website. They urged their academic peers to speak out.

But none of them knew much about public advocacy. They were scholars after all, not lobbyists, organizers or publicists.

So they made it their business to learn. This week, they held a public forum at the Munk School of Global Affairs. It was called Imposed Ignorance, a panel discussion highlighting what Canadians are losing and why it matters.

They invited three highly regarded public figures – Munir Sheikh, who stepped down from his position as chief statistician of Canada rather than adulterate the national census, Mel Cappe, former head of the federal public service, and David Hulchanski, of the University of Toronto, who has lost the data he needs to continue his pioneering work on urban poverty. (I moderated the two-hour session.)

Tickets sold out weeks in advance. The audience was knowledgeable, worried and eager to participate. The speakers eschewed histrionics, but made it clear that serious damage has been done.

“It’s easy to wreck something that’s working well and it’s hard to make it work again,” Hulchanski warned, adding that it will take more than the election of a new government in 2015 to recover what has been lost. Cappe, who spent 31 years in the federal public service, concurred. “When the muscles atrophy, it is very hard to pick up weights. It will take a long time to recover.”

What was striking, when all the evidence was laid out, was how successful the government has been in silencing individuals and agencies that challenge its ideology or track the impact of its decisions.

Most could name a few examples: the cancellation of the mandatory detailed census in 2010, the gag order imposed on federal scientists in 2012, and the audits of charities that speak out on public issues in 2013. But the scientists’ list goes on for eight pages, dating back to 2006 when a climatologist at Environment Canada was forbidden by then-minister Rona Ambrose to talk to the media about a science-fiction novel he’d written about global warming.

Over the next eight years the Tories eliminated the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, Canadian Policy Research Networks, the Law Commission of Canada, the National Council of Welfare and the Canadian Council on Learning. They decimated Statistics Canada, cut Health Canada so severely it no longer has enough scientists to ensure the safety of new drugs and downsized Environment Canada so aggressively it no longer has enough inspectors to ensure new projects meet federal standards.

“Canadians are being made more ignorant about our country and ourselves,” said Margrit Eichler, president of Scientists for the Right to Know. “Good policies must be based on solid evidence. Democracy requires an informed electorate.”

Her colleague Phyllis Creighton put it more bluntly: “We’re being cheated by our government.”

It would be misleading to suggest the audience was a representative cross-section of the electorate. Many were the same folks who protested vehemently when the government cancelled the mandatory census; reared up when Harper prorogued the House of Commons for the fourth time; and objected when his ministers started tabling massive, multi-part bills that changed everything from the Criminal Code to protection of inland waterways.

What was encouraging, however, was the number of young voters who came out. They listened attentively and asked incisive questions.

Measured against its modest goal, the evening was a success. The debate has moved beyond a core of muzzled scientists and worried academics.

The bigger challenges lie ahead: Ratchet up the decibel level, raise the political stakes and mobilize busy, jaded citizens.

Our Comment

In 1936, President Roosevelt faced a powerful opposition from “economic royalists” – “privileged princes of…new economic dynasties” who “created a new despotism… erected a new industrial dictatorship” (Roosevelt’s acceptance speech, 1936, quoted in Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. II, p. 370). The polls suggested that his opposition “had a significant lead.” Roosevelt, however, won “an unprecedented landslide victory” (page 389).

While she was “profoundly moved” by the fact that “for all the name calling and rude misinformation, American democracy worked,” Eleanor Roosevelt was persuaded that “only individual involvement, grassroots activism, would result in the actual changes needed to fulfill her husband’s promises.” She wrote and lectured extensively on the need to realize “that true democracy is the effort of the people individually to carry their share of the burden of government.” Addressing an audience of two thousand, in Philadelphia, she said, “We must not think that our leaders can do what we wish done, unless we do our share” (page 388).

Timely advice! Between now and the next federal election – and thereafter – we need to support and appreciate efforts such as the action taken by Scientists for the Right to Know, and to do all we can do to encourage and enable people to “carry their share of the burden of government.”

Clearly, change will not come from the top!


From COMER, September-October 2014