Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker 'Louis S. St-Laurent' on 10 July 2008. Photo: Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press / Postmedia News

By Margaret Munro
18 August 2014

(Postmedia News) – Federal scientists who keep a close eye on the Arctic ice would like to routinely brief Canadians about extraordinary events unfolding in the North.

But newly released federal documents show the Harper government has been thwarting their efforts.

In 2012, as the Arctic ice hit the lowest point ever recorded, scientists at the Canadian Ice Service were keen to tell Canadians about the stunning ice loss.

“Less ice doesn’t mean less danger. In fact the opposite is true and there is greater need for ice information,” Leah Braithwaite, the service’s chief of applied science said in an August 2012 memo to Norman Naylor, a strategic communications adviser at Environment Canada.

Braithwaite and her colleagues — aware of the national and international interest in the shrinking polar ice — wanted to hold a “strictly factual” technical briefing for the media to inform Canadians how the ice had disappeared from not only the Northwest Passage but many normally ice-choked parts of the Arctic.

The briefing never happened. Nine levels of approval — from the director of the ice service up to the environment minister’s office — were needed for the “communication plan,” according to the documents released to Postmedia News under the Access to Information Act.

“Ministerial services” — the sixth layer — cancelled the briefing, the documents say. And the ice service scientists ended up watching as the Canadian media and public got most of their information from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), where scientists were quick to give interviews, hold briefings and issue press releases as the ice shattered records as it melted from Baffin Island to the Beaufort Sea.

Environment Canada did not immediately respond to written questions sent on Monday about the cancelled briefing. The Privy Council Office (PCO) said any response would come from Environment Canada.

Observers say the case is further evidence of the way the Conservative government is silencing scientists.

“It’s suppression through bureaucracy,” said Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy (E4D), an Ottawa-based non-profit pushing for open communication of government science.

“Why is it that we need nine levels of approval for this sort of thing, what’s the justification,” said biologist Scott Findlay, a co-founder of E4D and member of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

He said the government’s “Byzantine message control” is not only wasting time, money and resources, but having a “corrosive” effect on the public service.

He said federal scientists are professionals and the government should trust them to interact with the media and release information that is in the public interest, such as conditions and changes in the Arctic ice.

The government has repeatedly said it is “not muzzling” or silencing scientists, but the federal information commissioner’s office is investigating a complaint filed by Democracy Watch and the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria that the government has been obstructing “the right of the media — and through them, the Canadian public — to timely access to government scientists.” The commissioner’s findings are expected later this year. [more]

Federal government puts polar briefings on ice



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