“Over the last few years, the government of Canada – led by Stephen Harper – has made it harder and harder for publicly-financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists,” said a New York Times editorial Sept. 21, 2013 entitled Silencing Scientists.
“It began badly enough in 2008 when scientists working for Environment Canada…were told to refer all queries to departmental communications officers. Now the government is doing all it can to monitor and restrict the flow of scientific information, especially concerning research into climate change, fisheries and anything to do with the Alberta tar sands…Journalists find themselves unable to reach government scientists; the scientists themselves have organized public protests.
“This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance. It is also designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush – the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences. The Harper policy seems designed to make sure that the tar sands project proceeds quietly, with no surprises, no bad news, no alarms from government scientists.”
Concludes the editorial: “To all the other kinds of pollution the tar sands will yield, we must now add another: the degradation of vital streams of research and information.”
Imagine a First-World nation blessed with the longest coastline in the world deliberately destroying all but two of its nine fisheries, ocean and environmental libraries. In a recent article in the B.C. newspaper The Tyee, award-winning journalist and author Andrew Nikiforuk says the Harper government’s library closures have been “so chaotic that irreplaceable collections of intellectual capital built by Canadian taxpayers for future generations has been lost forever.”
The government claims it is digitizing the libraries. But collections including the Maurice Lamontagne Institute Library in Mount Joli, Quebec have ended up in dumpsters while others, such as the now-defunct Eric Marshall Aquatic Research Library at the federal Freshwater Institute at the University of Manitoba are being scavenged by citizens, scientists and local environmental consultants. Many more have simply been burned or sent to landfills without being digitized.
There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Recently, a scientist took a series of pictures at the Freshwater Institute Library revealing utter devastation – row upon row of empty shelves and the remaining books and reports strewn haphazardly on half-empty shelves.
Many of the destroyed or to be destroyed items are what is called “grey” literature – successive reports over decades by scientists tracking environmental changes to Canada’s lakes, rivers and streams.
Last April, Dalhousie University’s environmental department highlighted the importance of grey literature, especially in aquatic science, and warned against “leaving the fate of much irreplaceable grey literature such as historical and archival materials – expedition reports, annual reports, various working group reports, diaries, etc. – in doubt…
“The important role libraries play in research institutions cannot simply be replaced by the rapid developments in digital communication of the past two decades,” Dalhousie’s release continued. “Not only have libraries assembled collections of important materials that are unlikely to ever be digitized …they are increasingly taking on a substantially enhanced role as repositories for rapidly growing scientific data files and research documentation that warrant full public access for the advancement of scientific discovery and application.”
The Harper government appears determined to expunge from the public record anything that impedes its Holy Grail of digging out the last grain of tar sand. Dalhousie University biologist Jeff Hutchings and renowned University of Alberta limnologist David Schindler, among others, have compared the government’s actions to Hitler’s book burnings, saying it carries more than just a whiff of fascism’s hallmark: the complete alignment of state and corporate interests.
The Freshwater Institute Library is no longer staffed and the public is free to walk in and take whatever they want of the ransacked books, grey literature and periodicals strewn about on the shelves or the floor.
According to one scientist, several private sector companies have been seen driving up in trucks and helping themselves to the library’s contents.
Another worries “there is ambiguity between DFO and EC on matters of managing fresh water quality and productivity and ambiguity between DFO and the provinces over responsibility for freshwater fish.” Ottawa appears simply to be sacrificing Canada’s fresh water fisheries to the imperatives of the oil industry.
There is a rising chorus of scientists condemning the destruction of grey literature. “Most of the books that have been moved are available,” says one. “It’s the gray literature that is impossible to reproduce without spending tens of millions of dollars all over again to send people out and make those measurements. In some cases, it simply can’t be replaced because the measures were taken 30, 35 or 40 years ago,” he says.
“In many cases, the only place that literature exists is in that library,” he continues. “Books were printed and there are multiple copies all over the world. But the grey literature, those reports were done largely by scientists at the Freshwater Institute…and the only copies exist on the shelves of that library.”
Not only is the Canadian public losing over a century of critical baseline environmental data, but scientists have lost the core of their research operations.
Among the vital collections now lost forever is research into aquatic systems, fish stocks and fisheries carried out in the 1800s and early l900s.
A researcher in Manitoba Wildlands spent two days at the Freshwater Institute Library trying to salvage maps from the 1900s and wildlife data from the 1920s.
Retired University of Manitoba Freshwater Institute aquatic biologist Alex Salki says it’s hard to know what is happening. “Is it an attack on science in general, or environmental science, or the excuse of digitization? It’s probably a combination of all those things. But certainly, the (government’s) emphasis is being placed in the north.
“That’s where all the resource extraction will be.”
Apparently, Canada’s magnificent freshwater heritage is now expendable in the ever-more-frantic chase for oil. Are the oceans next, particularly, the oil and gas rich Arctic?
“This is the latest in the methodical destruction of fisheries and marine ecosystem intellectual resources,” says Janice Harvey, the Green Party’s fisheries critic. She notes that to date, the Harper government has already shut down an additional 12 library systems, serving departments ranging from Natural Resources to Parks Canada.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.