National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Canada’s House of Commons erupted in wave after wave of standing ovations as MPs feted newly-elected Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday.

But similar enthusiasm for fundamental democratic principles at home is under increasing threat, from social activism to scientific research.

Perhaps the longest and most complete muzzling of freedom of expression has befallen federal government scientists, particularly those working in the areas of the environment and natural resources, in other words, the tar sands.

The tar sands are the Conservatives’ raison d’etre, the Ark of Their Covenant. No one in Ottawa or anywhere else in the federal bureaucracy can be offside the Conservative oil agenda. Most of the scientists are therefore either unable to speak publicly at all or are only allowed to if they are accompanied by “monitors” who vet their every utterance.

Not surprisingly, a government suffering from this degree of paranoia thinks it is not only normal, but necessary to keep close tabs on its citizens’ behaviour. It has sent monitors to track over 800 demonstrations and events since taking office in 2006. The supposed subversive activities requiring this Soviet-style surveillance include a Montreal march and vigil for missing aboriginal women, a public discussion in Toronto on the oil sands, a panel discussion on race relations in Quebec and a workshop in non-violent protest methods in Montreal.

The net of government surveillance gets wider by the day. Pen Canada, a Canadian charity that fights for freedom of expression and represents more than 1,000 writers and supporters, is the latest group to fall victim to what, in a normal democratic government, would be seen as Soviet-style repression – you know, the kind the Ukrainian people hope to throw off under their new president.

Pen Canada has not only spoken out against the muzzling of federal scientists, but has taken on the Conservative government frontally, stating “The federal government’s restrictions on media access to publicly funded scientists have become a serious infringement on the right of freedom of expression in Canada.”

Shortly thereafter, The Globe and Mail reported, federal auditors appeared at Pen Canada’s offices, asking to review internal documents.

Meanwhile, Gareth Kirkby, a former journalist and graduate student at Royal Roads University, reports Canada’s charitable sector has been threatened by federal policies hindering the ability of advocacy groups to carry out their mandate.

Kirkby’s research, which included the anonymous participation of 16 charities currently under audit by Revenue Canada, confirmed charities are self-censoring thanks to the audit threat, placing a strain on their resources.

Not surprisingly, Kirkby found environmental charities advocating on issues relating to the oil and gas industry “seem to be the most heavily targeted.”

Earlier this month, the Toronto Star reported that about 800 public demonstrations and events were observed and reported on by government departments and law enforcement agencies since 2006. Some events were reported by the media, but others were being watched by Canada’s spy agency CRISIS and the RCMP.

Included in the reports in the agency’s possession are a rally by the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Union of Public Employees in May 2012; a panel discussion at Concordia University last September discussing historical colonialism and race relations in Quebec prepared by the RCMP; a rally in Ottawa by the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Union of Public Employees in May 2012; a public discussion in Toronto on the tar sands in Montreal in August 2013 and a workshop in non-violent protest methods in Montreal in October, 2013.

“The government has frozen out and refused to meet with indigenous peoples and environmental groups, yet devotes disproportionate resources to spying on them,” Liberal MP Scott Brison, whose office requested the data from Public Safety, said. “It would be much better to engage these groups meaningfully than to skulk around their meetings to hear what they’re thinking.”

Randall Garrison, the NDP’s public safety critic, says the scope and resources the government is devoting to its surveillance of Canadians not only casts a chill, but is “quite disturbing.”

In June, freelance journalist Mike De Souza gained access to a major survey conducted by Environics Research sponsored by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. It collected dozens of quotes from scientists who believe the Harper government doesn’t know how to use evidence.

They are claiming the government is muzzling them, interfering with their research and ignoring their findings, particularly regarding climate change and unsustainable industrial developments.

Here are some of the scientists’ quotes, published on the blog, Desmog Canada:

“What has been done to environmental legislation and regulatory authority in Canada is the past year is criminal…The public are being grossly misled by government as to the state of the environment, especially the aquatic ecosystems and likely future negative consequences…We are becoming a banana republic when it comes to environmental legislation and regulation. These wholesale changes are being led by ideology and not cost savings or common sense. We are becoming a banana republic.”

“In my 31 years with the federal public service, I have never seen such a systematic dismantling of science capacity. My only hope of ever seeing a scientifically viable and credible public service again is a change in government.”

“…Science disciplines aimed at environmental and human protection have been set aside and ignored…I fear the public does not realize that within 10 years, there will be no one acting in their interests.”

“Government interference is pervasive in our work…muzzling, lack of transparency, abandonment of Canadian environmental values at the expense of the environment and political interference for economic purposes are the defining characteristics of the current government…”

Perhaps the most bizarre act by the Harper government was its decision to inform Oxfam Canada that as a charity it can no longer try to prevent poverty. It can only alleviate poverty.

That’s because, the government apparently believes, preventing poverty might benefit people who are not already poor.

Imagine. They might spend that one dollar they earned above the poverty line to buy themselves a cup of coffee.

If they could find one for sale for that price, that is.


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.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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