ELECTION FEATURE by Paul Dechene
“I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.” ― Dante Alighieri, Inferno
Prairie Dog ran an article in 2012 on the imminent closure of the Experimental Lakes Area in Northern Ontario. It’s a world-renowned research station where scientists conduct tests in a natural environment. The federal government was defunding it, planning to sell off its facilities and setting a guard on the road leading in to keep those pesky environmental scientists out.
This was one year into Harper’s majority government.
The ELA was eventually saved thanks to the intervention of the Ontario Government and the International Institute for Sustainable Development. But at the time, stories about government scientists being ordered not to speak to the press or share their work with their peers were becoming quite common. The phrase, “Harper’s war on science” was starting to spread.
As part of that piece, I spoke to Andrew Weaver, then a professor at the University of Victoria. He’s one of Canada’s foremost climate scientists and is now also the Green Party MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head in British Columbia. I asked him about the kind of damage Harper was doing to government science in this country:
“It’s a bit of a ‘last one turn out the lights’ situation happening,” he said at the time. “There’s some people who’re losing their jobs. And there are some people who are getting out while the going is good. And it’s really not a good situation for Canadian society because it creates a stratification whereby you have those who are willy-nilly making decisions — and who cares what the ramifications of those decisions are, there’s no monitoring in place.”
The situation seemed pretty dire back then. It’s only gotten worse.
Turns out, Harper wasn’t just shutting down or defunding dozens of science facilities and programs — a hit list conspicuously heavy on the environmental sciences — he was also cutting a swath of destruction through Library and Archives Canada’s system of government libraries: closing their buildings, laying off their expert staff, subcontracting out their services to for-profit corporations and destroying their materials.
The Harper government was literally burning books.
And it was doing so with wanton disregard for the law. For instance, it ordered the RCMP to destroy the long gun registry data even though that data was subject to an Access To Information request. And just as the information commissioner was about to lay charges against the RCMP for this, Harper slipped a law into an omnibus budget bill retroactively making the gun registry data immune to Access to Information laws, thus absolving the RCMP of any wrongdoing.
It’s a dangerous precedent that will make it easier for the Harper government to retroactively revise any law it finds inconvenient.
But most egregious of all, Harper ended the Long Form Census and replaced it with the voluntary National Household Survey which, with response rates under 70 per cent, is considered by most statisticians to be so unreliable it’s all but useless.
Muzzled scientists, closed research facilities, a library system under siege and a statistically irrelevant census. This wasn’t just an assault on science that might produce results inconvenient to the oil industry or the resource extraction sector. This was an attack on information itself.
Maclean’s published a report on the Harper government’s war on data last month titled “Vanishing Canada”. It’s an essential read in the lead-up to the election as it’s one of the most thorough examinations of how, even if Harper loses on Oct. 19, he will leave behind a public service that has had its institutional memory lobotomized.
The author, Anne Kingston, notes how by effectively killing the Long Form Census, Harper’s government has destroyed one of the foremost research tools in the country and broke a 75-year chain of data that revealed much about how the country has grown and changed. She also notes how the new voluntary survey will skew the data itself. Poor families, immigrants, rural and aboriginal communities are the least likely to participate in the National Household Survey, and as a result they’ll wind up being under represented when the responses are tallied up.
That’s a disaster for government departments and NGOs hoping to use that information to design policies and programs to help these people.
But for the government? Once you start erasing those groups from your data, it becomes easy to pretend you’re an administration that’s expanding the middle class and ending poverty.
Of course, the Harper government claims the war on data isn’t happening, despite ample and convincing evidence to the contrary. They say that theirs is the most open and honest government in history.
And they can say whatever they want because in wake of this engineered amnesia, this annihilation of Canada’s information heritage, all that remains are guesses and fantasy, and the fictions deployed by Harper’s spin doctors and propagandists will stand alone, uncontested, because there’s so little left to check them against.