Environment Canada

Environment Canada

What Happened

Beginning in 2006, the Harper government eliminated funding to a number of climate change and environmental programs. Cuts to Environment Canada’s budgets and staff have continued through 2013, with a large number of jobs being eliminated in the 2011 budget. These cuts have significantly impacted Environment Canada’s research and knowledge production capacity. Critics have pointed to a reduction in information available to both legislators and the public about environmental issues as well as an increasing lack of qualified staff to perform specialized technical and scientific functions.

In 2007, the Harper government implemented a new media relations policy that prevents Environment Canada scientists from speaking freely with the media, unless they obtain clearance from the Ministry of Environment. When clearance is granted, it is often too late for the information to remain of interest to the press. The public only learned of this protocol after an anonymous Environment Canada employee leaked it.

In the 2012 Budget, the Harper government announced sweeping changes to environmental regulations.


Budget Cuts, Job and Program Reductions and Eliminations

Since 2006, when the Harper government took power, Environment Canada has faced significant budget cuts and program eliminations. While most departments have been affected, the cuts and job losses appear to have particularly impacted programs and research related to climate change and industrial pollution. The public will feel the impact of these cuts both directly through service reductions and decreased access to information and indirectly through their impact on the quality of government decision-making on critical environmental issues.

The 2013-2014 Environment Canada Report on Plans and Priorities projects a spending decrease of 22.2% from 1,087.1 billion to 846 million in 2014/15. The Report specifically projects reductions of over $46 million to climate change and clean air programs and $36.5 million to Substances and Waste Management in 2015-2016 from actual spending in 2010-11. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the largest union representing scientists and professionals employed by the government of Canada, estimates that Environment Canada’s science budget was the hardest hit by budget cuts between 2008 and 2013, with reductions of $125 million, or 17.5% (p.2).

According to the figures provided in the 2010-2011 and the 2011-2012 Reports, 935 full time equivalent jobs at Environment Canada were eliminated between 2010 and 2012. The significant 2011-2012 cuts were primarily focused on the Substance and Waste Management and Climate Change and Clean Air programs with 279 and 422 positions eliminated respectively in those years. The 2013-2014 Report projects a net loss in 2015-2016 of 271 and 200 full-time equivalent positions in each area, as compared to 2010 levels.

Former Environment Canada scientists have expressed concern that job cuts to science positions are masked by re-assignments or retirements and therefore the actual reductions are difficult to confirm. For example, Michael Arts, a research scientist who worked at the Centre for Inland Waters in Hamilton for 22 years, told CBC that while official documents cite the reason for his departure as mandatory retirement, his position was in fact “surplussed,” and he quit after learning that his research would no longer be directly funded.

Internal Environment Canada documents obtained by Postmedia through access to information detail the 2012 budget and employee reduction processes. These documents confirm that the Water Resources Strategies Section was eliminated and the Environmental Emergency Program was dramatically reduced, consolidating six regional offices into only two.  These offices were originally established to co-ordinate emergency responses and to provide technical advice. According to the Globe and Mail, the regional offices collectively responded to more than 1,000 significant spills annually.

The documents also confirm cuts to the Waste Reduction and Management Division and the Ecosystem and Biodiversity Division and notes that all research on methods for measuring industrial emissions and urban wastewater would stop in 2012. In addition, all funding for the United Nations Environment Program’s Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS) Water Program was cut. Environment Canada had hosted the monitoring program since its inception in 1978.

The documents reveal that communications staff played a key role in making decisions about program and job cuts, including the preparation of “Public Profile Risk Assessments,” which “identified and gauged the reaction of various stakeholders…and provided mitigation strategies to potential negative reactions including key messages and media lines.” Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of Public Service of Canada, criticized the decision making process: “It’s wrong for communications people to be involved in deciding what decisions to make. Communications people are there to communicate the decisions after they’re made. It seems the government is just being political rather than (doing) what’s in the best interests of Canadians.”

In 2013, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada conducted a study of Canadian government scientists, as well as a public opinion survey, resulting in the Big Chill report and the Vanishing Science report, both on the impact of federal government cuts and policy changes on public science capacity. According to the survey of scientists, a majority (63%) of Environment Canada scientists do not believe that their Department is incorporating the best climate change science into its policies, resource predictions and management decisions (p. 17). The public opinion survey also found that a majority of Canadians (69%) believe cuts to federal science spending will have a negative impact of the government’s ability to serve the public interest.

The Big Chill report notes that 71% of federal scientists agree that Canada’s ability to develop laws, policy and programs based on science has been compromised (p. 4), the Vanishing Science report notes that 94% believe the recent cuts have had a negative impact on science capacity and 78% reported cuts to capacity in their own departments (p. 5). The Big Chill report cites one respondent as follows: “The current federal government has gutted environmental legislation and is muzzling federal public scientists, which has the potential to put the health and safety of Canadians and the environment at risk. I am extremely concerned about the approach of the current government towards science and transparency. The public service can no longer provide the best service possible for Canadians under the current government” (p. 5).

Specific closures and program eliminations demonstrate a decreased capacity for knowledge production, particularly scientific research and knowledge related to climate change and industrial pollution. Reductions in technical and enforcement expertise is also resulting in limited capacity to enforce existing regulatory regimes and interpret information gathered by remaining research units. Many of the research programs and units eliminated or downsized had recently contributed to groundbreaking research about climate change or the impact of industrial pollution on the natural environment prior to the cuts.

The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences

In March 2010, Dawn Conway, the executive director of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, warned that “Without new government commitment, many of the climate researchers under the foundation will be forced to put away their equipment and close their doors by the end of the calendar year.” In response, the office of then Environment Minister Jim Prentice stated that the government remained committed to basic climate change research. In 2012, the Foundation's mandate ended and its funds were exhausted. By late 2011, 197 of 198 related research networks and projects were shut down (CFCAS Annual report at 9) and the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), which collects data on climate change in the far north and was partially shut down in 2012. While PEARL’s funding was partially re-established after an international outcry, the lab lost key staff and as of January 2014 was in “recovery mode”. Since April 30, 2012, PEARL has no longer operated with year round staff and critical seasonal data was lost during the shut down. A successor organization to CFCAS, the Canadian Climate Foundation (CCF), has been established following a 2011 consultant report that recommended the formation of a "renewed climate science organization that fits the current Canadian research and policy landscape" (CFCAS Annual report at 4). The CCF has no significant research funding mandate. As of July 2014, the website described the CCF’s role as translating “evidence and innovate practices into options for policy, programmes and tools to benefit Canada’s economy and its citizens.”

Ozone Research and Monitoring

In September 2011, the British journal Nature reported the expected closure of five of Environment Canada’s Arctic ozone monitoring and research unit stations and databases. At that time, the network consisted of 17 stations stretching from London, Ontario to the high Arctic. According to Nature, the network provided about one-third of Arctic ozone measurements internationally and housed a unique record of atmospheric ozone measurements stretching back to 1966. A group of American scientists published a paper on the closures in Eos, the newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, a scientific organization representing 61,000 earth and space scientists around the world. The authors expressed concerns that “research and observations related to ozone depletion, tropospheric pollution, and atmospheric transport of toxic chemicals in the northern latitudes may be seriously imperiled by the budget cuts that led to these job terminations.”

In December 2011, Karen Dodd, Assistant Deputy Minister to Peter Kent, then Environment Minister, told the House of Commons Environment Committee that only two Arctic ozone monitoring stations would be cut. In spite of this affirmation, as of June 2014, the Environment Canada’s Ozone and Ultraviolet Research and Monitoring website informs that only 12 sites in the network remain, which implies that all five stations were closed.

Environment Canada has also hosted the World Ozone and Ultraviolet Radiation Data Centre since 1962. The Centre, which is part of the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Atmosphere Watch programme, is a scientific archive and database of world ozone and UV levels used by atmospheric scientists around the world. In September 2011, Environment Canada revealed staffing changes that were strongly criticized by the international scientific community as jeopardizing the quality of data. In September 2012, Dr. Catharine Banic, executive director of Environment Canada’s air quality research division, stated that while Environment Canada still hosts the Centre, management had shifted from atmospheric scientists to an information technology team. Canadian atmospheric researcher and Associate Professor at Dalhousie University, Tom Duck expressed concern that critical ozone measurements would be compromised without appropriate scientific oversight in the new management structure.

In September 2011, Professor Duck reported that the ozone research cuts were “devastating for the whole field,” and reported that he had already lost most of his research group because he could no longer pay them. German Scientist Markus Rex, of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, stated that the “Withdrawal of Canada will do major harm to international efforts in Arctic ozone research and such a bold step jeopardizes Canada’s reputation as a reliable partner in international programs.” Rex further noted that the cuts also undermine Canada’s obligations under the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement under which Arctic countries are obligated to monitor the ozone and conduct scientific ozone research. On October 2, 2011, shortly after the cuts were announced, Nature published a study based on Environment Canada measurements showing a record hole in the ozone over the Arctic. In October 2012, Professor Duck told the Guardian that Environment Canada’s ozone group no longer exists and all staff had been reassigned.

Ice Core Research Laboratory

In September 2011, the National Post reported the federal government’s plan to shut down the Ice Core Research Laboratory, an archive of over 1000 meters of Canadian ice cores hosted by the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). GSC glaciologist Christian Zdanowicz appealed to scientists across Canada to find a new home for the collection, explaining that he expected “strategic budget compressions within Natural Resources Canada” to lead to a “radical downsizing” of the laboratory in 2011-2012.

GSC northern Canada division director David Scott denied the plans to shut down the laboratory, but he also stated that ice core extraction and paleoclimate research was no longer a priority. In December 2011, Macleans reported that the laboratory’s home in Ottawa would be sold. GSC acting director general Donna Kirkwood told Macleans, “We would want to keep it in Canada, if possible; that would be our preferred outcome. We realize it is an important collection.” Reports of the shut down coincided with the November 2011 publication of a groundbreaking study by Canadian scientists who used the ice core collection to trace sea ice levels from AD 561 to 1995. The study concluded that recent sea ices levels have dropped below levels seen in the past 1,400-1,500 years.  These findings would appear to support the evidence that climate change is a pressing problem.

Smokestack Team

In June 2012, Postmedia reported that a team of “smokestack” specialists at Environment Canada was slated for elimination and their research and expertise would be replaced by data from external sources. According to the Union of Environment Workers, these scientists played a key role in providing technical support and guidance for the enforcement of standards and regulations for industrial emissions. The Union also expressed concern that some job functions were being reassigned without consultation with current employees.

In his response, Paul Boothe, the Deputy Minister for then Environment Minister Peter Kent wrote that Canada would now rely on “alternative sources of method development and information, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency.”  The Environment Canada website described the scientists in question as providing scientific and technical support to regulatory programs, measurement of emissions, researching and assessing technologies, development of testing methodologies, and enforcement and compliance activities.  However, in apparent contradiction to the website, Mr. Boothe, stated that the unit was “not responsible for developing emissions limits, conducting emissions monitoring, or for any enforcement or compliance testing” and that their work was limited to developing and evaluating methods for analysis and testing. Todd Panas, president of the Union, contradicted Mr. Booth’s statement, stating that the team is involved in monitoring and field measurements and described their expertise as unique.

In 2013, Postmedia obtained internal emails from environmental enforcement officers expressing concern that the regulation of cancer-causing toxins could not be enforced without the “smokestack” team’s expertise. The emails noted that the enforcement branch did not have the expertise to assess the test reports from industry and private consulting firms.  Air quality specialist and Associate Professor of engineering at University of Guelph, Bill Van Heyst, stated that the emails indicate the enforcement branch is overwhelmed and that without the smokestack testing team: “There’s no technical ability … to assess these stack testing protocols, the stack testing methodologies and more importantly the stack testing results and what they mean in terms of compliance.”

Media Policy

Between November 2007 and February 2008, the Harper government implemented a new media policy governing how scientists interact with the press. An internal PowerPoint presentation, leaked to the press, explained the new protocol to Environment Canada employees. The new policy required scientists to alert both their supervisor and a media relations officer when the press contacts them and the national media relations headquarters in Ottawa now coordinates all media calls. According to the PowerPoint, should an interview be granted, scientists are required to “respond with approved lines”. In a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, senior Postmedia science journalist Margaret Munro noted that the Canadian government employed 4,459 information officers, media handlers and strategists to implement the policy.

The policy was further described by Environment Canada briefing notes obtained in 2012 by Democracy Watch through Access to Information requests. With the exception of requests for weather information, all media requests require consultation with the Minister’s office. A media relations officer provides the Minister’s office with a proposed response and recommends whether an interview will be granted or a written response will be provided. Media requests on policy questions, “especially those related to climate change, wildlife, water quality and supply” and those “on the process or proposed process to protect species such as the polar bear and the caribou”, as well as calls from Press Gallery affiliated reporters and major news outlets require approval from the Privy Council Office.

Media Policy Prevents or Slows Access to Information

Media coverage regarding climate change dropped by over 80% between 2007, when the media policy was implemented, and 2010, according to an Environment Canada report.

The 2013 Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada Big Chill report found that 90% of federal scientists do not feel that they can speak freely to the media about their work (p. 2). A majority of scientists surveyed (74%) believe that dissemination of government science to the public has become too restricted in the past five years (p .3).

One scientist commented, “[M]edia policy is slow, involves ‘minders’ to listen to interviews supposedly to keep the scientist from being taken out of context …” The scientist continued, “I had never seen or heard of such policy in all my [20] years with govt. I also was unaware of any EC scientist that had been taken out of context or misquoted by media, so I don’t believe that is a reason to have ‘minders’ on media interviews.… Now, managers decide … the appropriate contact for the specific topic; the process of waiting for approval is slow (days), and onerous (lots of email, phone calls)….” (p. 5).

The Big Chill report found that 50% of federal scientists are aware of situations in which political interference has compromised health, safety or environmental sustainability (p. 6). The survey data revealed that 59% of Environment Canada scientists were aware of cases in which information was suppressed or not released and that this led to inaccurate, incomplete or misleading public impressions (p. 10).  Further, scientists at the department were among the most likely to report being asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons (p. 7). Finally, 53% of Environment Canada scientists do not feel free to share their work with the public (p. 8) and 86% disagree with the involvement of the Privy Council Office with media requests (p. 18).

Media Policy Frustrates and Censors Scientists

In 2010 La Presse reported on internal Environment Canada documents revealing that scientists have “lost confidence in the system, which according to them, does not correspond to the media’s needs.” Many scientists therefore hesitate to give interviews to avoid the bureaucratic red tape. The Ottawa Citizen reported that the documents state, “Our scientists are very frustrated with the new process. They feel the intent of the policy is to prevent them from speaking to the media.”

The media policy has also restricted the conduct of Environment Canada researchers at international scientific conferences. The Vanishing Science report found that a majority of federal scientists are concerned about the fairness, transparency and timeliness of approval processes for attendance at conferences, courses and other events related to their work (p. 7).

Postmedia obtained internal documents through an access to information request confirming that a team of researchers led by Environment Canada scientist Jane Kirk presented a study at the 2011 North American Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference in Boston. The researchers concluded that toxic contaminants are found in snow within 50 kilometers of the oil sands operations. The documents show that researchers were discouraged from talking to the media, were provided with scripted answers and were directed to refer requests to media relations. The research is part of the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oilsands Monitoring.

This research was presented again in November 2012 at the North American Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference in California alongside two other Environment Canada studies confirming contamination in the area surrounding oil sands development in Alberta. Media interviews with the scientists were only granted after Postmedia News obtained documents detailing scripted media answers about the reports to be presented. The internal Environment Canada document states that the studies confirm earlier findings of oil sands related contamination by University of Alberta scientists. However, the scripted answers emphasized that no link between contaminants and fish health was established by the study and that the substances found are “typical of development, not just oil sands development …they will be found to some extent even in snow in cities with no heavy industry.” The script also suggests that scientists answer several questions, including one regarding Environment Canada’s “lax environmental protection stance” by stating, “I am a scientist. I’m not in a position to answer that question but I’d be happy to refer you to an appropriate spokesperson.”

Citing the research presented at the California conference, a recent independent study by scientists at the University of Toronto concluded that official reporting of oil sands pollution has underestimated emissions and the associated environmental and health risks for humans and wildlife.

In 2012, Postmedia news reported that government “media minders” would be shadowing scientists at the International Polar Year conference in Montréal to monitor and record what they said to reporters. Environment Canada researchers were given instructions for dealing with the media in an email memo written a senior communications advisor with the department. They were instructed to ask the journalist for a business card and “tell them you will get back to them with a time” and advised that the media relations officer would be present during any interview “to assist and record”. Mark Johnson, an Environment Canada spokesman, called the plan “standard practice”. One senior scientists spoke to Postmedia off the record for fear of repercussions, calling the government’s approach “enormously embarrassing” to Canada, especially since Canada was the host of the conference.

Media Policy Frustrates Journalists

Margaret Munro described the experience of many journalists in an interview with the Vancouver Observer: “All of a sudden, when you phoned an Environment Canada scientist they’d either not call you back, or they’d say: ‘I can’t talk to you now, you have to go through Ottawa. We’ve had a change of policy’. Invariably, you’d end up in the hands of media handlers in Ottawa who would phone you back, or send you an email.” Munro told the Observer that journalists were asked to submit their questions in writing and then media relations would respond: “They’d get back to you and often give you approved lines, or scripted lines, that you could use.” She also expressed concerns about the timeliness of Environment Canada’s response to media inquiries: “While university and U.S. researchers are usually quick to respond to media calls, phoning and emailing back within minutes, or hours to do interviews. It can take days for government agencies to decide whether a researcher will even be allowed to give an interview.”

While delays have restricted media access to scientists for time-sensitive stories, in some instances press interviews have been refused outright. In April 2011, an Environment Canada team published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters concluding that a 2 degree C increase in global temperatures may be unavoidable by 2100 without bringing greenhouse gas emissions “down to zero immediately”. No interviews were granted by the Environment Canada’s media office.

Critique of the Federal Media Policy for Scientists

In June 2008, frustrated scientists attended a large conference in Toronto to voice their discontent at the new media protocol.

Many scientists believe that the media relations policy reflects the Harper government's fear of climate change research being exposed. "I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don't discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is", said Professor Thomas Pederson from the University of Victoria.

In April 2011, major Canadian organizations for science and journalism harshly criticized environment Minister Peter Kent in relation to the media relations policy: "Would the Peter Kent whose work on the challenges found in American inner cities and who was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, not be telling his colleagues in the cabinet that a free press is one of the foundations of a democracy, and freedom means that Canadian scientists must be free to talk to Canadian journalists?"

In 2012, the Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec, Association science et bien commun, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Canadian Science Writers’ Association, The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and, the World Federation of Science Journalists sent an open letter to Prime Minister Harper asking for timely and open access to federally funded scientists.

Government Justification of Media Policy for Scientists

The Harper government has stated that its goal is not to silence scientists, but rather to create a uniform media position across Canada. “Just as we have ‘one department, one website’ we should have ‘one department, one voice’,” states the PowerPoint presentation given to Environment Canada employees. Gregory Jack, acting director of Environment Canada’s ministerial and executive services, further commented that “the policy is meant to bring Environment Canada in line with other federal departments.”

 

Relevant Dates:

  • 2007-2008: The Harper government implements a new media relations policy, limiting free communication between the press and Environment Canada scientists.
  • 2008: Scientists begin to receive clearance to speak with the media too late for coverage of everything from ancient floods to mars missions to climate change. Scientists and journalists express frustration at the policy.
  • 2007-2010: Media coverage on climate change drops by 80%.
  • 2010: The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and its 12 related research networks shut down after receiving no new funding since 2006.
  • 2011: Five of 17 ozone monitoring sites in Environment Canada’s Ozone and Ultraviolet Research and Monitoring program are shut down and Canada’s ozone research budget is dramatically cut and the research staff are reassigned
  • October 2011: A study based on Environment Canada data is published in Nature showing a record hole over the ozone in the Arctic
  • 2011: Environment Canada shifts staffing of the World Ozone and Ultraviolet Radiation Data Centre, which it has hosted since 1962, from atmospheric scientists to an information technology team
  • September 2011: Environment Canada plans to shut down the Ice Core Research Laboratory
  • November 2011: Canadian scientists publish a groundbreaking study based on the ice core collection concluding that recent sea ice levels have dropped below levels seen in the past 1,400-1,500 years
  • April 2011: Major science and journalism organizations harshly criticize Environment Minister Peter Kent for abandoning the principles of free speech that he once lauded as a journalist.
  • 2011-2013: Environment Canada faces significant budget cuts and the elimination of jobs and programs. After the funding program managed by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences is terminated, 197 of 198 related research networks and projects are shut down.
  • 2012: Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory partially shuts down.
  • June 2012: Environment Canada eliminates the specialized smokestack team charged with evaluating industry reports on contamination levels and regulatory compliance.
  • 2013:  Internal emails from environmental enforcement officers express concern that the regulation of cancer-causing toxins cannot be enforced without the “smokestack” team’s expertise.

Role or Position

Environment Canada is the department of the government of Canada responsible for programs and policies related to environmental protection, natural heritage conservation, and the provision of weather and meteorological services. It employs 6,800 people, including scientists in fields such as biology, climatology, engineering, chemistry, meteorology and environmental science.

Implications and Consequences

  • Democratic Debate: Cuts to, and elimination of, research facilities and programs, together with the shift of technical and specialized responsibilities to non-scientific staff programs diminish the quality of knowledge available to elected representatives and to the public. This lack of information about threats to human and ecological health diminishes the quality of environmental policy and decision-making and has a negative impact on the services and recourse available to the public in determining the appropriate responses to environmental issues. In particular, the elimination of research and programs has limited the ability of the public to debate and make informed judgments about climate change and industrial pollution.
  • Democratic Debate: The federal media policy includes a series of procedures and oversights that cumulatively impair scientists’ ability to discuss their research directly and openly with the media and the public. This restricts the ability of Canadians to be informed about scientific research and environmental and climate change issues. As such, it limits both the public’s ability to hold Canada’s elected representatives to account for policy decisions that impact the environment and to meaningfully and effectively participate in environmental decision making processes. Since the media policy was implemented, the Harper government has been accused of numerous attempts to prevent public debate on environmental issues. See, for instance, the cases of Kairos, the Sierra Club of BC, and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, as well as the ongoing audit of five major environmental organizations.
  • Free Speech: The federal media policy requires in some cases that scientists obtain Ministerial or Privy Council Office approval before speaking to the media.  There are several known instances where this approval was denied and Environment Canada scientists were prevented from discuss their research and findings with the media.  When this happens, the mandate of federally funded scientists to pursue scientific research in the public interest and inform the Canadian public about important scientific knowledge and environmental issues is jeopardized.
  • Free Speech: The federal media policy has restricted the ability of scientists to communicate concerns about public health, safety, and the environment without fear of censure or reprisal.
  • Transparency & Accountability: Civil servants, including scientists, are paid by the public to provide information and services that benefit the public and inform sound policy. The loss of access to information about the findings of publicly funded research reduces transparency and accountability in government decision-making.

Photo: One Blue Marble

Date published: 12 April 2012

Date updated: 29 July 2014

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