When Hugo Chavez died last week, Stephen Harper said, “At this key juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” Mr. Harper likes to lecture the world on the meaning of democracy.
But the Toronto Star reports that, among the world's scientists, Canada's lectures ring hollow. They know that when it comes to freedom of speech -- one of the cornerstones of democracy -- Canada is full of hot air:
But one researcher with well over a decade of experience in the civil service, who asked to remain anonymous because he said both management and his union have told him he could face penalties for speaking out publicly, called the situation “absolutely embarrassing.”
“All of my colleagues around the world know about this, and they simply can’t understand what is going on in Canada,” the scientist said.
And the people who populate our newsrooms also know what is going on:
Newsrooms nationwide are familiar with the unusual restrictions Canadian government scientists face when attempting to communicate their work.
For a story last December on how climate change is affecting the Arctic and Antarctic, The Star contacted scientists at NASA, Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada.Emails to the U.S. government scientists were personally returned, usually the same day and with offers to talk in person or by phone.
Emails sent to Canadian government scientists led to apologetic responses that the request would have to be routed through public relations officials. Public relations staff asked for a list of questions in advance, and then set boundaries for what subjects the interview could touch upon. Approval to interview the scientists was given days later. In all cases, a PR staffer asked to listen in on the interviews.
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is about to take up the issue. Like Kevin Page, the retiring Parliaamentary Budget Officer, she will probably get no cooperation from the Harper government. But this story has moved beyond Canada. And you can bet there are sources outside this country who will give Legault and earful.
The rest of the world is beginning to cotton on to how things work in The Land of the Muzzled.