Environment Canada scientist Phil Thomas recently texted me a photo of him working in the field. The image shows him gloved, crouched before a strip of bloodied flesh that is hanging from a thin rope. From the top of the creaturely thing protrudes a strange-looking tail.
“What IS this?” I texted back.
“Lmao,” he replied. “Trappers usually bring me their carcasses to skin … I skin them for them. They keep the hide, I keep the tissues. This is an otter … Or was an otter.”
The profundity of this interaction, while not apparent on its head, can’t be overstated.
Here I am, a journalist, chatting freely and casually via text message with a federal scientist about his work.
Two years ago Thomas and I were having what felt like cloak and dagger conversations, entirely off the record and at his occupational peril.
Back in Canada’s Harper days, before the “Great Unmuzzling,” it was next to impossible to conduct a real-deal interview with a federal scientist. The idea of having casual, on-the-record conversations that were entirely un-chaperoned seemed like a fairy tale.
Phil Thomas with what "was an otter." Photo provided by Phil Thomas.
In fact, after Thomas and I first connected in late 2012 about his work testing toxicity levels in fur-bearing mammals in the Alberta oilsands region, we secretly hatched a plan to beat the system.
In a series of confidential phone calls, Thomas coached me on how to approach Environment Canada communications staff and gave me advice for sending in technical questions only he could answer.
Our hope was that it would become clear that Thomas was the only expert who could answer my questions, and that my interview request would be granted.
How wrong we were.
Months after I submitted my interview request, it was officially denied. About one year and two Access to Information requests later, I learned the interview request was sent all the way up to the Privy Council Office and eventually denied at the ministerial level. You can read all about that story, and what the Access to Information documents revealed, here.
So now, well on the other side of a new government that has very different ideas about transparency, Thomas and I are free to talk and discuss his work like … two normal people.
Thomas said the massive change to federal science communications protocols is, strangely enough, hardly noticeable on the ground.
“People are happy they can speak to media, which is important, but in terms of our relationship with management or our work, nothing has really changed,” he said, saying the important research he was doing then, continues on.
“We’re out there doing work with the people.”
Thomas spearheaded a first-ever contaminants monitoring program to determine what effects industrial development, including mining and extraction in the Alberta oilsands, is having on fur-bearing mammals.
Phil Thomas at a makeshift lab in the field. Photo provided by Phil Thomas.
“Contaminants in furbearers have never been done before in Northern Alberta. So I really had no baseline to compare it to,” he said.
“Furbearers have been studied before but never in the context that we’ve studied in Northern Alberta and never for a broad contaminants monitoring program.”
Thomas is working with local trappers and First Nations communities to collect samples of beavers, martens, fishers and other animals for the creation of a national specimen databank.
His work, he said, has really relied on the help and expertise of local stakeholders and especially First Nations.
Together with over 50 trappers from five different communities in Alberta, Thomas has collected over 1700 samples that are examined for hydrocarbons and heavy metals.
Hydrocarbons, he said, are an especially challenging group of compounds to work with.
“The thing with hydrocarbons is they’re metabolized,” he explained. “They have short half lives, they are volatile.”
“They’re activated by your own body into a more toxic form. These intermediary metabolites will bind with DNA and create cancers and tumors and stuff like that.”
Phil Thomas in the field. Photo provided by Phil Thomas.
He said a contaminated tissue sample won’t necessarily contain high levels of hydrocarbons.
“So what you really need to be screening it for is fingerprints,” he said.
“We look at health effects and try to correlate these to residual hydrocarbon signatures in the tissues and hydrocarbon signatures that we’re obtaining from water, sediment, air and stuff like that.”
Thomas said working with the community has strengthened his research.
“We’ve been really good at working on the ground with people and listening to the people and involving them in our decision-making,” he said.
While working in the field, Thomas said locals not only aided his research but fed and housed him. He was invited to stay in homes and remote cabins.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with these guys,” he said.
One of the cabins Phil Thomas stayed in while conducting research. Photo provided by Phil Thomas.
“With all this muzzling I feel like this is the saddest part: all those positive collaborative relationships are not being spoken about.”
The research is “near and dear to a lot of people’s hearts,” he said.
Remote First Nations like the Athabasca Chipewyan, Mikisew Cree and Metis locals live more closely with the land, offering long-term insights into the species that end up in his laboratory in Ottawa.
“For a lot of these First Nations communities I work with like Fort Chipewyan, they’re not serviced by a main highway. They have their ice road in the winter time but for the main part a lot of these First Nations communities are living traditional lifestyles, living of the land.”
Concerns about the safety of consuming animals and water from the region are ever present, he said. “They’re always asking us, is this safe to eat, is this water good to drink?”
“This is where monitoring programs such as this are important because they can provide the context to frame these answers or at least a launching point to address these human consumption issues.”
Many of those questions can’t be answered yet, Thomas said.
“You can look at levels all you want and compare them to guidelines. But more importantly is monitoring these levels, seeing if they’re going up or down. That’s the important question.”
Thomas said he takes his responsibility to the public seriously.
“I’m a scientists but I’m also a public servant,” he said.
“Without sounding too corny, I feel like I answer to the government, my employer, but I work for the taxpayer.”
“What this project has really accomplished is working closely with interested parties and answering common questions that are of concern to these people. And these are legitimate concerns.”