Parks Canada muzzling scientsits

Parks Canada denies it has a problem, despite journalists flagging muzzling concerns

Calling all Parks Canada staff: we want to hear from you

The Narwhal’s investigation into the muzzling of Parks Canada staff has created quite the stir in the month since it was published.

The article — based on nearly a year of research, interviews with 10 Canadian journalists and several sources within Parks Canada — revealed that despite promises by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to unmuzzle government staff, Parks Canada employees continue to be limited in their freedom to speak to the press.

Journalists reported lengthy wait times for interviews, advanced e-mail approval of questions, limited access to experts and denial of field requests. Parks Canada scientists, too, expressed their frustrations with being so heavily managed by media relations staff, confirming they were unable to speak openly about their work.

The story raised such serious concerns that a week after publication, the Society of Environmental Journalists and Canadian Association of Journalists sent a letter to Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and Parks Canada’s incoming interim CEO Michael Nadler.

The letter called for transparency and greater public accountability from Parks Canada, and insisted that journalists be able to speak freely and openly with Parks Canada staff and scientists in a timely manner, whether that be on the phone, in person or in the field.

In response, Nadler agreed to set up a conference call between Parks Canada and members of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A month after the investigation, he also issued a four-page letter in response to the concerns expressed by Canadian journalists.

Nadler’s response largely failed to take responsibility, choosing to refute the investigation rather than acknowledge a problem within Parks Canada.

In the follow-up, on-the-record conference call on October 18, which was intended to be a two-way dialogue with Parks Canada media relations staff, journalists posed a number of questions and commented on their own experiences.

Asked how Parks Canada intended to improve the relationship between Parks Canada and journalists, Nadler responded:

“I think we have a good relationship with journalists. Our level of responsiveness is very, very high. We’ve got a very collegial, positive and constructive relationship with journalists at the local and national level. Over the last two years, under a new government we’ve had the ability to be even more open on science than we were in the past.”

Contrast that with comments from a Parks Canada scientist who described the agency’s media protocol as “embarrassing” and “tragic.” Or with the comments of Ed Struzik, an award-winning environmental journalist and author who’s been covering the Arctic for more than three decades.

“It’s absolutely clear to me that Parks Canada scientists are not free to speak to the press,” Struzik told The Narwhal for the original article.

Parks in the dark

With few constructive remedies being proposed, Emma Gilchrist, editor-in-chief of The Narwhal and member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, stepped in:

“We have lots of environmental issues we need to report on — far more than we ever possibly could. I assure you we are not using our limited resources to write on non-issues. There are more than 10 environmental journalists quoted in this piece. We also have spoken with several scientists from within Parks Canada who can not go on the record, even anonymously, for fear of reprisals about speaking about their work. These are scientists who want to speak about their work and who are continually blocked from doing so. The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it exists, and right now I’m not hearing any acknowledgement that a problem exists within Parks Canada.”

Nadler responded that he didn’t think the data supports what journalists are asserting and added that he suspects Parks Canada media relations numbers are probably better than the other departments.

When asked to address the issues raised by journalists, Nadler said, “I want to underscore that four out of five interviews are interviews with experts or scientists. They aren’t a written response. An interview has been facilitated with an expert at hand. I hope that’s clear.”

This runs counter to the direct testimony of journalists covering Parks Canada, and still doesn’t address whether those questions had to be screened in advance.

Nadler pointed out that Parks Canada scientists are working in applied science, which may make them less accessible than scientists in other departments.

“They aren’t working on bench science. These scientists are often literally on the backside of a mountain introducing new species to an ecological area, or dealing with a survey, or gathering data, or even working with our firefighters to manage the risk to ecology. They are not as accessible as a bench scientist will be in some other federal institutions.”

However, journalists’ experience indicate that logistics are often not the barrier to gaining access to Parks Canada scientists. For instance, while in the Banff townsite in 2017, I ran into a Parks Canada staff member who said they would have been more than happy to provide a ride-along, but that the higher-ups would not allow it. My request for access was denied.

Ultimately, The Narwhal stands by its investigation, and the journalists and scientists who shared their experiences with us. A number of scientists have reached out to us in the past few weeks, and we would love to speak to more Parks Canada staff for a follow-up article.

We recommend reaching out to us from a personal device, using a personal e-mail address. Your comments are extremely valuable, even if you appear anonymous in our coverage. We treat all contact with sources who wish to remain anonymous as confidential.

You can contact us at editor@thenarwhal.ca to share your experiences and perspectives. Hopefully you’re not on the backside of a mountain.

Gloria Dickie is a freelance journalist who covers science and the environment, with a focus on climate change, human-wildlife conflict,…

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