Park in the Dark

Parks in the dark

Investigation reveals publicly funded Parks Canada staff and scientists are still not free to speak to the media

When Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government assumed office in November 2015, it came with promises of overturning Stephen Harper’s regressive, nine-year media regime which prevented many of the nation’s scientists from speaking with the press, often regarding hot-button environmental issues like climate change.

Some of the hardest hit by Harper’s policies had seemingly been Parks Canada employees.

In 2012, staff received letters warning they were not allowed to criticize the agency or the federal government amid job cuts. In 2014, a new policy forbade Parks Canada employees from speaking to the media without approval and required all requests for information to go through the national office.

And in the months leading up to the federal election, Parks Canada employees were even muzzled on operational issues, such as bear deaths, rescue operations or wolves in the townsite of Banff National Park.

On November 6, 2015, two days after the Trudeau government took office, Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, openly stated that “government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public.”

But nearly three years later, Parks Canada staff and scientists report significant freedom of information issues remain under Trudeau’s government.

Journalists say they continue to experience absurdly long wait times for media requests; are required to e-mail interview questions ahead of time for prior approval; and are frequently denied access to accompany employees on field operations. Many of these factors have ultimately led to media outlets killing stories about Parks Canada due to their non-compliance.

After Harper, Parks Canada staff thought things could only get better. But “if anything, it’s gotten worse,” one Banff National Park employee told me.

The Narwhal spoke with 10 environmental journalists across Canada for this investigation. Every journalist reported facing significant challenges with Parks Canada since Trudeau’s Liberal government came to power.

Requests for field access denied

Last summer, I arrived at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity to work on a feature regarding grizzly bear deaths on the railroad, and the efforts of Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway to address the issue. This was meant to be a follow-up to some reporting I had done back in fall 2014, under the Harper government, when Banff and Lake Louise-Yoho-Kootenay media relations staff facilitated the opportunity to shadow scientists, engineers and human-wildlife conflict specialists on how they were addressing issues with bears in the parks. But this time, my requests for field access were denied.

First, media relations responded that staff were too busy. When I pressed further, I received another reason. “Thanks for your interest in bear/human management in Banff National Park. Unfortunately, at this time we are unable to accommodate shadowing of our resource conservation staff for the safety of wildlife, staff and media,” wrote Christie Thomson, the public relations officer for Banff Field Unit, after several e-mails in which I explained the work I had done prior and what I was looking for.

This was in marked contrast to my previous experience. Something felt off.

As a science and environmental journalist, I routinely report on environmental issues in the United States and Canada. This requires dealing with several federal agencies on both sides of the border, including the U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Environmental Protection Agency. In Canada, I report on the work done by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Department of Ocean and Fisheries. It’s fair to say that Parks Canada has been far and above the most difficult agency to access.

After my own troubling experience, I began asking around the town of Banff where I heard the same thing again and again from local reporters. It quickly became clear that this was now the status-quo for the mountain parks of Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay.

Colette Derworiz, who spent four years working as the environment reporter for the Calgary Herald, departed the paper a year into Trudeau’s administration, but recalled still facing issues as of November 2016.

“[Press access] has improved on some fronts, but there are still challenges with speaking to Parks Canada scientists in a timely manner,” Derworiz said.

“I can’t do my job. It’s really frustrating.”

“Journalists mostly work on daily deadlines and it’s never helpful to wait several weeks to speak with someone who knows the subject area. Parks Canada scientists are often experts in their field, and they have to wait weeks to speak. If a new study is published, the news value is instantly diminished.”

A reporter who asked to remain anonymous cited repeated issues since the Trudeau government moved in.

“Interviews are highly scripted and can take a lot of time to organize,” she said. “We often have to go to sources outside of Parks Canada, so we don’t actually have the full picture.”

“I can’t do my job,” she said. “It’s really frustrating.”

Lack of access a ‘terrible disservice to the public’

After my field access requests were turned down by Parks Canada, I was directed to speak with Colleen Cassady St. Clair, an unaffiliated University of Alberta researcher who had worked with Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway on their five-year joint action plan to investigate why grizzly bears were dying on the rail corridor between Banff and Yoho. St. Clair was one of three representatives at a press conference in January 2017, accompanied by Rick Kubian, acting superintendent of Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay, and Joe Van Humbeck of CP Rail.

Since then, St. Clair had been doing the majority of media relations on behalf of muzzled Parks Canada scientists, picking up the slack. When I met her on a June day in Tunnel Mountain Campground, our visit was sandwiched between two press trips with CBC.

“We have so many great stories to tell — hopeful and inspiring stories…It’s tragic.”

“No one can speak more knowledgeably and effectively about many of the things that matter to Canadians than their own publicly funded scientists,” she said. “That’s especially true of the Parks Canada agency ecologists, who have been tremendously tightly managed, even sanctioned for speaking out. Muzzling those voices and replacing them with generic statements by upper managers is a terrible disservice to the public, as well as science. Sometimes, it also causes lasting harm to the very resources those scientists were hired to steward and protect.”

And, she added, Parks Canada scientists and media relations staff in the field units are frustrated, too.

A Parks Canada biologist who spoke to The Narwhal on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals said he’s “painfully aware” of Parks Canada’s restrictive treatment of media, which he called “embarrassing.”

“There is often a pretty big disconnect between the managers I deal with and what the minister actually wants to happen,” he said. If scientists speak out of turn, he says it could be a “career-limiting move” and they’d be stripped of their ability to speak with the media in the future.

“We have so many great stories to tell — hopeful and inspiring stories — but the risk management prevents us from sharing many of them. It’s tragic.”

Eventually, I began to wonder, was this issue only happening with Parks Canada staff working in the mountain parks? Or was it bigger than that?

“Banff was always a highly political park,” former Banff superintendent Kevin Van Tighem told The Narwhal. “Anything that happens in Banff can make national headlines.”

It stands to reason, then, that staff might be under tighter control here. But as I would uncover in the months to come, the issue was hardly limited to the Rocky Mountains.

‘This shouldn’t happen in a democracy’

Ed Struzik is a Canadian environmental journalist who has been writing on the Arctic for more than three decades. He’s the author of Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge and the 2017 non-fiction book Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future.

While flipping through an advanced copy of Firestorm last year, one paragraph regarding Struzik’s experience in Yukon’s Kluane National Park stuck out to me:

“We didn’t stop to see how the spruce bark beetle had ravaged the park’s forests because the Parks Canada fire and vegetation specialist wasn’t allowed to take us on a tour. (I had made the request six weeks beforehand.) The muzzling of Canadian scientists that occurred in the years when Stephen Harper’s climate-change denying Conservative government was in power still lingered in the first year of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration.”

And into his third, apparently.

I called up Struzik to talk more about his experience with Parks Canada.

“In spite of what the Trudeau government has said about liberating scientists from the gag orders they had under the Harper administration, Parks Canada, in particular, seems to be stuck in that mentality. It’s not entirely clear to me why, but it’s absolutely clear to me that Parks Canada scientists are not free to speak to the press.”

His story about Kluane, he noted, was not particularly incendiary (the same thing I had said about my human-bear conflict reporting) and yet he was told he would not be able to go out into the field, though could get an office interview.

“I’ve had this problem in other cases — I was working on a story for Arctic Deeply a couple years ago right at the beginning of the Trudeau government about the future of tourism in the Arctic. I wanted to go to one of the western Arctic parks — I’ve already been to all of them and written many stories with the cooperation of Parks Canada prior to Harper — and could not get them to talk at all about what they were doing for tourism. They did absolutely nothing to encourage me on that story.”

Eventually, even with funding secured, Struzik gave up and didn’t write the story.

“It’s absolutely clear to me that Parks Canada scientists are not free to speak to the press.”

“This business of writing down all the questions beforehand — they treat every enquiry from a journalist as though it’s a bomb that’s about to blow up.”

Though Struzik noted he did get some cooperation from the mountain parks on the book, where he had previously built up relationships, he thinks it’s still a nationwide issue.

“I kind of stay away from Parks Canada now. It’s a crazy mentality. This just shouldn’t happen in a democracy.”

Judith Lavoie told me she had a similar chilling experience when working on a feature story on Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories for The Narwhal.

During the Harper years, Lavoie worked on the environment beat at Victoria’s local newspaper, the Times Colonist, frequently reporting on Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

“I dealt with Parks Canada on a routine basis. They were always great. Every time you phoned, they usually persuaded you to come out on a trip. I never anticipated this,” Lavoie said.

Lavoie hadn’t covered Parks Canada since she semi-retired, up until The Narwhal sent her on assignment to cover diminishing water flows and pollution in the Peace-Athabasca Delta this June. UNESCO is considering adding Wood Buffalo to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger because of threats such as oilsands development and hydro dams.

The experience left her flabbergasted.

Lavoie had intended to hitch a ride in an empty airplane seat with Sierra Club B.C., which was visiting the area. (The entirety of Lavoie’s trip was paid for by The Narwhal.) But when Parks Canada found out that Sierra Club would be bringing a journalist with them to report independently on Wood Buffalo, their tone swiftly changed.

“We can’t speak to you as a journalist without knowing the topic and without going through our process. We want to be open and helpful but we cannot take shortcuts with that process. We can talk further when you arrive in town,” wrote Parks Canada Southwest NWT Field Unit media relations officer Tim Gauthier in an e-mail on May 31. The trip was still five days out — ample time to receive such unnecessary press permissions from Ottawa. Gauthier indicated this would be impossible.

When Lavoie arrived with Sierra Club at the Parks Canada office in Fort Smith on June 1 she was immediately separated from the Sierra Club representative and taken to a separate room. “Divide and conquer,” she surmised. “They sat us down and said, ‘You know, we’re not going to be able to talk to you.’ ” The park’s resource conservation manager, Stuart Macmillan, she recalled, stood there looking sheepish.

Over the next two days in Fort Smith, while Lavoie visited sites with Parks Canada and Sierra Club, Parks Canada staff stayed entirely silent. After the trip, she was told if she e-mailed her questions — a subversive tactic for the government to be able to review questions from the media before responding — she could get a response that way. The final results were, expectedly, generic.

Eventually Lavoie was able to cobble the story together using about 10 sources besides Parks Canada. But the experience left her angry. “Parks Canada, which is supposed to be in control, is not giving us any useful information at all.”

Illustration: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

Who is responsible for muzzling Parks Canada?

So where is this Parks Canada gag order coming from?

Kevin Van Tighem, who retired as Banff National Park superintendent in 2011, thinks it ties closely to a bureaucratic problem within the agency. (It’s worth noting that Van Tighem also writes books and articles about nature, and the parks. He says he has had similar challenges with lengthy wait times as a writer).

“The philosophy during most of my years at Parks Canada was that media relations was about managing the relationship and facilitating communication. Now it’s moved very much into gatekeeping and risk management and that persists to this day.”

This, he says, is bizarre and controlling given Parks Canada’s strong mandate for public education. “There’s a million stories to be told and they’re sitting on them. They’re surrounding them with firewalls instead of enabling people to be informed by it.”

“You’re not respecting the media for what the media is.”

At the start of July 2018, I  reached out to Parks Canada’s national communications office. I wrote:  

“It’s become apparent that this is not a hearsay problem, and that journalists around the country are struggling to adequately report on Parks Canada issues (….)

I think it would be appropriate that Parks Canada issue a response to these concerns, and the public’s right to know about PC operations. If your policy does indeed state that ‘Parks Canada is wholeheartedly committed to working proactively with the media to promote public awareness and understanding of government policies, programs, services and initiatives’ then how are you going to improve upon access and relations with Canadian media given the number of complaints from working journalists?”

After nearly a month, a Parks Canada spokesperson responded:

Parks Canada is committed to providing Canadians with timely, accurate and clear information. The Agency adheres to the principles of open and transparent communications of the Government of Canada. As it relates to media relations, Parks Canada follows the Government of Canada’s Directive on the Management of Communications to ensure that communications activities are effectively managed, well coordinated and responsive to the diverse information needs of the public.

Parks Canada researchers and experts are available to share their research and speak freely about their work with the media and the public. The Agency regularly communicates the work of Parks Canada researchers through media interviews as well as speaking engagements and other activities, including open houses and public forums as well as through the Parks Canada website or other digital channels. Parks Canada also delivers large media events and announcements, some of these relating to science and conservation. Due to the high volume of media requests following these events and announcements, written responses are often provided to media to enable more rapid handling of requests for general information and to help media outlets meet their publication deadlines.

As an Agency that directly serves the Canadian public, Parks Canada actively seeks opportunities to share information and engage Canadians on the research happening at national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas. Parks Canada promotes scientific research and conservation through proactive media outreach, on the Agency website, over social media, and on other digital channels, such as the Agency’s Youtube presence. Parks Canada’s commitment to open and transparent communications is evidenced by the high rate of responses to media requests in the chart below, which includes details on the number of media interviews provided on subjects related to science and conservation. Information for all of Parks Canada and for the Mountain National Parks are provided below.

Suffice to say, this was not the response I had hoped for, but one I was definitely expecting.

Attached were the numbers of press enquiries and responses received nationally and by the mountain parks division in 2017. Parks Canada received 482 media enquiries on science and conservation last year, 78 per cent of which resulted in interviews. However, such raw numbers don’t reveal the timeliness or quality of information, whether it was delivered in person, via telephone or e-mail, nor the number of journalists, who like Struzik, Lavoie and I, were requesting field access and offered e-mail or phone interviews instead.

“I’m aghast. All of this is very disquieting.”

For example, while wrapping up this story, The Narwhal contacted Parks Canada media relations staff for a separate story, asking for usage of stock photos from the Banff bison reintroduction. One week later, we received a nine-question “proposal form” to fill out. Most notably, Parks Canada asked how this project would benefit Parks Canada and the bison reintroduction program. (It is not the media’s job to benefit the government nor the topics we cover.)

Canadian restrictions worse than those under Trump administration in many cases

Finally, I spoke with Nikita Lopoukhine, who served as director general of national parks from 2000 to 2005 and continues to be involved with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. He also serves on Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s national advisory panel on Canada’s Conservation 2020 initiative.

“It’s really fascinating to hear this,” he told me after I filled him in on my experience and those of others. “I’ve had some contact with [Environment and Climate Change Canada] Minister Catherine McKenna who adamantly says there is no concern about scientists talking about science. I’m aghast. All of this is very disquieting.”

Though Parks Canada scientists aren’t under a topic-wide gag order, problems with response times, reviewing of questions and field access pose a long-term and more insidious problem.

In a June 2017 poll by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which was sent to more than 15,000 federal scientists, 53 per cent of respondents disagreed that they were able to speak freely and without constraints to the media about their work. How many of those scientists, I wondered, work at Parks Canada?

“Canadians are generally complacent,” said author Ed Struzik. “We haven’t cared that the government hasn’t responded to the media as they have in the past. But look south of the border, at the Trump Administration, and you can see where that leads you. You can end up having an autocratic regime because they know they can get away with it.”

Indeed, many Canadians are quick to criticize press freedoms in the United States with little inward reflection. I serve on the board of directors of the U.S.-based Society of Environmental Journalists, including their Freedom of Information task force. Over the past year, we’ve written several letters to the Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency condemning new restrictions on the press in the United States. But, it occurred to me as I contemplated the Canadian side, that many of these restrictions were exactly how Parks Canada has been operating for years under Trudeau and Harper, unchallenged.

“You can end up having an autocratic regime because they know they can get away with it.”

“There’s this assumption that the Trudeau government have changed things, and no doubt they have, but we still have this hangover from a bureaucracy that got its start with the Harper administration,” said Struzik. “Don’t think big. Don’t get into the newspapers. Don’t promote your agenda. Just maintain the status quo and we’ll get along. That’s not what we need to build a country.”

— With files from Emma Gilchrist

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