Standing Up for Science in Harperland

This is a guest post by writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Harris and was originally published on iPolitics.

These days, I am beginning to think that George Orwell was the greatest whistleblower of all time.

After all, it was Orwell who lifted the curtain on how the end of free thought was creeping across western democracies. In the end, stripped of the very language needed to form ideas, future citizens would be shuddering under a government colossus whose most efficient agency was the Thought Police.

The central premise of Orwell’s horror-scape dystopia, 1984, is that the facts are mutable.

Simple really: if there are no objective facts, there is no knowledge. That leaves it to a vastly empowered government to impose whatever ‘facts’ are required — and then to change them in the bat of an eye if necessary. Think of Stephen Harper on income trusts. Only the masters of Doublespeak can deny a flip-flop.

In 1984, dissent was not only impossible, it was a crime. The highest civic virtue in that secular hell? Orthodoxy through and through, orthodoxy for power and profit, orthodoxy all the way to absurdity and abject submission. Only the orthodox got real coffee and chocolate, and avoided a trip to Room 101.

Not for nothing were the only scientists in Oceania the ones who built new weapons, the last outlet for speculative and creative thinking in 1984.

But we are in Lawrence Martin’s Harperland, not yet 1984. Scientists in this country still pursue knowledge on its own terms, or at last try to. There was a good example of that this week. The attempt was mildly heroic, quaint and, in all likelihood, futile.

Scientist David Schindler wrote a letter to fight the good fight on behalf of pure research against the corporate lobby that goes by the name of the federal government these days. His was a reasoned plea to save the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), which for all practical purposes ceased to be a federal facility on March 31.

Standing up for science has been a losing battle under this prime minister. Scientific facilities have been closed, grants reduced and, in many cases, funding completely removed.

Federal scientists who still have a job have been muzzled by their political masters. Stephen Harper’s favourite finger-puppet, John Baird, famously declared that the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, for example, was vaporized not because it got things wrong, but because the Party didn’t like the advice it was giving. It preferred mutable facts.

In Harperland, there is no weed as noxious as independent facts. If possible, they are pulled up by the roots. Science is just another corporate enabler as far as the PM is concerned; if it’s not that, then it’s a potentially dangerous source of independent public information. But David Schindler is not as easy to silence or ignore.

After all, when someone sends you a picture of tumours, lesions and spinal deformities, the probability is that they are seriously unhappy about something.

Picture of deformed Walleye that accompanied Schindler's letter to Minister's Kent and Ashfield. 

When they include a letter pointing out that fish downriver from the tar sands development in Alberta are exhibiting mutations very similar to those of deformed marine life in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico after the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters, they are sounding an alarm.

And when that same person advises you that in order to understand the impact of petroleum pollution on freshwater and the aquatic life it supports, you must ditch your plans to close the ELA, they are offering a very rare thing — a second chance to get it right.

What a pity David Schindler’s letter was addressed to a pair of palace eunuchs, Keith Ashfield and Peter Kent. He should have known that they answer all criticism of the PMO’s decisions about their departments with Big Brother arithmetic: two and two are five. Few decisions are made at the ministerial level anymore. The guy who cuts the PM’s hair at 24 Sussex has more influence than Harper’s ministers do.

Few decisions are made at the ministerial level anymore. The guy who cuts the PM’s hair at 24 Sussex has more influence than Harper ministers do.

But absolute power comes at a price. It is largely for that reason that Stephen Harper is sitting at a personal disapproval rating of 57 in the latest Forum poll done for the National Post. He has simply run out of omniscience. Like a drugstore blonde, his corporate roots are showing.

And while a few are still calling him the great leader of a major historical shift — including pollster laureates, a Harper-struck national columnist or two and the usual crowd of upwardly obsequious party hacks — even a few Tory MPs are now saying control is one thing, duct tape over the mouth is something else again. At least Brigette DePape got to hold up a sign.

In a nutshell, here is what David Schindler’s letter and photographs come down to. As the Killam Memorial Chair of Ecology at the University of Alberta, and a world-famous freshwater researcher, Schindler wants to identify the chemicals that are giving Albertans mutant fish in the Athabasca River.

Once the culprits in the “chemical soup” are known, then the engineering of the solutions can begin. Stephen Harper, world renowned aquarium-owner, has decided pink slips and bulldozers are a better answer to the ELA than dealing with its inconvenient science. What are a few misshapen fish compared to economic development?

It should be noted that Schindler’s public dissent has been preceded by a much broader action on the ground by former scientists at the ELA, including PhD student Diane Orihel. For five months last year, she told the country what would be lost if the ELA were closed. It seemed like a very poor way to shave $2 million a year from the federal deficit, when the PM was spending $10 million on panda bears.

This week, Orihel returned to the place where she and her husband had worked for ten years, leading a CBC camera crew into the doomed facility in order to leave of a record of what will be lost if the Harper government doesn’t agree to Schindler’s request to keep the ELA open. For those who saw the footage on the National, it was not the full story — for she had much more to say — but it was thanks to Orihel that any kind of record exists. Otherwise, it would have been down the Memory Hole for the ELA.

While Orihel was documenting what she could, the Council of Canadians briefly occupied the ELA, camping by Lake 468. As Mark Calzavara put it, his small band of protesters was making the point that the world-famous facility, which made the Canada/U.S. treaty on acid rain possible, “belongs to the people of Canada.”

According to a poll done for the Council, 60 per cent of Conservative voters oppose the decision to close the ELA.

With the polls indicating that any Liberal leader would be more popular than Stephen Harper (some say Justin Trudeau might even trounce him) the Tories have rolled out the familiar artillery: the ever reliable and equally deplorable attack ad. My colleague Lawrence Martin says it must be answered in kind or Trudeau will go the way of Dion and Ignatieff. He may well be right.

If so, the question is still there to be answered: Is fact by decree, and the two minutes of hate, any way to run a country?

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