Canada on oil sands: when to censor, when to share

government censorship
It’s not uncommon for a lot of back and forth to occur at the government level when non-profits, advocates or alternative media start asking questions. We saw that during the media firestorm regarding the use of muskrat fur in RCMP hats (we won, by the way).

But at a certain point, strategic communication goes out the window and political muzzling takes over.

DeSmog Canada, a website dedicated to examining the oil sands topics ‘beyond the headlines,’ put in a request to speak with a scientist on the issue of the impact of oil sands to fur-bearing animals.

“The Environment Canada scientist in question, Philippe Thomas, had asked members of the Alberta Trappers Association to send him samples of fur-bearing animals caught across Alberta in 2012. Thomas needed a broad range of samples to gain deeper insight into the contaminant load in animals living near theoil sands,” wrote Carol Linnit for DeSmog Canada. “In late 2012, DeSmog Canada submitted a request to interview Thomas, and provided several written questions to Environment Canada toreview.”

Again, much of this is standard operating procedure for government communications teams. They want to know what the interview will be about, who you are, what your angle may be and, frankly, if you’re a crackpot. The folks at DeSmog Canada do not fall into the latter category.

DeSmog noted that through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, they learned that answers were scripted for the scientist they wanted to speak with. Again, not overly unusual. The government wants their employees to stay on point, stay within the realm of their expertise, and not trade the cow for magic beans.

But in the end, it wasn’t sound communications strategy – or even cautious strategy – that DeSmog was given. It was a written, canned response by unnamed government staff, which didn’t actually answer the questions they had posed.

“Environment Canada confirmed beavers, fishers, martens, lynx and river otters have been tested for naphthenic acid, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and a suite of approximately 28 metals and inorganic compounds, pollutants that ‘have been identified as contaminants produced as a result of industrial activity in the Oil Sandsregion.’”

For those not used to dealing with governments or PR-savvy political machines, that statement more or less says “we’re doing tests and we’re not telling you what we found, nor are we allowing you to ask further questions.”

The topic of muzzling scientists is not new under our current leadership. And, in all honesty, we don’t expect it to end. It’s a political trend that’s been fuelled by fear, nepotism and a hunger for power that doesn’t belong in a democracy.

Come October, when we line up for the polls, we’ll remember this story by DeSmog Canada. We hope you will, too.

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