Federal scientists who keep a close eye on the Arctic
ice would like to routinely brief Canadians about extraordinary events
unfolding in the North.
But newly released federal documents show the Harper government has been thwarting their efforts.
2012, as the Arctic ice hit the lowest point ever recorded, scientists
at the Canadian Ice Service were keen to tell Canadians about the
stunning ice loss.
“Less ice doesn’t mean less danger. In fact the
opposite is true and there is greater need for ice information,” Leah
Braithwaite, the service’s chief of applied science said in an August
2012 memo to Norman Naylor, a strategic communications adviser at
Braithwaite and her colleagues — aware of the
national and international interest in the shrinking polar ice — wanted
to hold a “strictly factual” technical briefing for the media to inform
Canadians how the ice had disappeared from not only the Northwest
Passage but many normally ice-choked parts of the Arctic.
briefing never happened. Nine levels of approval — from the director
of the ice service up to the environment minister’s office — were needed
for the “communication plan,” according to the documents
released to Postmedia News under the Access to Information Act.
services” — the sixth layer — cancelled the briefing, the documents
say. And the ice service scientists ended up watching as the Canadian
media and public got most of their information from the U.S. National
Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC
where scientists were quick to give interviews, hold briefings and
issue press releases as the ice shattered records as it melted from
Baffin Island to the Beaufort Sea.
Environment Canada did not
immediately respond to written questions sent on Monday about the
cancelled briefing. The Privy Council Office (PCO) said any response
would come from Environment Canada.
Observers say the case is further evidence of the way the Conservative government is silencing scientists.
“It’s suppression through bureaucracy,” said Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy (E4D
), an Ottawa-based non-profit pushing for open communication of government science.
is it that we need nine levels of approval for this sort of thing,
what’s the justification,” said biologist Scott Findlay, a co-founder of
E4D and member of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the
University of Ottawa.
He said the government’s “Byzantine message
control” is not only wasting time, money and resources, but having a
“corrosive” effect on the public service.
He said federal
scientists are professionals and the government should trust them to
interact with the media and release information that is in the public
interest, such as conditions and changes in the Arctic ice.
government has repeatedly said it is “not muzzling” or silencing
scientists, but the federal information commissioner’s office is investigating
complaint filed by Democracy Watch and the Environmental Law Centre at
the University of Victoria that the government has been obstructing “the
right of the media — and through them, the Canadian public — to timely
access to government scientists.” The commissioner’s findings are
expected later this year.
The Canadian Ice Service
satellites, aircraft and ships to monitor the vast expanse of northern
ice and water. It warns of icebergs and navigation hazards and collects
data on ice conditions that can have a big impact on the weather.
goes on in the Arctic has implications for all Canadians,” says one
document explaining the rationale for the proposed 2012 briefing.
goal of the media tech briefing is to accurately report what occurred
this past summer in the Canadian Arctic and not just report on the
American National Science and Ice Data Center information, “ says
another email, noting that the media coverage had been “missing the
Braithwaite recommended that “we seek approval
to provide Media Tech briefings” on the Arctic ice every spring and fall
on a “routine basis similar to the Hurricane Centre,” which regularly
“We are ‘weather’ too!,” Braithwaite said, a
sentiment echoed by Sheena Carrigan, a communication manager at the
Meteorological Service of Canada.
“If the Hurricane Centre can do media tech briefings, then so should (the) Ice Service,” Carrigan said.
briefings do not take place and the documents show the one planned to
mark the record ice melt in 2012 was cancelled after weeks of
The 449 pages of documents are heavily redacted and
don’t say why the briefing was cancelled. But they do show the
scientists trying to open the lines of communication.
mid-August of 2012, a month before the ice hit its low, David Jackson,
ice service’s director, sent a “heads up” to the Environment Canada’s
communications branch alerting them that it “seems to be shaping up for a
potential record low this year.”
communication branch began working with the ice service to plan the
media briefing and prepare “media lines.”
The “media lines” needed
approval from not only the department’s communication branch, but also
the office of then-environment minister Peter Kent as well as the PCO,
an arm of the prime minster’s office, the documents show.
scientists waited for approvals, the polar ice continued to melt away
and their colleagues at the U.S. NSIDC sprang into action. They held a briefing
on Aug. 27 to announce the Arctic ice had shrunk to the smallest size since tracking of the polar cap began 30 years ago.
Canadian Ice Service scientists had plenty to add, but the documents
show they could not even issue a statement without clearance from PCO
“We won’t get a statement approved by PCO Comms
today,” Carrigan informed the ice service after the Americans had
briefed the media. The polar ice had passed previous melt records in
August, the NSIDC said, and would shrink even more before it hit the low
for the year.
Then, on Sept. 19, as the Canadians continued to plan and seek approvals for their briefing, the Americans announced
the ice had hit the 2012 minimum, shattering previous records.
story is breaking news today based on the NSIDC’s news release,”
Canadian ice forecaster Trudy Wohlleben said in an Sept. 19 email,
pointing to 420 news articles that had popped on Google News and
Canadian media outlets, including the National Post and Montreal
“Next week’s tech briefing will be too late, I think,” said Wohlleben said of the Canadian briefing.
colleague Claude Dicaire was asked by the CBC to do an on-camera
interview, but approval didn’t come through in time. Instead, as he
noted a Sept. 21 email, the U.S. NSIDC and its “big logo” made a big
splash on the national TV news.
Braithwaite also lamented the
“missed” interview opportunity. “Sometimes the best laid plans just
don’t pan out the way we hope,” she said.
Even though the news had
already made headlines around the world, Environment Canada’s
communication branch continued to work on plans and approvals for the
Canadian briefing, before it was cancelled on Sept. 25 by ministerial
A week later, on Oct. 3, Kristina Fickes, a senior
communication adviser at Environment Canada, was looking for approval to
tweet that the “Canadian Arctic ice reached record low in summer 2012.”
By then, the ice was already freezing up again for the winter season.