Environment Canada on gag order

Ever wonder what Environment Canada scientists do? The News did too.

Ever wonder what Environment Canada scientists do? The News did too.

That’s why last week the News set up an interview with two of them to discuss the research they’d been doing in the Yukon – research they were giving a public lecture on at Yukon College later the same day.

However, that morning, word came from an Environment Canada spokesperson that the interview was off. They did say the newspaper could still attend the lecture, but any additional questions had to go through communications in Ottawa.

The paper did have some additional questions.

Like, why was the interview cancelled? Why couldn’t the scientists talk to the media? Did it have anything to do with climate change talks happening in Durban, South Africa?

And why did questions – even about subjects as far-flung as airborne contaminants in the Yukon – need to be vetted by Ottawa.

This week in an email reply, Environment Canada spokesperson Mark Johnson apologized for taking four business days to respond and laid out the department’s position.

“The media plays an important role in the democratic process by informing the public of government activities, including important scientific research,” he began. “Public servants assist the minister of the environment to serve the public interest by providing information to media.

“The government of Canada, like any other professionally-managed organization, has a process for responding to media inquiries. Government of Canada spokespeople, including Environment Canada scientists, follow the media relations process as outlined in the communications policy of the government of Canada.

“Our service delivery is exemplary despite media timelines being very tight. Since January 2011, Environment Canada has received more than 2,900 media calls. Specifically relating to science, we have received over 650 media requests, and have provided approximately 250 interviews with departmental scientists.

“This year, we have met over 80 per cent of reporters’ deadlines and were able to respond to 98 per cent of the requests,” wrote Johnson.

The process goes like this: journalists send a list of questions to the media spokesperson who then sends it to the scientist who can answer them.

The answers are then sent to Ottawa where they are vetted by the Prime Minister’s Office to make sure there’s nothing in there that might embarrass the government.

The amended answers are then sent back to the spokesperson who passes them on to the journalists.

This process can take a while. Any followup questions have to go through the same process.

And even then, the questions remain unanswered.

“We value our scientists’ work and we are proud to communicate it to Canadians,” Johnson continued in his email.

“We have some of the best and brightest minds in the field of environmental science. We have been actively promoting their peer-reviewed science that is published in prestigious scientific journals such as Nature and Nature Climate Change.”

There are a number of newsletters and websites that Canadians can go to hear directly from the government about the scientific work its scientists are doing, Johnson added.

“Environment Canada welcomes the interest of Canadians in our environmental science and look forward to opportunities to engage with them.”

Contact Chris Oke at chriso@yukon-news.com

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