Federal government puts polar briefings on ice
Margaret Munro, Canada.com, August 18, 2014
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.
In 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 Environment Canada.
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.
The 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.
“Ministerial 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.
“Why 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.
The government has repeatedly said it is “not muzzling” or silencing scientists, but the federal information commissioner’s office is investigating a 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 uses 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.
“What goes on in the Arctic has implications for all Canadians,” says one document explaining the rationale for the proposed 2012 briefing.
“(The) 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 Canadian details.”
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 holds briefings.
“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.
Such 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 preparation.
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.
In 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.”
Environment Canada’s 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.
As the 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.
The Canadian Ice Service scientists had plenty to add, but the documents show they could not even issue a statement without clearance from PCO communications.
“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.
“This 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 Gazette.
“Next week’s tech briefing will be too late, I think,” said Wohlleben said of the Canadian briefing.
Her 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 services.
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.