A researcher at the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario.

Photo: saveela.org \ This photo originally appeared in our interview with David Schindler, "Schindler's Pissed."

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on May 17, 2012 that funding for the Experimental Lakes Area would no longer be renewed by the federal government, scientists and environmentalists saw this for what it was – another salvo in Harper’s ever-expanding conflict with science and the products of that research.

Long before the ELA – a vast, 58-lake living freshwater laboratory near the Manitoba-Ontario border – was saved by an 11th hour deal between Ottawa, two provincial governments and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) on April 1, 2014, the first casualty of the closure announcement was a dedicated team of researchers working in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

Several people I’ve spoken with have referred to them simply as “the science team.”

“One hundred per cent of their time was devoted to ELA,” said Diane Orihel, freshwater scientist and vocal advocate for the experimental lakes. “Even though they would collaborate with universities, academics and industry partners, and even though there [were] always a lot of people at camp … the heart of ELA, who kept it going, was that DFO science team.”

Related: An up close and person look at the history and people of the ELA.

When the ELA was formed in 1968 under the guidance of David Schindler, now with the University of Alberta, they scoured the freshwater literature of the time to find the best possible researchers to come work at the one-of-a-kind facility where whole-lake experiments could be conducted without fear of introduced contaminants spreading into the surrounding ecosystem.

“They found the stars of the aquatic science world,” Orihel said. Recruiting from Poland, Russia, Canada and the United States, among others, by the early 1970s they had built a world-class science team at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg.

Related: Meet former students who used the one-of-a-kind research facility as a springboard to success as professional scientists.

When news came of Harper’s plan to scuttle the facility, it certainly wasn't the first time scientists were called on to convince the federal government it was in everyone’s best interest to keep funding the research site.

It was, however, the first time they would fail in their goal to change Ottawa’s mind.

The Conservatives’ intention was to shut the ELA down, Orihel said, not find a new organization to run it. Consequently, DFO did nothing to try and transition the science team into jobs with a new operator, whoever it might be.

“If the federal government had negotiated in good faith I think they would have given those people the full benefit … and said ‘We’ll keep you in your positions and won’t force you to make any decisions about your future until you know what the future holds for the IISD,’” said another ELA scientist, University of Regina professor Britt Hall. “The federal government didn’t do that.”

As such, the May 17 announcement came with a round of “workforce readjustment letters” for all employees of the ELA team working for fisheries and oceans. Years of neglect meant 10 of the 28 positions were already vacant when Harper pulled the plug, and the remaining skeleton crew, representing some of the best minds in freshwater research in Canada, simply dispersed.

Some took other jobs within the department, while others quit and looked for work with universities or non-governmental organizations. Some grew frustrated with the federal government’s actions and took early retirement. Their years of experience and knowledge on the project was effectively lost.

“That’s going to be a big challenge for IISD right now, trying to rebuild that fantastic, world-class science team,” Orihel told me.

Scott Vaughan, IISD director, told the Toronto Star this month that talks have already begun with scientists who used to work for the federal government – and some who still do – to try and rebuild that core group. 

“We will not be starting from scratch,” said Vaughan, who is a former federal environment commissioner. The hiring process will “move very quickly” with about a dozen coming onboard in the first year.

But there’s no rush, Orihel said, since the key ingredient to make the experimental lakes successful is its people. “I hope the IISD takes its time and really recruits the best aquatic scientists they can from right around the world,” she said.

There is ample knowledge in the community of researchers who flock to northern Ontario every year, sometimes more than 200 people at a time, Orihel said. They have a huge amount of expertise that IISD can tap into to find the right people to guide the ELA.

“It’s an exciting time in ELA’s history,” she said. “This is our time to reinvent the ELA and make it bigger and better than it had been when the government shut it down.”

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

Follow him on Twitter.

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