In 2011, the CEOs of oil companies operating in the tar sands were found guilty of ecocide in a mock trial staged by the Eradicating Ecocide Global Initiative. The trial was part of British lawyer Polly Higgins’ campaign to have ecocide recognized as an international crime by the United Nations. The UN already acknowledges “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment” as a war crime in the Rome Statute, but there’s no peacetime equivalent.
Polly Higgins' TEDxExeter talk on Ecocide
In Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice are currently fighting to have the right to a healthy environment enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. About 100 other countries’ constitutions have already recognized this right, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has gone the opposite direction, chipping away at environmental protections, research and programs over the last seven years.
Harper has been Canada’s worst prime minister from an environmental perspective, says David Boyd, lawyer and author of The Right to a Healthy Environment. He argues that Canadians have failed in their responsibility to hold Harper accountable by re-electing him, “eroding our reputation as a green nation.”
Boyd says that if the Right to a Healthy Environment campaign is successful, we’ll have more opportunity than elections to ensure accountability. “Non-regression,” a common principle in countries recognizing environmental rights, sets existing standards as “a baseline that can only be improved, and not weakened,” explains Boyd. “Thus, the recent weakening of key Canadian environmental laws ... would have been unconstitutional!”
Is the Harper administration guilty of ecocide? You be the judge. Review the evidence and deliver your verdict below.
The charge: Promoting willful ignorance by eliminating advisory bodies, restricting data gathering and destroying scientific records.
- In January 2008, the Office of the National Science Adviser was phased out.
- The mandatory long-form census was replaced with a voluntary national household survey in July 2010, reducing the availability of reliable and detailed data.
- The 2012 budget halved $5-million in annual funding for the First Nations Statistical Institute and eliminated it completely in 2013, leading to 23 staff layoffs.
- The 25-year-old National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy was shut down in March 2013 because the government didn’t agree with its reports. The NRTEE was prohibited from publishing its final report online and from transferring historical materials to another organization. (They circulated them anyway.)
- New January 2014: After seven out of nine Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries were closed in 2013, decades of public research documents the government claimed would be digitized were dumped in the garbage, sent straight to landfills or even burned, according to numerous reports from government scientists. Affected institutions inlude the Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg; the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland and the St. Andrews Biological Station (SABS) in New Brunswick, where Rachel Carson conducted research for Silent Spring. The destroyed documents included critical baseline data from up to 100 years ago.
- New January 2015: Environment Canada is accused of attempting to halt further investigations after the Commission of Environmental Co-operation, a part of NAFTA, was called to action to find out whether tailings ponds in Alberta are leaking into nearby water sources, thus breaking Canada's Federal Fisheries Act.
The charge: Preventing knowledge from reaching the public by muzzling government scientists.
- Restrictive new protocols were implemented at Environment Canada in 2007 and Natural Resources Canada in 2010 requiring scientists to obtain government permission before speaking to the media. Meanwhile, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has restricted scientists from publishing research prior to screening for “concerns/impacts to DFO policy.”
- A lengthy 2008 guide to “Meeting the Media” instructs DFO employees to “refer to the Department or the Government in your answers and do not use the personal pronoun ‘I’. After all you’re a DFO spokesperson and not an opinionated commentator.” (The guide is included in a report from Democracy Watch.)
- In April 2010, Natural Resources Canada prohibited geologist Scott Dallimore from speaking to reporters regarding his Nature paper about a flood that occurred about 13,000 years ago without his answers being vetted in advance – despite it having nothing to do with NRC’s identified “hot topics,” such as minerals, energy or anthropogenic climate change.
- The National Research Council Press was privatized in September 2010, revoking free access to 17 journals.
- From January to August 2011, DFO researcher Kristi Miller was not allowed to give interviews about her 2011 paper on a virus suspected of killing wild sockeye salmon in BC.
- In summer 2011, Environment Canada denied water researcher Marley Waiser permission to speak about two papers disclosing the presence of chemicals and pharmaceuticals in Saskatchewan’s Wascana Creek.
- In October 2011, federal scientist David Tarasick was prohibited from discussing the discovery of one of the largest ozone holes above the Arctic until after media interest waned.
- Environment Canada scientists were shadowed and monitored by media-relations handlers at the International Polar Year conference in April 2012.
- Libraries at the Pacific Forestry Centre in Victoria and the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton were closed to the public in October 2012.
- In November 2012, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency successfully lobbied to have the research lab at the Atlantic Veterinary College-University of PEI stripped of its international credentials for revealing evidence of infectious salmon anemia in BC salmon, thereby threatening exports.
- In April 2013, the DFO required scientists working on a joint Canada-US Arctic research project to sign an exhaustive confidentiality agreement. (Some of the US scientists, including University of Delaware oceanographer Andreas Muenchow, refused.)
- The new Library and Archives Canada code of conduct, released in March 2013, prohibits employees from participating in professional conferences, teaching and other “personal activities” without permission and adherence to strict criteria, including that the subject matter not be “related to the mandate or activities of LAC.” The mandate of the LAC is “to facilitate co-operation among communities involved in the acquisition, preservation and diffusion of knowledge.” In other words, the LAC is not allowed to fulfill its own mandate.
- A June 2013 survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that 90 per cent of federal scientists “feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media” about their work – and one-third have been actively prevented from doing so.
The charge: Systematically dismantling decades of environmental protection legislation.
- Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in December 2011, sidestepping an estimated $14-billion in penalties for noncompliance with reducing emissions targets below 1990 levels. A much easier federal target of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 was announced.
- With omnibus Bill C-38, key portions of the Fisheries Act were repealed in June 2012, endangering habitats and removing triggers for impact assessments. Bill C-38 also replaced the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act with a much weaker version that restricts public participation in assessment hearings, and neutered the Species at Risk Act, including removing time limits on permits.
- In December 2012, environmental oversight was reduced by changes proposed by the pipeline industry to the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
- Canada became the only country to withdraw from the UN anti-drought convention in March 2013.
- In April 2013, legislation proposed by the oil and gas industry amended the list of industrial projects requiring environmental reviews, removing provincially regulated pipelines and tar sands processing facilities.
- NEW OCTOBER 2014: A report from Canada’s Environment Commissioner found that the federal government lacks clear guidelines about environmental assessment requirements, stating a concern that “some significant projects may not be assessed.”
- NEW OCTOBER 2014: The same report revealed that a draft of emissions regulations for the oil and gas sector promised in 2006 – and crucial to meeting fast-approaching reduction targets – has been ready for a year, but no public consultation has taken place. The bulk of consultation so far has been with industry and one province (three guesses which one...).
The charge: Limiting scientists’ ability to provide perspective by reducing environmental research and think tank funding.
- In 2007, Harper announced a new Science, Technology and Innovation Council to prioritize industry goals and economics over scientific perspective.
- The government announced it would not renew funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences in March 2010 (although the facility stopped receiving money in
- 2006). Since 2000, CFCAS funded more than $110-million of research into prairie drought, air quality and other pressing issues.
- In April 2010, 86 workers were laid off at the Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information, the country’s national science library and leading publisher of scientific information.
- Funding for the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) ran out in February 2012. Significant pressure from the scientific community won a partial reprieve of $5-million over five years – well short of the Nunavut-based facility’s $1.5-million annual operating budget.
- The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council reallocated more than $15-million from basic research to industry partnership programs in 2012, continuing a trend that began in 2005. NSERC ended its major resources support program in May 2012, which provided operational funding for 37 organizations and research stations – including the Kluane Lake Research Station in the Yukon (which lost half of its operating budget after more than 50 years) and the world-renowned Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island (which lost $500,000 in annual funding it had been receiving since 1970).
- The May 2012 federal budget also cut $2-million in annual funding for the Experimental Lakes Area in Northern Ontario. An interim agreement between the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba is keeping the 45-year-old globally renowned freshwater research laboratory open until at least March 2014. But in September 2013, the federal government cancelled the agreement that allowed whole-ecosystem experiments to take place, making the kind of research done at ELA illegal.
- In 2013, the National Research Council was told to focus on science with practical business applications.
- New March 2014: The Canada Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, ON is down to 40 scientists as of January 2014, from 63 in 2012. Researchers here study topics like pollution, toxicity and climate change in the Great Lakes area and beyond. Many of them have been reassigned to study the Alberta oil sands, and scientists say important research on the Great Lakes environment and public health is being compromised.
- NEW SEPTEMBER 2014: The non-partisan international development research organization North-South Institute announced its closure due to federal funding cuts, another blow to evidence-based policy-making.
The charge: Undermining conservation and monitoring efforts by cutting funding, staff and programs.
- The 2011-2012 Environment Canada budget was reduced by $222.2-million over the previous year and 1,211 jobs were cut. Among the hardest-hit programs were Climate Change and Clean Air, Weather and Environmental Services, Water Resources and Internal Services, the Action Plan on Clean Water and the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan. The Chemicals Management Plan, the Clean Air Agenda and the Air Quality Health Index and the Species at Risk programs were eliminated.
- In April 2012, the Sustainable Water Management Division of Environment Canada ended its work on water-use efficiency and conservation, including the Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey, because of $1.5-million in budget cuts.
- Four national marine conservation areas and 42 national parks lost operational capacity when 638 Parks Canada jobs were declared surplus in April 2012.
- To save $79.3-million, 400 jobs were cut at the DFO in May 2012, affecting research stations, fish hatcheries and libraries. The DFO’s Ocean Contaminants & Marine Toxicology Program was also cancelled entirely. A year later, the DFO’s budget was reduced by $100-million over three years, replaced by $10-million for local organizations to do fish habitat work.
- Other casualties of the 2012 budget included the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research, whose work on the ecological effects of oil and gas was phased out in spite of its experience helping with the BP oil spill cleanup in 2010. The Smokestacks Emissions Monitoring Team was also dismantled to save $718,000, and the Mersey Biodiversity Centre in Milton, Nova Scotia, was slated for closure by April 1, 2014.
- On the 20th anniversary of the UV index in October 2012, Environment Canada’s ozone monitoring department was eliminated by a $13.3-million budget cut. (The first ozone hole over the Arctic was discovered in 2011.)
- NEW OCTOBER 2014: A report from Canada’s Environment Commissioner found delays in Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program initiatives, no concrete plans for monitoring beyond 2015 and that one of two emissions reduction committees hasn't met since 2011.
The charge: Obstructing and threatening environmental education and advocacy efforts.
- In April 2006, the government suddenly stopped funding the $45-million One-Tonne Challenge program carried out by local groups across Canada.
- Environment Canada backed out on $547,000 in promised funding for the Canadian Environmental Network (RCEN) in October 2011, forcing the network to lay off its entire staff. The RCEN is more than 30 years old and has 600 member organizations.
- In January 2012, the Prime Minister’s office threatened Tides Canada’s charitable status for supporting advocacy group ForestEthics. With an audit of Tides Canada already underway, the government ordered the Canadian Revenue Agency to increase its monitoring of charities’ spending in March 2012.
- In February 2012, Public Safety Canada identified environmentalists as “issue-based domestic terrorists” in its counter-terrorism strategy.
- The Centre of the Universe astronomy interpretive centre and 100-year-old telescope in Saanich, BC, were closed to the public as of fall 2013 due to National Research Council cuts.
- New February 2014: The CBC released a list of seven environmental groups being audited by the CRA: The David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, The Pembina Foundation, Environmental Defence, Equiterre and Ecology Action Centre. John Bennett of Sierra Club Canada called it "a war against the sector." Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has said he's considering far stricter rules about charities using any funds for anything political (currently 10% of spending can go to non-partisan advocacy efforts). Complaints from pro-oil-sands group Ethical Oil are likely behind at least some of the audits. Ethical Oil is believed to be funded largely by industry groups and was founded by Alykhan Velshi, now director of issues management for Harper.
Note: 10 per cent of those organizations' budgets combined would be $4.8-million – about the same amount Enbridge spent on just one Northern Gateway campaign in 2012.
Or, join the resistance movement with the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Evidence for Democracy, Democracy Watch, and Shit Harper Did, just some of the groups working to expose and fight attacks on environmental protection and science.
Popular on A\J
More by this Author
- In two weeks: launch of A\J SUMMER READING series. Web-exclusive stories about protecting our great outdoors. alternativesjournal.ca — 6 weeks 1 day ago
- 'Believe This', how the environmentally-minded person can sustain their faith and hope https://t.co/04L0ZlwVfe https://t.co/6Tg1t9XIUM — 6 weeks 2 days ago
- It's Week in Review time, highlighting the top environmental news stories of the week! https://t.co/nNzPSBtU3U — 6 weeks 5 days ago