A lost cause worth fighting

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It was a fine and noble attempt to protect their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, even a Cri de Coeur. But as almost all heartfelt outcries fail to achieve the objectives of their champions, so, too, is this one doomed to fall on deaf ears in the nation’s increasingly belligerent capital.

According a report in the Globe and Mail, “public-service unions are asking the federal government for the first time to enshrine scientific integrity language into their collective agreements. The language is intended to ensure that researchers employed by the federal government can speak openly about their work, publish results without fear of censorship and collaborate with peers.”

Federal scientists – those on the payroll of the public service of Canada – have long admonished their bureaucratic bosses and political masters for what they see, not unreasonably, as a coordinated program to muzzle them in the media. For years, they have decried the current government’s determination to vet their public comments through communications officers (even, on occasion, the Prime Minister’s Office).

Indeed, their confederates in the world’s scientific community, dutifully shocked and appalled at the treatment Canadian researchers have received in the bland, dusty halls of Ottawa officialdom, have come to man the ramparts on their behalf and in the interest of scientific enquiry everywhere.

And the issue has, in recent times, caught fire in some of the stalwarts of the international press.

“Over the last few years, the government of has made it harder and harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists,” former New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg opined in 2013. “There was trouble of this kind here (the United States) in the George W. Bush years, when scientists were asked to toe the party line on climate policy and endangered species. But nothing came close to what is being done in Canada.”

Mr. Klinkenborg further observed: “It is also designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush – the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences. The policy seems designed to make sure that the tar sands project proceeds quietly. . .To all the other kinds of pollution the tar sands will yield, we must now add another: the degradation of vital streams of research and information.”

Yes, we might.

Still, despite Mr. Klinkenbord’s principled objection to official Canadian government policy – and, in fact, this new, bold effort by this nation’s public-service unions to “enshrine” the rights of scientists in their collective agreements – nothing meaningful is likely to happen; certainly, nothing significant in an election year.

That’s because, though most adult Canadians who are polled about such matters express a “sincere” desire for freedom of expression, especially among the educated, informed and well-intentioned, when push comes to shove, they still prefer the strong arm of this cabinet’s patriarchal approach to governance. They still believe that imminent peril lurks behind every street corner and that, in the end, loose lips sink ships.

Consider, as evidence, the latest public opinion surveys, which show the current Conservative government enjoying a fairly healthy lead over both the national NDP and Liberal parties. The reason: people in this country tend to fall into the gravity well of an incumbent who has not totally screwed up the economy or abandoned the largely apocryphal, though resonant, storyboard of threats to domestic security.

We may yet hope that freedom of speech, even for government employees, is a Cri de Coeur that will be heard.

More likely, though, it will remain a heartbreak nursed only in silence.

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