Sovereignty in 2017: It’s Meaning for Canada and the World

Sovereignty in 2017: It’s Meaning for Canada and the World



Howard Adelman

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is visiting the White House today. Donald Trump has consistently expressed admiration for Sissi. In return, Sissi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his election victory. The mutual admiration society is understandable. Both leaders have rejected the position that any country or any international group of countries has the right to intervene in the domestic affairs of another country unless it is in the country’s interest to do so.

Trump has championed “America First” and, with it, the irrelevance of any moral responsibilities towards the population of another state. The doctrine, that Canada was in the forefront of developing, “The Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, has been thrust aside, not because it was not working as intended – there is a consensus on that conclusion – not because it was unworkable, a conclusion still in dispute but with weakened support, but because R2P did not fit in with the traditional doctrine of sovereignty – that each state was responsible for its own territory and the population in it and that a state should enjoy a monopoly of force to ensure the interests of the state were protected and advanced.

Hence, Trump has been in the process of dismantling the international liberal order and the role of the U.S. as the leader of that order. Sissi has abandoned the conception of Egypt as the leading power in the Arab world with a primary responsibility for the region and not just its own interests. At the same time, domestically, each state has moved to free itself from the constraints of an international human rights regime and able to define human rights through its own particular lens where some may have many more rights than others.

The path to the resurrection of the old and well-established doctrine of sovereignty has been turbulent. Egypt went through a pro-democracy uprising, the victory of a theocratic party in a democratic election, and a military counter-coup that suppressed the Islamic regime. America is going through its own version of democratic turbulence in which its leader blatantly rejects the doctrine of universal transparency and accountability, and admires “tough” approaches while openly disparaging human rights.

The conception of sovereignty is in play. Therefore, it was timely that Massey College this past Friday held a roundtable on the doctrine of sovereignty. True to the spirit of the new world disorder, the examination had a distinctly Canadian slant, but one in which R2P was rarely mentioned.

The highlight, at least for me, was a presentation by Dr. Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon, author of Breaking the Ice: Canada, Sovereignty and the Arctic Extended Shelf (Dundurn Press, April 2017, but not yet available). She is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto, a former professor of international relations at Western and a senior fellow at Massey College. She has written other books on women, on the role of NGOs internationally, on external constraints and domestic determinants in international policy, on the Canadian mosaic, and on the UN. She has been a prolific scholar with a very evident interest in issues dear to the liberal approach to international relations.

Her publisher’s blurb for her latest book begins with the following: “The Arctic seabed, with its vast quantities of undiscovered resources, is the twenty-first century’s frontier.” But that was NOT the thrust of her talk and, I suspect, not of the book. She made clear that the exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic was a long way off because of huge distances from settled society, the tough and unpredictable climate and terrain, and alternative sources of fossil fuels with far easier and more economic means of accessibility. Instead, she made clear that rather than being a frontier for material competition, the responsibility for the Arctic, rather than any benefit from it, was proceeding apace based on agreed international norms embodied in the authoritative international law of the sea and scientific studies undertaken cooperatively by the five countries surrounding the Arctic basin – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S.

Riddell-Dixon’s approach did not start from any liberal conception of sovereignty and a doctrine that it was urgent to develop an international order to govern areas of mutual interest. Rather, her approach was distinctly functional. Here is what is happening with one major disruption to the process of systematically establishing spheres of responsibility – the misguided effort of Prime Minister Harper of Canada to claim Canadian sovereignty over the North Pole. That was much to the chagrin of the Danes, for there was a general consensus that the North Pole fell clearly within Danish territory. The Danes then responded to the outlandish and aggressive Canadian leader’s claim with their own even more aggressive counter claims.

However, with the exception of this temporary digression, the process has been an example of the responsibility to protect, of R2P, not of human populations, for there are no human settlements there and the areas in dispute lie 800 nautical miles beyond the northernmost Canadian outpost of Alert which itself is another equivalent distance from our northernmost Inuit settlement. Instead of competition, what has taken place has been based on an authoritative international regime already in place, the international law of the sea, which defines spheres of territorial ownership (10 nautical miles into the sea) then spheres of economic interest (200 nautical miles into the sea), and, finally, extensions if the continental shelf extends beyond that distance, the extant of the continental shelf being determined by scientists from all five countries.

This is a doctrine of sovereignty that begins with a marriage of responsibility with interests rather than placing the two conceptions at odds, with the emphasis that, on the basis of these international norms and empirical science to determine the application, it is not the UN but each nation that has the responsibility for determining its sphere of international interests and responsibilities.  This is realism at work, not idealism, but realism rooted in internationally agreed legal norms and applied through the use of detached scientific evidence. Thus, rather than the monopoly over force and the expression of material interest as the forefront for determining the boundaries of the sovereign state, the key ingredients are international law and internationally accepted principles and practices of science to establish facts on the ground, or, more literally, in the sea.

This constructivist conception was haunted by three other views of sovereignty, one of idealism’s R2P lurking in the background, the traditional hard-headed (a description chosen deliberately to convey both toughness and resistance to being shaped by experience) realism and, finally, a romantic view that would displace the concept of state sovereignty with populist sovereignty, this time rooted in the sensibilities and conceptions of the peoples of the north of each country, including Canada’s Inuit.

The latter was presented at the roundtable clearly and articulately by Sara French-Rooke, a public policy leader and advocate with expertise on northern and indigenous issues who has had a career building collaborative strategic networks among northern communities of the Arctic. While Riddell-Nixon had been unequivocal in stating that pan-Arctic people’s power had virtually no role in determining state borders and responsibilities in the Arctic Basin, French-Rooke has had a leading role in bringing attention to the clean-water crises of remote northern communities, mercury contamination, housing and health issues, including the pandemic of suicides among youth.

I have dubbed this a “romantic” view of sovereignty, not to be dismissive, or to link it with escapism and fantasy, unrealizable idealism and aspirational politics, but to root the ideas embedded in the expression of economic realities and injustices, social concerns and political debates, in patterns and priorities that can be traced back to the origins of the modern nation-state and that have had very prominent expressions in the history of modern political theory. Whereas R2P stressed an idealistic view of a common humanity which, of necessity, has remained the leading edge of the climate change debate well articulated by John Godfrey at the roundtable, the romantic version of sovereignty stresses detailed contextual accounts of lives actually lived. In this view, politics and public morality have to begin with the concerns of peoples, and, primarily, peoples suffering, for, at root, sovereignty is about an ability to govern oneself, to determine one’s own destiny and, in this case, to do so collectively on behalf of suffering nations in the north.

In addition to the universalist and idealist approach of R2P that has been most relevant to the climate change debate, and the populist romantic view of sovereignty as the duty of a state to take care of its most vulnerable populations, both opposed to Riddell-Dixon, there is another realist portrait of sovereignty that was introduce in the morning by Tom Axworthy, ironically the brother of Lloyd Axworthy, so instrumental in forging the doctrine of R2P applied to international affairs.

In that realist view, sovereignty is the supreme power of a state to determine its own destiny. Its key ingredients are control over a defined territorial expanse and the monopoly of coercive force to achieve that goal.  The key elements are a defined physical territory, coercive power, the formal legal authority to determine the laws of a country and the mode of defending its interests.

With the help of Alex Zisman

II: The Science of Interstellar

II: The Science of Interstellar


Howard Adelman

As far as I can recall, there is no mention in Kip Thorne’s book, The Science of Interstellar, of the science of ions of interstellar origin as documented by the Solar Wind Ion Composition Spectrometer on the spacecraft Ulysses. One wonders why since the connection with the thrust of the movie as a modern day Odyssey is so obvious. Further, the Ulysses spacecraft was designed to study interstellar space, specifically, the poles of the sun and the interstellar space above and below the two poles. Further, the spacecraft, Ulysses, with its two stage rocket and its smaller thrust engine, could easily have been the model for the space craft that rendezvoused with the spaceship, Endurance.

Instead, the shuttle used in Interstellar to reach the Endurance appeared to rely on chemical rockets rather than alternative forms of thrust that would be needed to propel a spaceship into outer space, possibly a laser-powered ion propulsion system or, at least, a nuclear powered spacecraft or even fusion propelled spacecraft. Alternatives could have relied on beamed lasers mounted on asteroids and laser reflectors, or a plethora of small spinning microsails. However, Interstellar is not about traveling between suns or from our solar system to the nearest one, Alpha Centauri, a triple system closer than any other star. It is about traveling to another galaxy altogether through a wormhole.

The reason is that even by using these alternative forms of energy propulsion to travel between solar systems, it would still take far too long even if such systems could be perfected in the next two centuries. The probable speed would be from 1/13th the speed of light to 1/5th the speed of light. Even if the latter were achieved, it would still take forty years to reach Alpha Centauri, and that solar system does not seem to have any planets that could support life. Working in any of these directions would take far too long if Earth were dying as a habitable planet and, in any case, even when such systems were developed, would take decades, even a century, to get to and back from that other solar system to report on whether there was a habitable planet.
However, if one envisioned traveling to a planet within this solar system to move proximate to a wormhole, if one were to be located there, this offers an option far more feasible and closer to technology currently available and under development. What appears as a disconnect between the old fashioned mode of thrust portrayed in the film and more credible alternative systems for interstellar travel, is, in fact, more credible than the far-out thought experiments for interstellar travel. Further, a movie viewer would not have recognized these innovative propulsion systems as characteristic of interstellar travel. Ironically, travel to another galaxy seems to be more scientifically plausible than interstellar travel. I presume that is why Chris Nolan opted for the portrayal of old-fashioned chemically-propelled thrust rockets which accord more with viewer expectations as well as with scientific evidence. The problem is the verisimilitude of traveling to a wormhole, going through it and still being able to explore another solar system in a different galaxy to find livable planets.

Is this important to the movie? It is the scientific crux on which the plausibility of the whole film depends. If verisimilitude and plausibility are goals, then far out solutions, such as traveling the immensely greater distances between galaxies rather than the relatively short distances between nearby solar systems, is the better option. The stated aim of the movie is to be as true to scientific actuality or possibility as movie makers can manage. Where there are deviances, as when Amie Brand in her argument with Cooper over which planet they should travel to next, offers a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, the viewer who has some familiarity with the science does not know whether she is making a scientific mistake (unlikely, since she is so advanced as a scientist) or whether she is just being emotional at the time because she wants to find her lover, or, most plausibly, she is just bullshitting Cooper who is an astronaut and pilot and not an astrophysicist. Thorne, the famous astrophysicist who first co-conceived the movie and served as a consultant and executive producer for the film, claimed that the science in the film was either established fact, an educated guess or speculation, but in either of the latter options, never impossible.

But that is not how one experiences the opening pre-story of the film that Jonathan Nolan developed in his script of a world in which blight has attacked one crop after another so that corn remains the only cereal crop left and we soon learn that it too will soon be ravaged by blight. The population on earth has been devastated. Human civilization has gone in reverse mode and almost everyone is a farmer or services agriculture. America is the 1930’s dust bowl ten times over with the landscape ravaged by huge dust storms. This is the dystopia with which the film begins, not the current wave of environmental disasters caused by humans, but one wrought by nature itself.

Kip Thorne wrote that, while such a scenario was highly unlikely, it was not impossible. At least that is what he and fellow scientists at Caltech with whom he consulted concluded – including an expert on plants in general, a top cell biologist, a microbe expert and a fourth Nobel-Prize-winning biologist. However, what is highly unlikely is not verisimilitude or even plausibility. And to entice us if the movie is to be an exercise in science fiction and not science fantasy, “highly unlikely” is an unacceptable criterion. So the movie starts on a wrong note and then leads us into the world of astrophysics. Instead of establishing a really possible if not probable foundation, we are led into a strange world that, for most movie goers, seems far closer to fantasy than it should or could have been.

Why is the opening dystopia implausible even though not entirely impossible? Well it is not presented as an all-out dystopia, uncomfortable perhaps, but baseball continues. Education deformed by dogma prevails, but there is still education. But it is a form of education in a country that has lost its way, a society in defensive mode, a society that has lost sight of aspiration in favour of mere survival. The last is the least plausible. Having studied and written about genocide – in Rwanda and the Holocaust – in societies far worse than the extreme dust bowl of the opening scenes, even these societies, where genocide is widespread, evince more hope. Further, the calamity is set in America, the land of hopes and dreams, where a Jewish son of immigrants from Eastern Europe could write America’s most famous and best-loved song about imagining somewhere over the rainbow way up high, a place where skies remain blue, where the clouds are far behind and dreams that you dream of really do come true.

Certainly pathogens can mutate, certainly monocrop agriculture is more fragile and more prone to attack at the same time as scientifically produced seeds have developed inner systems for protecting against pests and lethal microbes. The mutant microbe IS part of our everyday fears. The melting ice cap could release an ancient pathogen that could overcome all current defence mechanisms. These, and many other scientific scenarios, are possible, if highly improbable. What is not probable or even plausible is the passive surrender to a virulent natural disaster. Nothing we know about America, as self-destructive as it has become, prepares us for such a presumption. The problem is not in the natural science but in the political science, the sociology and the psychology. And the movie offers no preparation or plausible account for that shift.

Nothing wrong with that if the movie is a true dystopia. But the movie leads us into recovering our scientific dreams that have continued to take place in secret. Cooper, through the “magic” of the moved books and the magnetic arrangements of the sand from the dust storm, is offered the message of where, surprisingly within a relatively short driving distance, a secret NASA operation continues to build manned spacecraft for flights to outer space. A scenario of blight feeding on the enormous supply of nitrogen in our air and wiping out all crops, a blight in which microbes are both 100% lethal AND transferable to all vegetation, is not plausible given what we know of biological science. Such a scenario is theoretically possible, but Kip Thorne agrees is highly unlikely. So why start with such an opening if the movie intends to restore our faith in science?
I protest too much. After all, this is science fiction. But Interstellar is supposed to be science fiction that is as close to fact or at least to possible fact as possible in exploring the cosmos. It is not science fiction that strays off into the fantasies of a disaster movie. Instead of setting the audience up for truly believing in the possibility of the exploration of outer space taking place via travel through a wormhole, the opening pre-story undermines that goal. This is quite aside from the contradictory messages received from that fifth dimension that tells Cooper he should stay but, at the same time, gives him the clues that will enable him to resume his career as an astronaut.

Professor Elliot Myerowitz offered some plausible scenarios for a nature-caused die off – enormous algae blooms as a result of ultraviolet light getting to earth through the ozone hole; a recurrence of the cyanobacteria that produces oxygen rather than carbon dioxide and once managed to kill almost everything on earth. He also offered the suggestion of a microbe that attacks the chloroplasts in plants that, on the one hand, produce the carbohydrates a plant needs to grow and, on the other hand, releases via photosynthesis the oxygen from carbon dioxide which humans need to breathe. So a scenario of excess production of CO2 is much more plausible than nitrogen (already 80%) increasing at the expense of oxygen. Further, it is a scenario that is part of our daily fears, for CO2 need only increase to 2% in our atmosphere to radically change how we can live.

But this is science fiction. Who cares whether the science is credible! When it comes to science, moviegoers are credulous. But credibility, plausibility and verisimilitude are not only important to Kip Thorne who conceived the movie, but to the absorption of the audience in the dramatic action. I have no idea why a more realistic political and biological foundation was not provided for the film. What we observe is very entrancing, but it does not lead us to expect a realistic – or as realistic as possible – excursion into outer space. For science fantasy is an escape genre. Science fiction, on the other hand, prepares us for enlarging our aspirations, the central message of the film. A world where aspiration and vegetative life have been exhausted may serve as a great counter to a restored faith in science, but if it leads us to believe that science is sheer fantasy, then that purpose has been undermined. And my very small survey of viewers of the film is that they saw the movie as science fantasy which they equated with science fiction. In other words, instead of strengthening the human belief in science, the movie undermines it. And there are so many more plausible scenarios that could have pressured humans to seek a new home on another planet.

When we get to the science of leaving earth and reaching another galaxy, the scenarios, however unfamiliar, are scientifically much more plausible. Tau Ceti, the nearest sun with a possible planetary system with a possible earth-like planet is 11.9 light years away. (Proxima Centauri, the nearest sun, is only 4.24 light years away, but it does not have planets conducive to supporting life.) So if spaceships could travel at the speed of light, that planet could be reached in just under a dozen years. But space travel at the speed of light is just implausible in science. So the problem is not just the distance of alternative solar systems, but the difficulty in getting there within a reasonable time. Voyageur 1 has been traveling for 37 years and is only 18 light hours – not 18 light years – from Earth. As Thorne has written, this is like traveling to downtown Manhattan from midtown when your destination is Perth, Australia.

Hence wormholes. Traveling to the moon, the only space body to which humans have traveled, is fact. Traveling to Mars is within range of achievement. Traveling to Saturn, though much more difficult, is feasible. An advanced version of Voyager I, using gravitational slingshots as Voyager I did around Saturn and Jupiter to give the spaceship a boost, make such travel possible. If we can get to Saturn, and if there is a wormhole near Saturn, travel to another galaxy becomes plausible. Not yet feasible, but scientifically plausible.
The movie set in what is no longer Oklahoma or the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz, which blames nature rather than humans for the extinction of life on earth – in contrast with Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction – has universal appeal because the message is acceptable to both tree huggers as well as the anti-environmentalists who believe that environmental science is a religious cult. But if the effort was intended to seduce the anti-environmentalists into at least accepting the validity and superiority of science as an awesome enterprise through the beauty and fascination of the power of science as well as a love of nature’s magnificence, the film lacks coherence, which is as important to the credibility of science as Thorne’s preoccupation with a correspondence theory of truth.

Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in the dystopian pre-story poetically laments that, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Unfortunately, the opening pre-story does not help restore that faith in science. Aim higher, break barriers to ignorance, reach for the stars, explore, pioneer and persevere. Most of all, as Dr. Brand intones repeatedly like a sledgehammer that sucks the music out of Dylan Thomas’ great poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” For although wise men know that death – personal or of the Earth itself – is inevitable, humans cannot and should not lie down before the awesome inevitability.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

That is why this movie is deeply religious, not in terms of organized religion, but in terms of its spiritual message. Jesus did not go raging into that good night. He accepted his crucifixion with equanimity. But he refused to passively accept the death of others whom he raised from the dead, such as the young girl who supposedly died in Luke 8:49. Jesus insisted that she was only sleeping. While everyone around was wailing and weeping, Jesus woke her up. So Jesus spoke with a forked tongue, a tongue which offered two opposite lessons at the same time – total acceptance of his own demise while quietly raising others from the dead.

Dr. Brand, who we learn in the movie has spoken with a forked tongue in a very different sense, as both a liar and a man who believes that radical alternative choices have to be made when two roads diverge in a wood. He is given those precious lines of Dylan Thomas’ villanelle as his motto to pass onto future generations. But the Welsh poet’s message to his own father is a rant against acceptance of death by the other, whereas Thomas was a fatalist alcoholic when it came to his own death. So which are we to believe, the forked tongue of Dr. Brand in which science has to operate via the use of Plato’s noble lie or Cooper’s raging efforts to live up to the vow he made his young daughter?

Cooper could have recited lines from another famous poet, an American one, to counter that of Dr. Brand, the last verse of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Next Blog:
Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel
Speed, Distance, Navigation, Communication, Long Duration, Propulsion and Time Dilation

Science, Information and Democracy

Science, Information and Democracy 

An empirical case analysis as background for my talk: “A Philosopher Reflects on Governance in Canada: Is Democracy in Decline?” to be presented to the noon hour series for Senior Fellows at Massey College on September 23rd.


Howard Adelman



Following interviews with the science journalist, Véronique Morin, the Webster McConnell Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year, this blog surveys the various efforts of the Harper government to limit the output of scientific data, particularly that related to environmental issues, and access to data. The government redacts much of the data given out after delay, delay and delay. The article concludes that this is part of an even larger operation to undermine the professionalism of the civil service and its critical role in ensuring a strong and responsive democracy. 


Véronique Morin is the Webster McConnell Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year who works the science beat, with an emphasis on research, for a science magazine program, Le Code Chastenay, on Télé-Québec. She had the idea and undertook the research for the documentary, Time Bombs, which exposed the horrific use by government officials of 40 ordinary soldiers in order to study the effects of the use of atomic bombs on the military in combat. The bombs were sometimes as much as four times more powerful than the bomb used on Hiroshima and at times the soldiers were only half a mile from the explosion. The soldiers were not told that they were being used as guinea pigs. They obeyed because they were members of the Queen’s Own Rifles and saw themselves as serving Queen and Country in following orders. Of course, the soldiers later developed cancer in extraordinary proportions and this fact was kept a secret from them initially and from the Canadian public. Even worse, some of their children were born with deformities or handicaps. Time Bombs follows the Atomic Veterans in their quest for recognition from the Government. The documentary won a Gold Ribbon award from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, and a Best Documentary award from the New York International Independent Film and Video festival. Excerpts can be seen on

“Why did we go there?” the veterans ask. Why won’t the government acknowledge what was done to these veterans in Operation Plumbbob when Jim Huntley, the only veteran still in good health, confronts the politicians as the quest for justice is juxtaposed with never-before-screened film records of American nuclear tests involving soldiers. I asked Véronique why the officials in 1957 sent them since they knew by then the effects of atomic radiation. She thought they were driven by a combination of scientific curiousity and a desire to be part of the Big Boys Club with America and Great Britain.

Linked with my last topic on indigenous peoples, Véronique organized a panel of science journalists on “Science coverage of indigenous people” who are confronted with very high rates of diabetes, obesity and exceptional rates of suicide, particularly among the youth. How should science reporters deal with these issues when indigenous people may not share the epistemological assumptions of modern scientific inquiry? How does one reconcile journalistic integrity with scientific objectivity and cultural sensitivity? Véronique, a former President of the Canadian Science Writers Association, was also a key catalyst behind moves to investigate the Canadian government muzzling of government scientists. 

The Harper Government and Access to Scientific Information

I was out of touch with the media when scientists demonstrated last summer on Parliament Hill decrying the “Death of Evidence” and asserting “no science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy”. I had also missed the early April news that The University of Victoria Environmental Law Center and non-partisan Democracy Watch had requested that Canada’s Information Commissioner conduct a probe into “systematic efforts by the government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media — and through them, the Canadian public — to timely access to government scientists.” Calvin Sandborn, the legal director from the University of Victoria’s Law Centre noted that, “the topics that require the highest level of ministerial control are topics related to the tar sands, climate change, polar bears, caribou and the oil and gas industry.”( (Science News “Canada to probe ‘muzzling’ of scientists,” 2 April 2013)

A press release said that Canada’s Information Minister, Suzanne Legualt, announced an investigation into six government departments over the so-called muzzling of government scientists. In actuality, Madame Legault simply confirmed that the decision to investigate fell within the mandate of Canada’s information commissioner for the federal Access to Information Act requires the Office of the Information Commissioner to investigate “any matter related to obtaining or requesting access to records” from federal institutions. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, boasted that, “Environment Canada participated in more than 1,300 media interviews, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada issued nearly 1,000 scientific publications, and Natural Resources Canada published nearly 500 studies.” This, of course, said nothing about whether scientists were or were not muzzled. 

The Canadian Commission for UNESCO has also taken up the issue. It is ironic that in the same year those 40 soldiers were sent on a mission to be exposed to deadly radiation in 1957, both the Canada Council and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO within the Canada Council were founded following a petition of 16 national cultural organizations in Toronto in December 1945 and the inclusion of that proposal in the mandate of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts co-chaired by Vincent Massey. This explains the irony of a Commission within the Canada Council investigating the issue of access to government scientists.

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly protects freedom of expression. According to rulings of Canadian courts, governments can restrict a person’s freedom of opinion and expression only for important overriding purposes. There are three tests of such seriousness: 1) is the override rationally connected to the purpose it is intended to achieve; 2) is the impairment as little as possible? 3) do the beneficial effects of any restriction outweigh the deleterious effects? The pattern of muzzling government scientists passes none of these tests and seriously undermines the three underlying values of freedom of expression: participation in social and democratic decision-making, attainment of truth, and individual self-fulfillment.

The initial probe is restricted to the following departments:

·                 Environment Canada

·                 Department of Fisheries and Oceans

·                 Natural Resources Canada

·                 National Research Council of Canada

·                 Canadian Food Inspection Agency

·                 Department of National Defence

·                 The Treasury Board Secretariat


The evidence of muzzling contained in the over one hundred pages of appendices to the 26-page joint petition and complaint filed on February 20th seems overwhelming. For a summary see Carol Linnit’s May 2013 article, “Harper attack on science: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy,” in Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education. Not only have government scientists been muzzled, but important research programs and mechanisms for collecting information, such as the Long Form Census, have been cancelled. Sometimes, as Linnit wrote, the suppression is ludicrous as when Mark Tushingham was prohibited from attending the launch of his own novel exploring a future world destroyed by global warming. Federal scientists in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are required to obtain high level permission to meet with the media to discuss peer-reviewed research.


The greatest repression is connected with environmental research:

  • The Harper government new rules on media contact led to an 80% reduction in department engagement on issues of climate change
  • In 2008, the position of National Science Adviser was eliminated
  • Scott Dallimore of Natural Resources Canada required the permission of Natural Resources Minister, Christian Paradis, to comment on his research on a northern Canadian flood 13,000 years ago
  • Postmedia journalist Margaret Munro was denied access to information or government personnel regarding Canada’s radiation detectors (She subsequently won an honourable mention from the World Press Freedom Award for her story on muzzling scientists; the Canadian Science Writers Association as a collective won the 14th annual Press Freedom Award for their work on exposing government restrictions on federal scientists and deliberate delaying tactics.)
  • Scientists in Environmental Canada were not permitted to discuss their paper published in Geophysical Research on the projected estimate of a 2 degree celcius rise in global temperatures
  • David Tarasick of Environmental Canada was not permitted to discuss his research on the ozone layer over the Arctic
  • Environmental Canada research scientists were not permitted to discuss the petroleum-based pollutants in snowfall near the Alberta tar sands except if their comments were restricted to scripted statements provided to them
  • Media liaison personnel had to accompany all government scientists at the International Polar Year Conference in Montreal
  • The Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2013 announced a policy that all scientific research undertaken by the department was confidential unless released by high level officials in the department
  • In August 2011, 700 Environmental Canada positions were eliminated in the name of fiscal restraint
  • By February 2012, the number of light detection and ranging stations to monitor ozone loss and fossil fuel pollution had been reduced from ten to five
  • Funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Studies was not renewed in 2012 forcing the closure in Nunavut of PEARL, the Polar Environment Aerospace Research Laboratory
  • Funding for the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy was cut in 2013 and it was restricted from making its information publicly available
  • Peter Ross, Canada’s only marine animal toxicologist, along with 1,074 other Department of Fisheries and Ocean employees, lost his job
  • The Harper government cut $3 million from the Experimental Lakes Area in an effort to shut down this natural laboratory for studying the effects of industrial and chemical pollutants on waterways and aquatic life

Year after year, the Harper government has received a failing grade from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression for policies which deliberately delay and prevent access to information. Canada was ranked 40th out of 89 countries in last year’s Global Right to Information Rating. Further, as Véronique made clear, the attack on evidence and on access to information goes far beyond environmental or even natural science issues. In my own areas of expertise, library resources and policy units have been closed down in departments like immigration and foreign affairs. The effort is not merely to protect and defend policies promoting resource development in the face of environmental criticism, but to make policy independent of any science-based foundation whether applied to incarceration of more people or with respect to immigration and refugee policy. Stephen Harper may have been the smartest kid in his high school class, but he has led a government dead set again evidence-based policies and in favour of policies which have a populist appeal.

Populism is not democracy. Democracy is not equivalent to politicians claiming to express the will of the people. Democracy depends on the protection of minorities (in contrast to the policies of the minority government in Quebec). Democracy depends on free expression and access to and dissemination of accurate information so that civil society can be as well-informed as possible. Importantly, good governance depends on incorporating those values in developing an independent mandarin professional class of civil servants who can advise government on various options based on the best knowledge available to them. A mandarin class is not the antithesis of democracy but a requisite condition of its highest democratic aspirations.  The public interest is not and cannot be equated with private interests even as the worthy goal is pursued of preventing ostensible efforts at protecting the public interest from being used to squelch and restrict entrepreneurial efforts needlessly. When civil servants to keep their positions or rise in the hierarchy simply become toadies to the party in power and lose their independence, then the professionalism of a mandarin class is undermined and democracy is weakened.

Civil servants with impressive reservoirs of technical expertise are prerequisites for both formulating and implementing policies decided by government. That does not mean that the delegation going downwards can be badly executed or that the civil servants may not overreach and undermine the government’s ability to make decisions or that governments often will ignore sound advice and the knowledge based on experience and studies at their peril even when a quality mandarin class is available to them. However, the basic premise in a quality democracy is that mandarins propose but do not decide and mandarins execute but do not simply obey blindly. This premise has stood the test of time. Regimes which ignore this lesson out of conspiracy theories that the mandarin class is simply an ideological tool of an opposition party or the simplistic mantra that elected officials and not unelected civil servants must make policy in a democracy simply misrepresent how representative democracies work. They do not work by converting mandarins into lackeys trotted out for elected representatives to hide behind when convenient or kept behind the curtain when it is politically expedient.

Mandarins have the following responsibilities with respect to a democratically elected government:

·         To prepare professional quality options to facilitate rational decisions

·         To facilitate access to government from a wide variety of competing interest groups

·         To especially accommodate disadvantaged groups in the process thereby strengthening goals of social justice and equality

·         To insulate as much as possible the process of decision-making by those with exploitive, manipulative and/or repressive agendas by fostering broad participation and dialogue.

Accurate information and acute analyses that are widely disseminated are crucial to the process of fostering evidence-based discourse, the very foundation of the democratic cause and the foundations for an informed public.