Canadian scientist suspended, investigated after writing song criticizing the prime minister

September 8, 2015 • 9:00 am

Below is a song critical of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (head of the Conservative Party), who’s famous for his dire environmental policies. As Wikipedia notes (and I’ll add the links):

The Conservative Party of Canada has made significant budget cuts to Environment Canada, leading to criticism that it is undermining the ability of departmental staff to enforce remaining environmental laws.

The CPC has also been accused of restricting the ability of government scientists to speak to the public, the media, and even other scientists, leading to criticism that they are trying to limit the debate on environmental issues by “silencing scientists”.

The silencing of scientists was explicitly directed to keeping them quiet about three issues: global warming, fisheries, and especially the Athabasca oil sands project, which has been bitterly opposed by environmentalists. While I suppose the government has the right to restrict what scientists say when they’re speaking as government employees, I can’t see that they have the right to do so when those scientists are speaking as individuals and not representing official policy. This kind of speech restriction would never stand up in the U.S., for instance.

Harper is muzzling scientists for one reason only: to prevent the free dissemination of scientific information and opinion that might be inimical to the government’s (i.e., Harper’s) interests. It’s repressive, and would, in the U.S., constitute a violation of the First Amendment. I suppose the Canadian constitution permits this, though I know Canadian scientists have demonstrated against it.

Enter Tony Turner, a scientist at Environment Canada, one of the agencies whose budget has been cut. Turner, apparently a fixture on the Ottawa music scene, wrote the following song, “Harperman,” criticizing the PM and calling for his ouster. As The Guardian notes (see also the article on the CBC News site):

The song, which is recorded with a backing choir and a double bass, with Turner himself on the guitar, contains lyrics like “no respect for environment / Harperman, it’s time for you to go”, and “no more cons, cons, cons / we want you gone, gone gone”.

The song is actually quite catchy, and doesn’t divulge and privileged scientific information:

So what happened? Turner was suspended and is now being investigated by the government. That’s McCarthy-esque behavior, and is reprehensible. Harper himself could, of course, reverse this decision, and the fact that he didn’t is even more evidence that it’s time for him to go. Meanwhile, Turner, under any reasonable code of behavior, has the right to privately express his scientific and political opinions. The CBC, which gives more information about the song (useful for non-Canadians), adds this:

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), confirmed to CBC News that Turner is under investigation. PIPSC is the union which represents federal scientists.

“[Environment Canada] is alleging … [Turner] has violated the departmental code of values and ethics in that the writing and performing of this song somehow impeded his ability to impartially study migratory birds,” she said.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of formal grounds to base this in and certainly the courts have been loud and clear on the matter of how public servants can legitimately participate in a federal election.”

A spokesperson for Environment Canada wouldn’t comment on the case, citing privacy, but said public servants are expected to comply with the values and ethics code, regardless of their job.

So is this silencing and punishment of scientists legal? The CBC has a FAQ site, posted last May, about muzzling government scientists. While they describe the new draconian directive, they don’t discuss at all whether this policy is legal.

In 2006, the Harper government introduced strict procedures around how its scientists are allowed to speak about their research to the media.

In the past, journalists were generally able to contact scientists directly for interviews, but after these new directives they had to go through government communications officers.

And scientists had to get pre-approval from their minister’s office before speaking to members of national or international media, a process that can involve drafting potential questions and answers, which are then scrutinized by a team before the green light is given.

. . . A 2014 study of media policies from 16 federal departments concluded that current policies place far more restrictions on Canadian scientists when it comes to talking to media than is the case with their U.S. counterparts.

Since the policy has stood for nearly ten years, I suspect it’s legal, or it would have been challenged in the courts, but I’m not sure. The CBC adds that “A complaint lodged by advocacy group Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic in 2013 led to the launch of an investigation by Canada’s information commissioner Suzanne Legault, which is still ongoing.” But I haven’t heard any results.

Perhaps some Candians, or Canadian scientists, can weigh in here and see if anything has been or can be done about this abrogation of free speech, and of the free dissemination of scientific opinion.

h/t: Matthew

58 thoughts on “Canadian scientist suspended, investigated after writing song criticizing the prime minister

  1. So is this silencing and punishment of scientists legal?

    I hope not, but either way it’s sure stupid. Harper ought to google Streisand Effect.

    Thanks for bringing this issue to the attention of the entire world, conservative Canadian government party!

  2. IANAL but I’m not sure why the excerpted regulation is even relevant here. Its obviously intended to control how government employed scientists talk to journalists and news media. Fair enough; if I went directly to a reporter without going through my company’s PR office, I’d get in trouble too. But this guy wrote and performed a song. That has nothing to do with either giving or requesting an interview with a reporter.

    1. I am in the U.S., and the idea that an academic at a state run university must get clearance to be interviewed seems very bizarre to me, even when they are acting in their capacity as university faculty. I know of many professors that have been interviewed over matters that are critical of their university and their state policies. Perhaps they were careful in what they said, out of some instinct for caution, but there was absolutely no hint that Big Brother had inspected the questions or answers prior to the interview.

      1. He’s not at a university; he’s at Environment Canada. Probably more analogous to working at the Department of the Interior or maybe DOE, though I’m not sure.

        In my experience with DOE (which is admittedly minimal) and other such government agencies, they would indeed take a dim view of an employee talking to a reporter ‘on the record’ about departmental business without any departmental oversight. It may not be a firing defense, but I would bet dollars to donuts they have both rules in the manual and annual employee training about how you should call the public relations department before responding to any official media request for information.

        But as I said before, writing and performing a political song on you tube is not ‘talking to a reporter.’ The rules about employer oversight are written for and intended for public relations-type activities, not employees who paint, sing, or write novels about political figures or causes.

      2. This only applies to scientists who work for the federal government, not university scientists.
        That’s bad enough.

    2. This muzzling of Canadian scientists also restricted how the scientists published in journals…they had to have explicit approval to do so. You can well imagine how that helped their careers and scientists have spoken out about this, through the CBC, and other advocacy groups.

    3. While the regulation was one of the factors that led to the writing of the song, it isn’t the cause of the investigation. The government is claiming Mr. Turner breached the Code of Conduct for Public Servants, which includes a line about serving the government in a “respectful and loyal” fashion.

      While I think his private speech would be more than protected by free speech rights, if the Supreme Court were to say that the Code of Conduct is Constitutional (hasn’t been challenged in court yet, so no decision one way or the other) I think we’d have to concede that his actions weren’t classifiable under “respectful and loyal”. 🙂

      From what I’ve read, he’s within an hair’s breadth of retirement, so I really hope he suffers no ill consequences, or if he does, that the Court can set things right.

      1. It’s at least well established that you can oppose the prime minister while still being loyal. They wouldn’t call it the “Loyal Opposition” otherwise.

    4. But this guy wrote and performed a song.

      … in pubic. That’s probably what has got the blue-noses riled up.

    1. Absolutely. Using police to break strikes or harass and intimidate poor people doesn’t count as government intrusion, everyone knows that.

    1. It’s quite a dinky little song. I’m a sucker for a backing choir anyway but I like its(possibly unconscious) nod to the Stonecutters’ anthem from The Simpsons.

      ‘who holds back the electric car? / who makes Steve Gutenberg a star? / …Harperman, Harperman.’

        1. That is brilliant. And I am willing to bet that if his employer had just ignored the whole thing this national singalong would never have happened

  3. “Harper himself could, of course, reverse this decision, ”

    Self-restraint by power seems almost unheard of. History, to me, is mainly about forcefully ripping power from the hands of the powerful.

  4. If Harper is upset by scientists speaking, it seems to me the solution is obvious.

    All scientists in Canada should agree to stop speaking. And writing, and engaging in any other form of communication.

    And they should all continue to not communicate until Harper stops telling scientists to shut up.


    1. I don’t know that’d I’d want to sit at the table with them and see if they call that bluff. History is rife with stories about people not listening to logic and reason; surely Harper could find a way to spin it in such a way as to blame a liberal conspiracy to oppress the masses and set up the New World Order. Or set the stage for the Second Coming of Christ…an event that’s bound to be problematic what with the Vatican’s restrictions on birth control and lack of help from scientists should they all be silenced…

      1. I think Mr. Harper would very, very soon find out that no modern society can function at all without the cooperation of scientists. And if the only demand of the scientists is the right to freedom of speech…well, if he has even the slightest clue, Mr. Harper would cave long before it got to the point of confrontation lest the scientists discover just how much power they truly have.


  5. The grass roots advocacy group, Evidence for Democracy is working on bringing this issue to the public’s attention and demonstrating before politicians. They’ve had a few marches in which many scientists took place.

    Here is their website.

    There is a great documentary called Silence of the Labs>/a> that details the horrible things the Harper government has done – some of them truly despicable and ruinous to the careers of scientists.

  6. Thanks for this post, I had no idea Harper was a GOP doppelganger. Shameful is too weak a description. If the US could legally act in this way, you bet Senators like Inhofe would be silencing scientists left and right.

    1. Conservatives in Canada would love to be the GOP but Canadians, be more left leaning, don’t allow it. The Conservative party is actually more like the American Democrats on the spectrum of authoritarianism and right wing leanings. However, their attitudes are most likely in line with many of the GOP.

      1. I notice that the Conservatives haven’t done away with the Canadian health plan or made abortion illegal, which the Rethuglicans would do if they came to power here.

        1. Yes, the abortion thing was something Harper knew not to pursue and they won’t try to completely privatize Canadian Health Care (it is administered by the Provinces anyway) but they often cut transfer payments to provinces and are for more privatization.

      2. I don’t know, Diana. Harper seems much more like a Republican than a Democrat. I don’t think you’ll find many D’s down here who would support things like Canada’s Fair Elections Act. That reads directly out of the Scott Walker/Koch Brothers/ALEC/Republican playbook.

        1. That’s what I mean by attitude. There are Conservatives who think just like the GOP but they don’t dare do things like stop abortions. Even Harper refused to open up the debate when some of his members wanted to. They also won’t touch the science curriculum with YEC crap because it would mean political suicide. This is why Harper muzzles his own party members, not allowing them to speak, because of their opinions were heard, there would be a big backlash against the party.

  7. I read that Canada is now dipping into recession, with an election coming up next month. It may take some pain for Harper to be given the heave ho by Canadian voters.

    1. And a large part of that recession is from Harper’s insistence on putting all energy towards the energy sector. I often call him Canada’s Putin because Putin did the same thing and I think Harper would love to lead Canada the same way Putin leads Russia but he can’t get away with it. Harper also hates Putin so it’s a nice slam.

  8. … the Athabasca oil sands project…

    Tar sands, please. “Oil sands” is the right’s favoured term, good reason not to use it to begin with, and it also fails to convey the true bituminous awfulness of the stuff that they mine up there.
    Using “oil sands” allows the proponents of tar sand extraction to set, even in a small way, the agenda around the issue.

  9. The question of legality of the policy isn’t absolutely clear, but there has been discussion about the history of impartiality of the public service of Canada:, and about interpretation of current legislation (The Public Service Employment Act, 2003). As is true in most places, in Canada there is an expectation of impartiality of the public service that gets weighed against the rights of public servants to engage in political activities (which include supporting or opposing candidates during an election – we are in an election now, a record breaking 11 week (!!) election campaign – Americans should be envious that this is a record).
    It’s probably also not surprising that the weighting of individual versus public rights would be different in Canada than the U.S. (for example, we could talk about gun laws). My understanding is that members of the public service of Canada have been reminded of the duties of loyalty to the Government, and that their political activities must not impair or be perceived to impair their ability to perform duties in a politically impartial manner (that’s pretty close to a quote of what the courts have said). The courts have said that the duty of loyalty is not absolute and interpretation must consider the specifics of the case (what is your job? What activities did you engage in?). They have also been reminded, and have policy directives that clarify that they are not to argue in favour or against government policies. None of this seems odd to me, but the policies that then add that before talking to media or in any public forum, each employee must receive approval from their overlords, well, that part is crazy, draconian, unhelpful and fundamentally undemocratic – by not being in the public interest.
    My contact with Canadian federal employees suggests that they are simply being (rather effectively) intimidated by the policies. They have been reminded that they are public servants 24/7, and the actions taken in this particular case are a grim reminder that their careers are at stake. The fact that this employee is a few months from retirement speaks volumes. I am sure he expected to be disciplined, and harshly. My guess is that this was a weighted decision – really quite heroic. I wouldn’t expect someone in mid career to act this way, so when the boss says you might want to avoid any possible appearance of impartiality, you are probably wise to keep quiet.
    What I think this means is that those of us who can speak without fear of loosing our jobs have an increased duty to do so. While the comparisons of Harper to a GOP type are somewhat appropriate, this is in many ways much worse, in part because this is a parliamentary system with a majority government.

  10. Not bad at all, that song. Reminds me of a scathing piece by Eric Bogle, mocking then prime minister of Australia, William McMahon – “Poor Wee Billy McMahon”:

    When action is called for, when the going gets rough,
    it’s there you’ll find Billy, and doing his stuff,
    with the force and effect of a pink powder puff,
    Poor Wee Billy McMahon.

  11. Wouldn’t mind remodeling that for us up here in Australia. Change oil sands to coal mines and harperman to abbotman and it would be a good fit.

  12. So, was he suspended with pay, like a government-machine supported police/peace officer who murders an unarmed, nonviolent citizen, or was he suspended without pay, like a political target?

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