When U.S. journalist Emily Atkin flew into Fort McMurray, Alberta, to “see the tar sands,” her Canadian border control interview left her uncomfortable enough to investigate the experiences of others in the environmental journalism field. Her findings on the state of play in Canada left her with a distinct impression of obfuscation and control at a governmental level.
Atkin’s experience began with a semantic debate over the term tar sands versus the officially sanctioned term ‘oil sands.’ Tar sands has been used colloquially in Canada since the 1930s but the term has now been officially replaced with oil sands on the grounds that the latter better reflects the final product. Critics argue that oil sands is now the officially preferred term because it sounds ‘cleaner’ than tar.
Atkin’s inquiries revealed two important factors that seem to be making it difficult for journalists to access information about the environmental and social costs of one of Canada’s most significant revenue sources. According to one of her sources, Tom Henheffer of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), these are an increase in bureaucratic red tape, which makes it time-consuming to extract information, and an incremental defunding of environmental research, “So the information journalists want isn’t even created in the first place.” According to a recent CJFE report, 45 percent of requests sent to Canada’s access-to-information system did not receive a response within the legal time limit, and 80 percent of the responses that were received were at least partially censored.
As reported by CBC in January of this year, over 2,000 federal scientists have lost their jobs in the last five years, and hundreds of programs have been defunded. Since 2008, Environment Canada scientists have been unable to speak directly to the media about their work, and must refer all inquiries to communications staff, who have incidentally increased by 15.3 percent over a similar time frame. In a 2013 survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, 90 percent of Canadian scientists employed by the federal government stated they still do not feel they can speak freely to the media and 71% said they “believe political interference has compromised Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence.”
In a 2012 survey of Canadian journalists reporting on the tar sands in Alberta, many felt that stories that reflected negatively on environmental impacts of operations went unreported. The survey goes on to reveal, “While journalists didn’t specify why certain stories are not covered by the news media, they did report that some of the sources they would need to produce credible articles or documentaries are not easily available and, in some cases, not available at all.”
As Tom Henheffer notes, “They’ve essentially dismantled our access to information system. It makes investigative journalism impossible.”