New Parks policy limits information
Thursday, Jun 26, 2014 06:00 am
A new communication policy directing all Parks Canada media requests go through high-ranking bureaucrats in Ottawa means Banff residents – and the Canadian public – no longer have the same access to information about their national parks as they used to.
The policy to put tighter controls on the release of information means every media request, no mater how benign, must be approved at the top with the only exception being immediate public safety issues. Even standard rescue operations or wildlife issues in Banff must now get approval from national office – often a time consuming process.
This type of centralized media management, which has become increasingly used under the Stephen Harper government, has implications for the Canadian public, including hampering the media’s ability to bring the public news in a timely, fair, thorough and accurate manner, according to critics of the policy.
Based on documents obtained under the Access to Information Act (ATIP), it is unclear if the new directive came from high-ranking officials within Parks Canada or the Environment Minister’s office, the department that oversees the agency.
Government officials refused to comment when asked who implemented the policy, which came into affect agency-wide last September.
“When the new directive was announced to us … we were asked that 100 per cent of requests needed to be sent for approval,” said Frédéric Baril, a senior media relations manager in Parks Canada’s national office, in an email to staff obtained in the ATIP documents.
Baril, a former press secretary to Jim Prentice at the time he was federal Environment Minister, refused to speak to the Outlook or answer a question as to who gave the new direction. In fact, the Outlook was told he was busy.
Parks emailed a statement to the Outlook, saying Parks Canada adopted this standardized media protocol last September to “ensure consistency in the delivery of messages across the country”.
“This protocol does not apply to cases where the safety of the public is a concern as Parks Canada’s communications team must quickly answer these time sensitive requests,” wrote Mélissa Larose, a Parks Canada media relations officer.
Larose refused any further questions about the directive or an interview with Baril or another high-ranking official. “Parks Canada considers this response to be final and complete,” she wrote. The Environment Minister’s office did not return calls.
The Outlook’s ATIP request revealed a new format must be used by local media managers in Parks Canada’s various field units, including in Banff, to gain approval to interview requests, including a list of the reporter’s questions.
Staff are also given scripted media lines. There have been some concessions to the policy, according to the ATIP documents on what does not have to go through Ottawa, for example, staff can answer questions about hours of operation.
All media requests, regional releases or bulletins generated from Banff, and other national parks across the country, must first go to a regional communications officers, who in turn sends it up the line to national office in Ottawa.
The news releases and bulletins must be sent by park media staff to an internal email address at least 20 working days before publication. The only exception to this timeframe is for “products related to public safety” according to documents released through ATIP.
“No other product will be issued if this deadline is not met,” wrote Baril in an email to staff. “With that being said, we continue to strongly encourage you to proactively promote the agency in the media.”
The new media protocol technically applies to media who show up on the scene, which is not uncommon for local reporters particularly in busy summer months where there are many rescue operations as well as wildlife activity involving bears.
“If they show up unannounced and we have no other option, we can speak to them,” said senior communication advisor within Parks Canada, Greg Kingdon, in an email to staff.
“We should try to limit this to operational issues. If we can put them off we should, but if we have no choice go ahead and send in a hit ASAP indicating we were put in that position.”
Internal emails among media staff also note that Parks Canada is still encouraged to do “proactive media” – but that media managers must simply seek approval in advance from the national office.
But that does not appear to be sitting well with local park staff.
“Since this new directive adds more work to the already over-worked media office, what we have to do is drop proactive media,” said Ann Morrow, Banff National Park’s external relations manager, in an email obtained under ATIP.
“So please don’t stress if you aren’t doing any - the system leaves us no choice other than further burnout.”
Chris Turner, award-winning author of The War on Science; Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada, said this new policy certainly fits with the style of this government.
He pointed to a gag order placed on federal fisheries scientist Kristi Miller that prevented her from talking to reporters about her research into B.C.’s sockeye salmon collapse in 2009. National media have consistently reported that order came from people close to Harper in the Privy Council Office.
“If rank and file Parks Canada members are finding they don’t feel free to speak to the press, odds are it came from fairly high up the chain of command. Is it senior administration of Parks Canada or even higher up? I couldn’t tell you,” said Turner.
“In this instance it’s impossible to say, but I don’t think you’d find a single government employee who hasn’t got a message that it’s best not to talk to the press about anything, no matter how benign. The general mood in every department is ‘don’t say anything’.”
Parks Canada has refused many of the Outlook’s interview requests on many important issues to the Canadian public, and in many cases, has just been sending an emailed statement, preventing the media from asking questions on behalf of the public.
This is in stark contrast to previous years, where frontline staff have been allowed to speak to the media without strict media lines, and high-ranking local officials have consistently been available for interviews, no matter the topic.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recently assessed the central mountain caribou population of B.C. and Alberta, which includes Banff and Jasper, as endangered. An interview was refused but the Outlook received a statement.
Last month, an interview was also denied about a contentious proposal for Canmore to truck its treated sewage sludge through the national park to Banff’s wastewater treatment plant. A brief email that failed to address many of the issues pertinent to residents was sent.
This week, the Outlook only just learned a grizzly bear had been struck by a train near Carrot Creek last month, despite the fact every week reporters ask if there have been any wildlife issues, including injuries or mortalities.
The death or injury of a grizzly bear in the national parks, where there is an ongoing $1 million joint Parks Canada-Canadian Pacific Railway study to stop ongoing bear deaths, is a hot topic for Canadians, particularly because the animals are a threatened species in Alberta.
“When you get to more specific things like what Parks Canada is doing, information they have of local or regional importance in terms of wildlife behaviour or changes in regional climate weather, the less open communication the less informed we are as a public,” said Turner.
“I think for most Canadians that’s a negative thing, because most of us value good information. I do think it’s incumbent on government to demonstrate why certain information is not freely available.”
Turner said he understands that civil servants aren’t to comment or criticize the government of the day, but staff should be allowed to speak freely if reporters are attempting to gather general information to inform the public.
“It speaks to this government that is much more close minded, and really more about government using government information and government science to political ends, rather than simply in the public interest, and this is very much of this government’s style,” he said.
“They believe right down to the warden office in Banff National Park that every message needs to be consistent with what they want said, and don’t want said.”
The Professional Institute of Public Service Canada (PIPSC), which represents scientists in 40 federal government departments and agencies, is deeply concerned about the government’s control on the release of information.
PIPSC commissioned a survey, done by Environics Research Group, which found that nine out of 10 federal scientists (90 per cent) that responded to the survey (4,000) do not feel that they can speak freely to the media about the work they do.
In addition, faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, about 86 per cent indicated they do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department.
More than 37 per cent indicated they have been prevented in the last five years from responding to questions from the public or the media, while 73 per cent of scientists with Fisheries and Oceans indicated they were aware of cases where health and safety of Canadians, or environmental sustainability, has been compromised due to political interference.
Peter Bleyer, senior advisor to PIPSC, said muzzling of federal scientists is something that should alarm Canadians, not to mention the government cuts to the scientific work done in various departments, including Parks Canada.
“It’s quite overwhelming when you see the scope of the lack of transparency and the lack of openness in communicating. Federal government science is practically under lockdown,” he said.
“Our members are really concerned because they are committed to protecting the public interest, and they are put in a position where they don’t have the tools to do it, whether through muzzling or their advice not being taken.”