Write2Know: Amplifying the Silences of Muzzled Scientists and Performing Participatory Democracy

By Natasha Myers

There are so many stories that could be told about what it is we don’t yet know, what we can’t know, and what we aren’t allowed to know about the effects of industrial waste on the health of Canada’s ecosystems and communities. We could begin in Alberta’s tar sands and the story a colleague of mine told me about the tour he recently took up to Fort McMurray to visit one of Syncrude’s “remediated” tailings ponds. He went to see the first phase of Syncrude’s plan to transform its massive network of tailings ponds into an “artificial lake district” and “future recreation site.” Tailings ponds hold the wastewater generated in the production of bitumen from oil sands. Syncrude’s promises of a remediated future for this landscape evaporated when he stepped off the tour bus and his feet sank into what he realized was freshly laid sod. With each step, black, oily substances oozed up between the seams. An orange and green haze occluded his view out over the water. The pond, full of wasted water, was so vast he couldn’t see the other side. This was no pond, he realized, but a giant lake. Around the perimeter, fake trees, which were supposed to serve as nesting sites for predatory birds, stuck out from the ground at haphazard angles. He wasn’t surprised the nests were empty: the cannons, which were meant to scare off ducks and geese to keep them from landing on the contaminated water, were still going off every minute. He considered writing to Syncrude to let them know that it was perhaps too early to be running tours up there. Too early? All I could think was, “10,000 years too early!” At the same time, I was convinced we should all be getting on those buses to witness what he saw. Sites like these make the concept of “remediation” seem ludicrous. Once the site of a thriving forest, and home to people, animals, plants and other creatures, what he confronted that day was an apocalypse. There is no going back.

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Photo Credit: Oil Sands Operation, Howl Arts Collective, Creative Commons License

As Alberta’s extensive deposits oil sands are mined from the sandy soils that lie below the boreal forest and processed to produce bitumen, water is drawn out of the Athabasca River at a rate of over 117 million m3 per year and dumped into these ponds as wastewater slurry. The production of one barrel of oil from the oil sands requires nearly four barrels water and nearly four tons of sand and soil. The extensive network of tailings ponds from oil sands operations now spread out over 176 square kilometers of that province. Projections from Suncor and Syncrude’s combined current production levels, predict that the volume of these ponds is will exceed one billion cubic metres by 2020. In addition to fine clay particles, the tailings in this wastewater are composed of “residues of bitumen as well as salt, naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, cyanide, benzene and other pollutants.” These extremely toxic and persistent chemicals include carcinogens and mutagenic agents, making the tailings ponds a perfect symbol of the market externalities of capitalism, those unstoppable toxic ecologies accumulating in the wake of what Kim Fortun calls “late industrialism” (2012).

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Athabasca Oil Sands NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using EO-1 ALI data courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

What are the effects of these oil sands operations on the communities and environments trying to thrive downstream? One reporter tried to find out. DeSmog Canada’s managing editor and director of research, Carol Linnit, wanted to know how oil sands toxins were impacting the animals living in the region. She wanted to understand what this meant for the people who hunt and eat these animals. In the process of her research, she learned some hard lessons about who is controlling what Canadians can and cannot know about the health of their bodies, communities, and environments. Her efforts to interview the federal scientist doing the research on contaminants in Alberta animals were vetoed. In her attempts to find out why her request for an interview was denied, she was confronted by byzantine bureaucracies and forced her to wait months for answers. When she filed an information request under the privacy act she received over 60 pages of heavily redacted emails that had been sent back and forth between government officials trying to figure out how to handle her request for an interview. An access to information request following this revealed that her inquiry for an interview was sent all the way up to the office of the Privy Council (a wing of the Prime Minister’s Office) before it was denied by the Minister of the Environment on the grounds that DeSmog Canada, the organization Linnit worked for, had been publishing stories critical of the oil sands. She was never given permission to speak with the scientist, and the questions she had sent in for pre-approval were answered perfunctorily by staff members at Environment Canada rather than the scientist she had hoped to interview.

Linnit is not alone. As she recounts in her report, “Media requests involving controversial subjects such as the Alberta oilsands, climate change or species at risk are often subject to upper level political review and are routinely approved or denied at the ministerial level or in the Privy Council Office.” Other reporters have confronted similar challenges. Dene Moore requested an interview Fisheries and Oceans scientist Max Bothwell who studies an algae commonly known as “rock snot”, an organism whose pervasive blooms are thought to be on the rise as a result of climate change. That request was intercepted by the Communications Division of Environment Canada and generated over 110 pages of emails, enlisting the efforts of 16 government officials before it was ultimately denied. No interview was granted, and the reporter was forced to file the story without corroboration from the scientist.

Environmental assessments and monitoring require diligent effort, extraordinary amounts of time, and technical expertise. It’s hard enough to track and analyze the effects of extractive industries and climate change on the health and safety of the water we drink and the air we breathe, without the government obstructing public access to this data. In many cases federal scientists charged with the task of monitoring industrial waste are doing the work, but requests for access to their findings are being denied. In other cases, the Canadian government has canceled essential environmental research and monitoring programs and made requirements for environmental assessments obsolete for new industry initiatives. A recent CBC documentary, “Silence of the Labs” describes how the only government research laboratory dedicated to the study of the toxicity of marine mammals in the Arctic was closed and the lead scientist, Dr. Peter Ross, and 55 of his colleagues were fired. This was the research group that had found that killer whales in the Arctic were 500 times more contaminated than any other human or animal on the planet. Given their dependence on these and other increasingly toxic marine mammals for food, Aboriginal peoples living in the Far North carry significantly heavier burdens of contaminants in their bodies, compared to other populations. Now that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans contaminants program has been canceled, who is monitoring the movement of toxins in food chains in the Arctic?

These stories show us what it at stake when questions about public health and safety go unanswered. They force us to ask: Why is the government obstructing our right to know about the health of our bodies, communities, and environments? As an anthropologist of science and technology, working alongside a large group of historians, anthropologists, lawyers, and sociologists dedicated to examining the power and politics of scientific knowledge and technical expertise, I couldn’t shake the idea that now was the time to put our collective know-how to work. I convened the Politics of Evidence Working Group, an inter-university collective of scholars dedicated to taking action on issues where science and technology intersect with social and environmental justice. In partnership with Scientists for the Right to Know, Evidence for Democracy, DeSmog Canada, and the Right to Know Network, groups that were already actively at work on this issue, we aimed to challenge the fraught politics of evidence in Canada today. We wanted to extend our expertise to grapple with the government’s recent moves to muzzle scientists, terminate essential research programs, destroy archives and close libraries, and cancel the long-form census. For years scholars in the social sciences and humanities investigating forms of governmentality have relied on the productivity of Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics. This concept has been especially helpful in articulating the relationship between knowledge and power, providing a robust tool to examine how states invest in knowledge about bodies and populations in order to govern those bodies and populations. This analytic, however, seems to fail us as we confront a new regime in Canada, one that hinges nonknowledge as the currency of the government’s power. What new framework would we need to understand this regime of “imposed ignorance”?

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Fort Chipewyan resident address. “On June 16th, 2008, protesters gathered outside the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Investors Conference. The protest was organized by the Sierra Club, Forest Ethics, Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians, and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.” Photo by ItzaFineDay, Creative Commons License.

As we saw it, government obstructions to inquiry and knowledge were disproportionately affecting Aboriginal communities in Canada. These are the people whose lands and livelihoods are most threatened by the expansion of extractive industries, and whose health and welfare have been increasingly sidelined by expanding cuts to government research and environmental assessment programs. The effects of Chemical Valley on the health of people in Walpole First Nation, mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, and the effects of uranium mining on Dene communities are just a few examples. It was clear to us that the failure to take action in the face of these environmental injustices were bound up in the larger social injustices faced by Aboriginal people in Canada today. The government’s refusal to conduct an inquiry into the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada today is another clear example of this systemic disregard. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s insistence that this issue is not a “sociological phenomenon,” is as we see it part of a larger effort to keep the public in the dark. Indeed, it would be in the government’s best interest to keep Canadians from knowing the social and historical facts about the devastating effects of the government’s institutionalized racism, forced assimilation, and the imposition of residential school systems on these communities.

What kind of intervention would work to publicly expose the gravity of these issues? Given the massive bureaucratic machine that is set in motion each time a journalist asks to speak to a federal scientist on a topic that is flagged by the government as a sensitive issue, I wanted to know what would happen if we launched a mass request for information. How might we amplify scientists’ enforced silences and simultaneously jam the system? How would the government respond to a flurry of requests from members of the public rather than just a handful of journalists? At first I imagined this action as an absurdist form of performance art: by sending out a massive call to federal scientists, participants would be forced to collectively confront the injustices of this muzzling. How could we make scientists’ silences as loud as possible? How could we map imposed ignorance in Canada today?

The one person I knew who had the skills and the gumption to get this idea off the ground was Max Liboiron, a Canadian feminist science studies scholar, activist, and artist who had just joined the sociology department as a faculty member at Memorial University in St John’s Newfoundland. She was returning to Canada after years of living and working as an activist-researcher in the US context and collaborating on successful projects like Superstorm Research Laboratory and the Discard Studies Blog. As an expert in activist-research methods, I knew that Max would be able to lead the Politics of Evidence Working Group in developing an effective campaign that could engage the public and make our voices heard by government. We held our first activist-research methods workshop with Max in January 2015, and after a follow up meeting over brunch the next day, The Write2Know Project was born.

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Write2Know offers a platform for people to pose questions to federal scientists on matters of public and environmental health and safety. It is an international campaign: Canada’s policies on oil sands, climate change, marine plastics, and more, have global impacts. Write2Know Week (March 23-27, 2015) mobilized hundreds of people across Canada and around the world to send over 3000 letters to federal scientists and ministers. Write2Know letters address serious gaps between research and government policy. They grapple with issues of social and environmental justice, including oil sands pollution, intensified resource extraction from forests, the impacts of marine plastics, cuts to Aboriginal health research, the destruction of archives, contamination in the Far North, and more. This campaign explicitly foregrounds ongoing colonial regimes in Canada, which propagate forms of environmental racism, and render Aboriginal communities more vulnerable to cuts to environmental monitoring and social research.

Our first Write2Know Week featured eight pre-drafted questions and letters. Federal scientists received one copy of the letter at the start of the campaign, and each quarter they will receive an update listing the hundreds of people who have signed on to that letter. Federal Ministers and Ministry Critics receive an email each time someone signs a letter. The campaign is working: we have already received supportive responses the critics of government ministries. We are making these issues heard by the very people who can change the debate in Parliament.

The letters demonstrate public support for muzzled scientists. Each also makes a nuanced intervention grounded in a robust science and technology studies (STS) analysis of the context. Rather than securing a division between expert scientists and a lay public, or a public dependent on scientists as the sole arbiters of truth, the letters demonstrate a scientifically literate public interested in the uncertainties of scientific research and wanting to help shape the direction of inquiry. The campaign is thus not merely a call for access to the facts of positivist science, but for a better, more inclusive and collaborative form of inquiry responsive to the needs of communities and the toxic ecologies of late industrialism. A robust platform for participatory democracy and a new kind of “civic technoscience,” Write2Know will continue to connect communities and educators with STS researchers. Currently we are collaborating with K-12 teachers and university educators to get people looking around their communities and asking questions about social and environmental injustices. Already a number of communities are starting to craft their own questions and letters.

Write2Know. Ask the questions that matter to you.

The Questions

Write2Know is one of many actions initiated by organizations across Canada today. It has been so successful because we have been able to partner with groups that have already done extensive work in this area and accumulated invaluable expertise. Our partners include: Scientists for the Right to Know, Evidence for Democracy, DeSmog Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Get Science Right Campaign, the Technoscience Research Unit (UToronto), Waste and Science, Technology and Environment group (WaSTE) (MemorialU), and PIPSC, the union representing federal scientists. Actions across the country are ramping up in advance of the 2015 federal election in Canada. And yet, we know that no matter which of the political parties are elected, our work will not be done until there is a massive public outcry that makes the call to repeal the legislation (including Bill C-38 and Bill C-45) that have made this obstruction to our right to know possible.