A major public service union in Canada is wading into the country’s 2015 Prime Minister race, an unprecedented step for a group that’s historically stayed out of political matters.
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which includes climate and environmental scientists as well as other public sector employees, voted Friday to begin planning an advertising campaign that will highlight the anti-labor policies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration. The union has traditionally stayed out of elections, preferring to keep a politically neutral stance, but multiple decisions made by the Harper government have prompted it to abandon that neutrality.
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions,” PIPSC President Debi Daviau said in a statement. “[The Harper government] has launched an unprecedented assault on unions, and other democratically elected organizations in this country. It has cut thousands of federal public service jobs, programs and services. This government has forced non-partisan organizations such as ours to make a very difficult choice: to remain silent or to speak out. We have chosen to speak out.”
The union won’t be endorsing any specific candidates in the race, which is likely to pit Harper against New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, but it will be educating the public about how Harper’s policies have affected the public sector.
Those policies have been particularly hard on Canadian scientists. The Harper government forbids federally-employed meteorologists from talking about climate change, on the grounds that the meteorologists are only allowed to speak publicly about their area of expertise, which includes weather but excludes climate.
According to a survey done by PIPSC, 90 percent of government scientists feel like they aren’t “allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do.” In addition, 24 percent of the federal scientists who responded to the survey had been asked to “exclude or alter” information in government documents for non-scientific reasons.
These claims have led to critics accusing the Harper government of “muzzling” its scientists in an attempt to keep the scientific message on climate change and environmental issues in line with the government’s messaging, which supports tar sands development and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and has favored business interests and economic growth over action on climate change.
“The Prime Minister is keen to keep control of the message, I think to ensure that the government won’t be embarrassed by scientific findings of its scientists that run counter to sound environmental stewardship,” Thomas Pedersen, a senior scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, told the BBC in 2012. “I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don’t discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is.”
Canada’s federal government has drastically scaled back its environmental funding and policies since Harper took office in 2006. The government cut about about 500 jobs from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2013, eliminating positions that had helped patrol for illegal fishing and conduct conservation and water pollution research. Canada also withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, and Harper didn’t attend the UN’s climate summit in New York this September.
Harper’s challengers in next year’s election have differing views on climate and environmental issues, but both have stopped short of expressing opposition to Canada’s tar sands industry. Liberal Party leader Trudeau has said that Keystone XL is in Canada’s “national interest” and has voiced his support for the tar sands industry, though he’s also called for emissions limits on tar sands operations.