CFIA investigated for muzzling scientists

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is one of seven government departments and agencies that the federal information commissioner is investigating for alleged lack of information transparency.

Commissioner Suzanne Legault received a complaint from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic (ELC) and the Ottawa-based advocacy group Democracy Watch that government muzzling of scientists is a violation of the Access to Information Act.

The complaint about the CFIA is based on an incident in Calgary late last year during a briefing on a massive beef recall because of E coli contamination discovered in product from the XL Foods Inc. plant in Brooks, Alta.

“George Da Pont, president of the CFIA, attended a live news conference to discuss the government’s handling of the recall and answer questions,” said the complaint sent to Legault.

“However, the conference was abruptly ended when an assistant of agriculture minister Gerry Ritz interrupted Da Pont mid-sentence and ushered him away from the cameras.”

Meagan Murdoch, the minister’s director of communications at the time, directed Da Pont away from the microphone, abruptly ending a news conference being televised nationally.

Democracy Watch co-ordinator Tyler Sommers said the Calgary incident is the only evidence submitted on CFIA information practices.

“The information commissioner may be working on other information as well, but that is all we submitted,” he said.

The agency issued a statement indicating it is co-operating.

“As Canada’s largest science-based regulator, the CFIA is proud of the contributions we make to the quality of life of Canadians,” it said.

“The CFIA continuously strives to be transparent and accountable in how it does business. We will fully cooperate with whatever we are asked to provide over the course of the investigation.”

Also under investigation are the departments of environment, fisheries and oceans, national defence, natural resources, treasury board and the National Research Council of Canada.

In the request for an investigation, the ELC and Democracy Watch accused the federal government of “systematic efforts to obstruct the right of the media, and through them the Canadian public, to timely access to government scientists. There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the ability of the public to access scientific information produced by government scientists, information that their tax dollars have paid for.”

It included a 130-page report, Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy.

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