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Scientists who have done studies at the Experimental Lakes Area say they are disappointed to learn that the Conservative MP who did not publicly fight the closure of the research station in his riding has been named Minister of State for Science.
"I felt like it was kind of a slap in the face to all scientists who have fought so hard to keep the ELA alive," Dr. Britt Hall, a biology professor at the University of Regina, said of the appointment of Greg Rickford to the cabinet.
"This is not a rational thought," said Dr. Hall, "but I just could not help feeling that (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper was just giving us a little bit of a message there."
The Conservative government announced in the spring of 2012 that it was closing the ELA, a world-renowned outdoor freshwater laboratory consisting of 58 lakes and their drainage areas which has been conducting groundbreaking research for more than four decades.
After the scientists mounted a storm of protest, the government relented and said it would try to find a buyer for the station which costs federal taxpayers about $2-million a year to operate. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced this spring that is negotiating the potential transfer of the facility to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
But the ELA's fate is still up in the air. And the scientists say Mr. Rickford did nothing over the past year to publicly oppose the government's plans.
"He was just so willing to toe the party line on all the myriad of reasons that the federal government proposed for their justification to close ELA," said Dr. Hall.
Diane Orihel, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta who has been a leading voice in fighting the closure said she was shocked at Mr. Rickford's appointment.
"One would hope that the Prime Minister would be trying to appease and pacify scientists given the rocky relationship between Canadian scientists and the federal government these days," said Ms. Orihel. "But, by choosing this particular person, it seems as if the Prime Minister is trying to incite scientists rather than appease them."
In 2011, as the Member of Parliament for Kenora, Mr. Rickford announced a $1-million dollar investment a new fish lab at the ELA that was funded under the government's Economic Action Plan. "At that point, he spoke glowingly about the ELA," said Ms. Orihel.
But, once it was slated for closure, "he did a complete about-face," she said. "His first reaction was 'oh my constituents are glad that the ELA is closing. They will be able to canoe and camp on the lakes.'"
In fact, the lakes have always been open to recreational use, including canoeing. The only restriction is that fishing is prohibited in some of them because it could alter fish counts.
"There's been a lot of hostility between Greg Rickford and ELA scientists," said Ms. Orihel. "Many have tried to approach him, to meet with him, to discuss the issue of the ELA, and he largely has ignored us and in interviews he has berated us."
For his part, Mr. Rickford said he is very excited to have been entrusted by Mr. Harper with the new portfolio – and took some credit for negotiating the transfer of the ELA to the IISD.
"I am very pleased that an agreement could be reached with the International Institute for Sustainable Development to continue the work at the Experimental Lakes Area – a resolution I and other colleagues worked hard to achieve," he said in an e-mailed statement. "Our government is continuing important freshwater research in other facilities across Canada. We are making important investments to clean up freshwater lakes like Lake Simcoe, the Rainy River – Lake of the Woods Basin, in the Kenora region, and Lake Winnipeg to name a few."
But the scientists are unimpressed.
The threatened closure of the ELA galvanized Canadian scientists, said Dr. Hall.
"I feel one of the interesting things about this whole fight to save the ELA was how it really anchored the scientific community and allowed them to speak out about other issues that they were having with the federal government," she said. "So to give him the science portfolio, it definitely is ironic, there's no two ways about that, and also kind of insulting."
Gloria Galloway is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.