The closing of two internationally renowned and respected Canadian research stations is raising doubts about the Harper government's commitment to the environment. What's worse, they come as Ottawa is trying to defend its environmental record in the face of opposition to the critical Keystone XL pipeline project. Ottawa needs to think twice about the message it is sending the world, or at least better explain its decisions.
In Northern Ontario, the dismantling of the 45-year-old Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a freshwater research station that measures the effect of mercury, acid rain and other contaminants on Canada's waterways, has already begun. The station's research was considered vital to the preservation of what many consider to be the country's most valuable resource: water.
As well, this past winter was the first since 2005 that the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut, didn't take any scientific measurements, depriving the scientific world of vital data at a time when it needs to know more about climate change than ever. PEARL, which lost its federal funding and ceased year-round operations last April, is the world's "most northerly permanent non-military research facility in the world," according to a press release from the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change, which operates the facility. (PEARL continues to operate part-time on a donation basis and has reapplied for federal funding.)
The Harper government says it is trying to find a buyer for the ELA but has so far not come up with "an appropriate third-party stakeholder," according to Greg Rickford, the local Conservative MP. As for high-Arctic research, the government plans to open a new station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, but only in 2017. There is no plan to bridge the research between then and now. Furthermore, the new station's focus will be as much on technology and the development of the north as it will be on scientific research, and it is located 1,300 kilometres to the south of the PEARL station.
No scientific research facility should be granted an infinite guarantee of government funding. On the other hand, the closure of two world-class research stations feels ill-conceived and poorly justified; answers are needed. It is not just facilities that are being lost, but decades of research and intellectual capital, as well as an opportunity for the Harper government to demonstrate to a watchful world that it is committed to protecting the environment. Instead, Ottawa had handed ammunition to critics who can now rightfully question the government's claim that it is a guardian of the environment.