Robyn Benson, PSAC

Wanton Conservative vandalism


Libraries being trashed, books being burned? Reminds one of another century—or of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, about an age when books are banned and “firemen” are sent out to burn them. But this is now reality in Stephen Harper’s Canada.

Like the elimination of the long-form census and the long gun registry, destroying books is likely not a wedge issue for voters; but it makes my top twenty list of reasons why the Harper Tories must go in the next election.

To the horror and dismay of scientists, seven regional libraries of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) are being closed, and most of the books, papers and other materials they housed have been destroyed or given away.

Some have sent to other libraries. Some holdings were opened up for scientists, consultants and the general public to scavenge what they could.

The rest ended up in dumpsters, and thereafter, landfills or bonfires.

The government claims that the materials were digitized prior to the destruction. This turned out to be untrue. Much of this priceless material, including environmental data that could be at odds with the government’s tar sands priorities, is lost forever. Gone are most books—reportedly as few as one in twenty were digitized—and data going back more than a century, collected in numerous specialist reports.

One scientist says: “I did manage to salvage a few bits and pieces, one of which was a three volume print version of the data that went into the now extinct DFO toxins database….Interested individuals should drop-in and loot [the] library before the bonfires begin.” Another scientist spoke of “hundreds of bound journals, technical reports and texts still on the shelves, presumably meant for the garbage or shredding. I saw one famous monograph on zooplankton, which would probably fetch a pretty penny at a used science bookstore… anybody could go in and help themselves, with no record kept of who got what.”

A 50-volume collection of logs from HMS Challenger’s 19th century expedition went to the landfill, taking with them the crucial observations of marine life, fish stocks and fisheries of the age. Thankfully, a copy survives overseas.

“I saw a private consultant firm working for Manitoba Hydro back up a truck and fill it with Manitoba data and materials that the public had paid for,” said Kelly Whelan-Enns, head of media and policy research for Manitoba Wildlands. “I was profoundly saddened and appalled.”

Books out on loan were not recalled, adding to the chaos.

And as for being able to use the material that remains—be prepared to jump through hoops. Where researchers could once browse the shelves of regional libraries for materials that might be relevant to their research, now inter-library loans will have to be used to get access to any of it, a process very much like the “I’m feeling lucky” random search button on Google.

All this to save less than $0.5 million.

There is nothing new, of course, in the government’s push to destroy data, or refuse to collect it, or keep it out of public view by muzzling scientists, a practice that has attracted international attention.

In its rush to develop the Alberta tar sands, the government has also been only too happy to pass legislation on request by Big Oil, opening up the environment, including most of Canada’s freshwater system, to development and pollution. The gutting of the Fisheries Act, which governed Canada’s freshwater networks, was only one measure among several that the oil companies requested. It is no surprise at all, then, that collections of vital freshwater environmental research, such as those held by the Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg, have now been destroyed: we can’t have pesky data getting in the way of ideology and profit.

Deep cuts at DFO might well have led to panic and poor judgement by senior managers in the department, but they shouldn’t have to shoulder all of the blame for this campaign of destruction. Scientists have not been slow to protest, and the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, including Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, are well aware of what has been happening, and haven’t lifted a finger to stop it.

Facts can be so darned inconvenient. Why should they stand in the way of what this government deems progress? The Harper government has shown that it simply won’t tolerate any such thing—even if whole libraries have to be shut down and their contents tossed into the flames.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on January 7, 2014 11:00 AM.

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