'This feels very familiar': Canadian scientists rally to support American counterparts fearing Trump clampdown

Under former prime minister Stephen Harper, the federal government made it progressively more difficult for Canadian government scientists to communicate their findings to the public. Now, American scientists are facing similar restrictions, and Canadians are offering to help their U.S. counterparts fight them.

U.S. scientists facing similar communication restrictions, funding cuts as imposed by Harper government

Ottawa scientists protest on Parliament Hill against the Harper government's restrictions on government scientists and research. Now, Americans are the ones protesting against what they see as muzzling of government scientists. (CBC)

Under former prime minister Stephen Harper, the federal government made it progressively more difficult for Canadian government scientists to communicate their findings to the public.

Efforts by journalists to communicate directly with scientists to obtain information about something as benign as "rock snot" ran into roadblocks. Funding was cut to various scientific agencies, including Environment Canada, and thousands of scientists were laid off

The scientists' counterparts in the United States quickly rallied to their defence. Op-eds were penned in major scientific publications lamenting the lack of independence for Canada's science community. Petitions were signed.

Today, it's the Canadian government scientists — now free to speak directly to the press without pre-approval by intermediaries after changes implemented by the Trudeau government — battling on behalf of American scientists. 

Social media blackout

Just days after Donald Trump became president of the United States, alarms were raised after it was revealed that he had emailed several government departments advising them to refrain from posting anything to social media.

This was likely a consequence of a National Parks Service tweet on Jan. 21, a retweet from the New York Times Graphics account, that compared attendance between former president Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration and Trump's.

It was quickly removed, and the Interior Department briefly suspended all of its official Twitter accounts. The suspension was lifted by the next day.

Trump has over the years variously described global warming as "bullshit" and a hoax "created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." On the campaign trail, he said he'd pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, but after the election, he said he would "keep an open mind" about it. He also mused about getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "in almost every form."

In December, a questionnaire was reportedly sent to the Department of Energy asking for the names of staffers who had worked on climate change projects under the Obama administration, a request that was denied and which Trump's transition team later said had not been authorized.

Trump then appointed Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, a man who had launched numerous lawsuits challenging EPA regulations that sought to curtail emissions from the oil and gas and other energy sectors and who in the past had questioned the existence of climate change.  

Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz introduced a bill Feb. 3 to dismantle the EPA, a move that went further than Trump's intentions to drastically cut the agency's funding and reduce its regulatory role.

Canadians north of the border quickly took notice of these changes, particularly government scientists. 

'This feels very familiar'

"This feels very familiar, but it also feels somewhat scarier than what happened in Canada," shark researcher Steve Campana said of the U.S. developments.

A Canadian scientist who once worked for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Campana said he became exasperated by the limitations on publicly sharing his research that were imposed under the Harper government and now works in Iceland.

"The situation in Canada is that we had increasing restrictions through time and it was perhaps more insidious ... but it wasn't implemented all at once like what just happened down in the United States," he said. "I tell you, I'm pretty concerned for American scientists right now."

Steve Campana said he left Canada after funding was cut to some programs and federal scientists were prohibited from sharing their findings directly with the media. (CBC)

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union that represents Canadian government scientists, shares Campana's view.

"It's very similar. Admittedly, though, it seems more abrupt than what happened here in Canada," Daviau, who was also union president during the Harper years, told CBC News.

Guerrilla methods

A so-called guerrilla archiving event to make backup copies of environmental research conducted during Barack Obama's presidency was organized a month before Trump's inauguration by volunteers across the U.S. and Canada worried that government web pages related to climate science would be taken down once Trump took office.

At one such event at the University of Toronto, 150 volunteers worked to preserve government climate information posted online. Some of that work is still going on.

The concerns about loss of data weren't unfounded: hours after Trump was sworn in, a page about climate change hosted on the website was taken down.

Hundreds of thousands of people march down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21. A similar March for Science is planned for April 22, Earth Day. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

The attempt to shut down some environment-related government communication on social media also met with swift reaction: within a day of Trump's decree, several rogue accounts surfaced on Twitter, including AltUSDA, AltEPA and Rogue NOAA. They posted environmental and climate facts the official accounts could not because of the communication restrictions imposed on some government agencies.

Initially, some tweeters identified themselves as government employees. Now, some accounts state explicitly that they are not associated with the corresponding agencies.

The momentthe government started to disable [scientists] from completing their work on behalf of Canadians,that was the straw thatbroke the camel's back- Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada

One of Campana's chief concerns is that Trump's administration will make decisions that affect science without consulting experts.

Since his inauguration, Trump has "certainly made it clear that he's willing to speak and act without considering outside sources and opinion at all," Campana said. 

Campana and Daviau said the Harper government's clampdown on communication has had lingering consequences. Many Canadian scientists still feel uneasy about sharing information, and some fear they could again be muzzled by a new government (although their right to speak openly has been entrenched in their collective agreement).

Daviau sees the Harper years as a dark time for government scientists. But, she says, there was one positive outcome: it made a normally reserved group fight in a way that they may not otherwise have done.

Scientists learned to fight back

"Fighting over their terms and conditions of employment or their pensions, or you name it, [they] would never have done it. But the moment the government started to disable them from completing their work on behalf of Canadians, that was the straw that broke the camel's back," Daviau said.

"The day Trump announced these changes in the States … I realized how critically important and very significant what we did was."

Daviau said Canadian government scientists intend to add their voices to the U.S. fight as loudly as they can. 

The Canadians are sharing their own experiences and the tactics they used to fight against government restrictions, including petitions and campaigns targeting decision-makers.

"If there's a march in Washington, we will have a diverse delegation there, assuming we don't get turned back from the border," Daviau said.

Modelled on the popular Women's March in Washington — and dozens of solidarity marches around the globe — a March for Science has been planned for April 22, Earth Day. There are already nine parallel marches planned in Canada in support.

Canadian government scientists plan to join their American counterparts in protesting some of the Trump administration's policies on science and the environment. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at