Science in Harper-land, eh?

In yet another sign that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have a very different approach to drugs than the previous government, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott yesterday toured Insite, the long-standing supervised injection site on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and called the experience “incredibly moving.” – CBC News

Federal Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo says science will determine not only which areas of Canada’s oceans the government will designate for protection, but also what development, if any, will be permitted in those areas. – CBC News 

It’s strange for me to be celebrating the return of science to Canada. If those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, what about those who fail science?

My last high school science class was Chemistry 11, back in the ancient pre-internet era when kids still thought chemistry sets were cool. The only reason I survived was because my lab partner was a science wiz. I received a “C-“ on the condition that I never darken the doors of a lab again. I wonder if our former Prime Minister, Steve Harper, had a similar experience in high school and that’s when he decided, “I’ll show them, I’ll show them all (insert maniacal “bwahaha” here).”

A few years ago I interviewed marine toxicology expert, Dr. Peter Ross, about our iconic west coast orcas and he shocked me with the news that they are, “the most contaminated marine mammals in the world” because, as apex predators, they’ve ingested everything we’ve ever dumped into the ocean. While that horrific information was sinking in, Ross hit me with a concept even more shocking. His position with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was being terminated. Apparently, Canadians didn’t need to know if there was poison in our water.

Peter Ross at work on the water.

As I started investigating the extent of the ReformaTory War on Science, I became convinced Harper wasn’t running Canada for Canadians, or even Albertans – because no matter how many Tories they elect I think Albertans do care if their tap water is flammable. Insert your favourite conspiracy theory about whether Steve was running the country for EXXON, the Koch Brothers or our evil Reptilian overlords.

Anti-science ideology has a body count. Back in 2000, seven people died and 2300 became ill in Walkerton, Ontario after consuming E.coli contaminated water – not long after the provincial Conservative’s “Common Sense Revolution” led to replacing the nerds in lab coats who would have inspected the water with private inspectors who must have had really great lab partners in high school.

It’s hard to stop – or find – mad cow disease if you’re not testing cattle.

And how do you figure out if fruits, vegetables or oceans are poisoned with pesticides if you fire everyone who does the testing?

For fans of the term “Harper Derangement Syndrome” here’s a late Chanukah present for Ezra Levant. Some Canadian will die because your deranged hero fired researchers and didn’t allow scientists to share their data. Canadians have already died of HIV/AIDS or heroin overdoses, because ReformaTories thought safe injection sites were icky.

And that’s not even getting into the casualties of climate change, the joys of deregulation and flammable (and carcinogenic) tap water.

Ignoring science kills people. Just ask our friends in Flint, Michigan.

When Steve decided to chastise Justin over his promise to decriminalize marijuana, it was a treat to see the now former Prime Minister claim “science” was on his side when he warned about the dangers of doobies. Whose science? Who knows? Probably the guy in the lab coat in the Reefer Madness movie – but it was still exciting to see The Stephen Harper Government of the country formerly and once again known as Canada acknowledging science as a potential policy-making tool.

We now know that when Steve came out swinging against safe injection sites it was because he was planning to use the image of deranged junkies to scare Canadians into voting for him. No wonder federal government experts weren’t allowed to explain how these programs save lives.

I should mention that my passion for this issue is at least partly inspired by guilt, because my poor lab partner received the worst grade of his life. Fortunately, I didn’t totally trash his report cards, because he’s gone on to become one of Canada’s most respected experts on HIV/AIDS.

Vancouver’s AIDS researchers are among the global leaders in not just preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, but creating a cure. “We could say what we wanted and did,” my former lab partner, Dr. Robert Hogg (now a Senior Research Scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS), told me. “The issue was that our national colleagues could not and were not allowed to create a national AIDS strategy that took into account harm reduction as well as a treatment response like treatment as prevention.  Furthermore, wasn’t PHAC (Public Health Agency of Canada) supposed to be like the US CDC — independent of government and preventing us from having another SARS? We cannot continue to have politicians interfering with public health and stopping people from saying things they believe in. It is bad for science and bad for public health,” says Dr. Hogg. “It was lucky for Harper that there was no large outbreak and a lot of people did not die or get sick like in Walkerton.” The federal government is now working with the Centre on treatment as prevention.

Another victim of the ReformaTory War on Facts was the long form census. Cancelling the census was so politically indefensible that when the Liberals announced they were bringing it back, Tony Clement, the industry minister who killed it, didn’t even protest the move. Clement’s passionate defense of his destruction of our national database and years of irreplaceable information basically boiled down to, “oops.”

Today the Government of Canada includes two Cabinet Ministers with the word “Science” in their titles and scientists are once again allowed to answer questions and share their research. I’m thrilled by the news – but also a bit terrified at the prospect of discovering what The Stephen Harper Government was so determined to hide from us.

Dr. Robert Hogg (my former lab partner) – from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

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