ELA – All that glitters is not golden: a response to MP Rickford

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ELAKENORA – Editorial – Conservative MP Greg Rickford, who once praised the extraordinary work conducted at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), is blindly supporting his party’s decision to terminate this critical federal science program. In what is both a contradiction and a paradox, he now believes axing the ELA is a “golden opportunity” in the life of the northwestern Ontario research facility. Mr. Rickford, the residents in your riding are smart enough to know that such ‘newspeak’ is about limiting your political liability for a dreadful decision, not about creating new opportunities for a doomed world-class scientific facility.

The Conservatives’ resolve to terminate the irreplaceable ELA program has been met with justified shock, outrage and disbelief. In the weeks that followed this announcement, quietly made on May 17th behind closed doors, the outpouring of support – locally, nationally, and globally – for ELA has been overwhelming. Despite a strong, reasoned call from the public of all political stripes to reverse this decision, the Conservative government seems unable to get its head out of its ideology.

The ELA, which lies halfway between Kenora and Dryden, is the only place in the world where whole-lake experiments can be performed. Because studies are done on entire lakes, not in test tubes, scientific evidence generated by ELA over the past 44 years has been some of the most influential in guiding environmental policies, not just in Canada but around the world.

Claims that the decision to close ELA is about saving money would be ludicrous if they weren’t so tragic in their implications. This dishonest rhetoric is no match for the facts. The ELA is jointly operated by Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada, both chronically under-funded departments that are allocated an abysmally low 1% of the federal government’s budget. The $2 million per year operating cost of the ELA program, including salary for 17 staff, accounts for less than one tenth of one percent of the budgets of these two departments.

Just three years ago, when the Conservatives provided almost a million dollars for construction of a new fish laboratory at ELA, Rickford publicly lauded “Canada’s most innovative freshwater research facility”, stating “the work that is being done on behalf of Canadians is extraordinary”. He also expressed that such federal investments in science are “helping to create a science capacity that will drive Canada’s prosperity and quality of life in the future”.

The recent suggestion by Mr. Rickford that ELA serves “a narrow scientific community” says more about Greg Rickford than it does about ELA. It is obvious he is ready to regurgitate the speaking points handed down to him from the Prime Minister’s Office, no matter how much it may conflict with what he has already put on the public record. ELA serves all Canadians by providing sound, defensible science to shape policies that keep our lakes clean and fish populations healthy. Among ELA’s long list of accomplishments: the discovery that phosphorus in detergents is responsible for algae soups in lakes, the evidence that ‘acid rain’ causes lake trout to starve, and answers to whether burning fossil fuels contributes to mercury contamination in fish in our lakes.

The termination of the ELA by the Conservative Government is not supported by the majority of Canadians, and runs counter to the opinions of Mr. Rickford’s constituents ─ as shown by local protests, letters to the editor, and resolutions adopted by City Councils in Kenora and Dryden. If Mr. Rickford had accepted my invitation to attend the Town Hall in Kenora last month, he could have tuned into the concerns of the people in his riding. Fortunately, Mr. Bruce Hyer, MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North attended the Kenora Town Hall to listen to Canadians.

But wait, Mr. Rickford brings a glimmer of hope for ELA – a “golden opportunity” he calls it. He says he is, apparently, working to transfer ELA to another operator, knowing as he does that the drop-dead date of March 31, 2013 for the transfer is absurdly short, that the messy legalities of a change in ownership have not been addressed, and that there is no federal money to attract hard-pressed institutions like universities. I fail to see how this will lead to a bright future for ELA, or more importantly, for us as Canadians. Mr. Rickford, what happened to the role of government to protect the ‘public good’? Why is it no longer the job of the federal government to protect our fish and our lakes?

The termination of the ELA program, compounded by the gutting of Canada’s fisheries law ─ both supported by Mr. Rickford ─ will have devastating consequences. In addition to the immediate losses of local jobs, the allure, beauty and economic backbone of northwestern Ontario depend on pristine waters and great angling opportunities. Water quality issues, from invasive species to algal blooms to climate change, are on the rise in our region. We must be well-informed to be good stewards of our precious freshwater and fisheries resources.

Mr. Rickford’s so-called golden opportunity is cold comfort to the champions of this great scientific institution. The sun is setting on ELA, and it will cast a large shadow over the lakes of northwestern Ontario. But the dark cloud over the government that made this decision today ─ without regard for all our tomorrows ─ will remain.

Diane Orihel

Diane Orihel is a PhD Candidate in Ecology at the University of Alberta who studies water quality in freshwater lakes. In her spare time, she volunteers as leader of the ‘Coalition to Save ELA’ – a nonpartisan group of scientists and citizens concerned about the future of Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area. For more information, please visit: www.saveela.org

Postscript: Diane Orihel has invited Mr. Rickford to a public debate in August to discuss his Government’s decision to terminate the Experimental Lakes Area.

NetNewsledger.com has invited response from all sides in this ongoing discussion over the ELA.

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