This past weekend, I had the privilege and honour of speaking at Queen’s Park in Toronto to the crowds gathered for the March for Science. Here’s a transcript of my speech.
Hello everyone. If you’re here, you might know that our government hasn’t always had the best record when it comes to preserving the ethos of science needed for research to be free from political bias. I’m here to tell you, that science is almost never free from cultural and political bias. But where does that leave us, striving to make our governments more transparent, our laws more just, and economy more ethical? As a society, we have to become more conscientious about the ways in which science has been used to advance the interests of our governments and corporations, but also the ways in which it impacts scientific research policy itself, and at what cost.
Since the Harper government’s infamous muzzling of federal scientists, we have become aware of how power structures in this country can jeopardize science, and in turn, our collective health and well-being. What we might not realize is how Canadian extractive industries, namely, the oil and gas and mining industries, continue with impunity, to use the expertise, economic and political support of our nation’s scientists and engineers, to violate human and environmental rights in vulnerable communities within Canada and overseas.
I was trained in chemical engineering at the University of Toronto. During my education, while we considered legal and ethical issues, I, along with others, felt that we needed more preparation in this area. Engineers as professionals, were advised to be apolitical, in that their expertise was to serve the public good, but we were not to question who and what factors defined what the public good was. Moreover, once I was in industry, I began to see how current laws and policies governing the activities of Canadian engineering, procurement, construction and management firms fall short in their promises of accountability in Canada and abroad. To this day, and in spite of criticism from many stakeholders, very few of these companies have faced legal, social and political repercussions, and their dominance in the world extractive market continues unaffected. Just recently, in late March, after being held responsible for many other infractions, Barrick Gold has been accused of using the Papua New Guinea police force to destroy up to 150 households in order to unlawfully evict villagers near a gold mine. In British Columbia, just last week, the Mount Polley Mining Corporation was granted permission to drain its waste into Lake Quesnel, which is used for the livelihoods of many residents in the area, including several Indigenous communities. This is barely three years after the the collapse and spill of a Mount Polley tailings pond into Lake Quesnel, an event considered to be one of the worst mining disasters in Canada.
During the Harper government, Canadians acknowledged the need to hold our government accountable for all the harm and negligence that was to befall this country’s environment and health. It’s time we extend this push for accountability and transparency to our homegrown technocrats and their enablers who exploit Canadian laws and scientific and technical expertise to reap profits. We as a country cannot claim to be a leader in human rights and environmental protection, while our private sector is continually rewarded for contentious standards of transparency, innumerable human rights violations, especially with respect to Indigenous communities, and an appalling environmental record. In fact, we are complicit in these infractions, as long as we create the sociocultural and political space to tolerate these practices.
As an engineer-turned-social scientist in training, I am in a unique position to consider divergent perspectives in this matter. And I know, that in their ideal states, both the science and technology sectors, and the social welfare proponents want a more prosperous, healthier and sustainable future. It’s time we finally let them hear each other out, create the space for collaboration and let that goal come to fruition.