Which right wing Canadian party would you rather vote for?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Budget freeze endangers wildlife agency, scientists say

Worth Repeating:


A year in which Canada geese forgot to fly south and bears failed to hibernate is not the time for the federal government to cut funding and begin dismantling the country's national wildlife service.

That is the message leading Canadian wildlife biologists, many of them working in Quebec, are delivering to Ottawa in emails and letters protesting against drastic budget cuts to the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Since the creation of the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1947, the Quebec scientists note, hundreds of endangered birds, animals and habitats have been identified and saved from extinction.

The wildlife service's budgets have been frozen, travel cancelled and research put on hold until the end of the fiscal year, March 1, 2008.

For their part, Environment Canada officials in Ottawa maintain it is business as usual for the agency and its work.

Gregory Jack, manager of ministerial services for Environment Minister John Baird's office, said the service is simply "re-evaluating" its priorities.

Privately, however, biologists working inside the department and many on the outside, have another take on the funding freeze.

Although staff at the wildlife service have been ordered not to speak to the media, emails obtained by The Gazette reveal the federal government wildlife biologists fear the agency is being gutted.

"Despite the green wave that has hit Canadian politics, I have never seen morale so low in this outfit in the 15 years I have worked here," one senior research scientist wrote.

"There is going to be a profound impact on wildlife," said David Bird, a McGill University professor and incoming president of the Society of Canadian Ornithologists.

In addition to research and monitoring programs, he said, the agency also enforces Canada's Environmental Protection Act and various international commitments, including the Migratory Birds Convention and the Canadian Wildlife Act.

Canada can't afford to stop monitoring bird and wildlife species now, many of the alarmed scientists are saying, especially since they also serve as an early-warning system of climate change and its impact on both the environment and humans.

"We need to understand the population dynamics of these species," said Jean-François Giroux, a wildlife biologist and professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

The waterfowl specialist signed a letter sent last week from the 400-member Society of Canadian Ornithologists urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Baird to reconsider the budget restrictions now undermining the department's historic mandate.

He argues that the recent freeze of the wildlife service's field and research programs could jeopardize dozens of scientific projects, some with human health ramifications.

Among the projects in Quebec:

A study looking at ways to control Canada geese in urban areas and based on the 30,000-strong colony now exploding on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River near Varennes.

Continued satellite tracking of and monitoring for the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza in snow geese, a migratory species. More than a million snow geese travel over Quebec each year from the Canadian Arctic to the eastern United States.

Monitoring for avian cholera of the colony of 30,000 common eider on islands near Quebec City.

Lynn Miller, a wildlife biologist at Concordia University, said she is concerned what will happen to public education on several serious wildlife concerns.

For the agency, Miller has prepared online updates on bird flu, West Nile virus and other issues that workers in wildlife rehabilitation centres across Canada must know about if they handle dead and injured birds.

"We can't afford not to keep our eyes open to what is happening with wildlife," she said.

Paul Milot, a communications director in the Quebec City office of the wildlife service, said that in Quebec there are between 40 and 45 people working for the agency.

However, he said, he was unable to say anything more about the cuts and directed queries to Ottawa.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Canada Sending Troops in Afghanistan Faulty Equipment

Before patrolling the dirt roads that snake around their base near Kandahar, Canadian soldiers grab uniforms that feature special dyes and fibres designed to help them blend into the night. They also pack QuikClot, a chemical powder that can be poured into seeping wounds to staunch blood loss.

Troops may soon be able to add yet another high-tech gadget to their growing arsenal: X-ray vision.

Later this month, Canadian Forces officials are scheduled to review a device that promises to allow soldiers to literally see through concrete walls.

"It's a radar for finding people," says Robert Judd, president of Virginia-based Camero Inc.

The device is called Xaver and it sends and receives radio signals through walls up to a foot thick. Those signals are then converted into rough images on a small video monitor.

In another era, Judd might have had trouble coaxing Canadian Forces personnel to even meet with him.

These days, however, the military's doors are wide open to defence contractors. In 2005-06, the most recent fiscal year for which statistics are available, Canada's defence-related spending was $14.7 billion, 44 per cent more than the $10.2 billion spent in 1997-98.

"The war may not be good for innocent Afghans, but it's been a bonanza for companies," says John Pike, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a non-profit research centre in Washington.

It's also meant a bonanza of new gear for Canadian soldiers, but some fret the rapid spending increase may be leading to rushed, ill-advised buys.

Purchases are approved so quickly that there's little long-term consideration, says Scott Taylor, editor of Esprit de Corps, a military magazine.

Canada already has some 66 Leopard tanks, Taylor says, yet has agreed to buy more from the Dutch, some of which require major retrofits, and lease still more from Germany.

"Our troops may be out of Afghanistan by the time we finish retrofitting some of the German tanks," Taylor says. "What do we do then? Send them down the streets of Haiti or pay for them to be sent back to Germany, if they'll take them back?"

The list of the Forces' recent acquisitions is lengthy and, by military standards, impressive.

Late last month, officers in Kandahar were showing off the Husky, an oversized tractor-like vehicle with electronic and metal detectors designed to find and blow up deadly roadside bombs.

Some Canadian troops have assault rifles equipped with so-called "holographic sights" that allow soldiers to shoot on the run with improved accuracy thanks to a video screen the size of a cellphone display atop the rifle.

"They don't have to shut their eyes and squint to see their target," says Major Pierre Caron, a Canadian Forces weapons expert.

Ottawa's Dew Engineering is refurbishing LAV 3 vehicles with improved armour plating and designing a new seat that promises to better absorb the crippling shock wave created by detonating roadside bombs.

"When a bomb goes off, it's not just the shrapnel that kills, the percussion of the blast moves the organ around," says Tim Page, president of the Canadian Association of Defence and Securities Industries, a trade group. "The seat absorbs that percussion."

But some of the recent purchases are not working exactly as hoped.

Canada bought four unmanned aerial vehicles for $33.8 million in August 2003, through Oerlikon Contraves Inc.

The four-metre-long, French-made Sperwer aircraft were equipped with cameras, parachutes, inflatable crash bags and computer circuit boards.

But it had never been flown in extreme heat or in altitudes as high as Afghanistan. There were immediate concerns the new units would fail. Those worries were dismissed by an Oerlikon spokesperson.

Yet, four years on, Canadian soldiers now complain the Sperwer units have limited range and endurance and are struggling to cope with the Afghan heat.

The defence department is now planning to spend as much as $100 million to buy improved unmanned aerial vehicles.

A string of emails in April 2003 shows that some officers at the Canadian Forces Experimentation Centre – it tests new equipment before purchase – were concerned that Canada's first UAV purchase was being done hastily.

In an April 28, 2003 email to two colleagues obtained under the Access to Information Act, Lt.-Col. Stephen Newton wrote that he was worried about the fast tracking of the UAV purchase.

"It does not appear that anyone is quarterbacking this event and what is worse is that whoever is doing it is basing all their efforts on outdated procedures and criteria," Newton wrote. "At this stage of the game I am beginning to believe that the request for a tactical UAV is coming from the two staff instead of the operators. That is the only way I can explain such a lack of thought..."

Despite such misgivings, Dan Ross, the assistant deputy minister for materiel and the person in charge of major military purchases, said in an interview he wants to make the approval process faster still.

"Before I was hired in May 2005 it was not uncommon for (documents outlining) new project requirements to be 60,000 pages long," Ross said.

In 2004, an internal report suggested it took 107 months to procure equipment. Ross said he wants to pare that to 48 months.

But at what cost? Not testing the equipment properly could result in more deaths than the equipment could save.