In May 2009, Quebec government scientist Louis Robert was 15 minutes away from entering a conference room to give a lecture about phosphorus when he got a phone call from his boss ordering him to call it off.
His boss threatened to move Robert into another office to perform administrative tasks if he dared to proceed with the lecture.
A year earlier, a senior public servant summoned Robert to a meeting at a restaurant with his boss, in which the scientist was told to cancel an on-camera appearance with journalists to talk about the management of fertilizers.
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The interview was scheduled to be four days away, but it was cancelled and the journalists were then forced to send their questions to the ministry to proceed with their reporting.
Both incidents were recounted in an email sent to National Observer by Robert's public sector union.
Robert was previously employed at Quebec's Agriculture Department for three decades.
All in all, the scientist was personally ordered to cancel these types of appearances "five to six" other times over the past few years, according to his union.
Throughout this period, the union said he was trying to alert his superiors about attempts by industry to suppress publicly-funded science on the health effects of pesticides.
Phosphorus is a mineral that can pollute water as a result of runoff from fertilizers used in agriculture. An overabundance can lead to the growth of toxic bacteria, for example on Canadian lakes.
His supervisors gave him the brush-off. Eventually he leaked a document to Radio-Canada, feeling he had an obligation to inform the public.
He gave a journalist at the public broadcaster an internal note. This document revealed a crisis unfolding in the provincial grain research body, Centre de recherche sur les grains (CÉROM).
The leak triggered an internal investigation. Robert was suspended on Sept. 12 and put in limbo for over four months, the union says, until he was fired on Jan. 24.
Dismissal has triggered three grievances
Robert has signed and filed three grievances with the Quebec Ministry of Labour, all countersigned by his union, Syndicat des professionnels du gouvernement du Québec (SPGQ), the union says. The ministry now has to appoint an arbitrator.
Union president Richard Perron said in an interview March 12 that the first two grievances, given to the ministry on Feb. 22, state that Robert's dismissal was illegal and abusive, and didn't respect his collective bargaining agreement.
They also suggest his period of suspension went far beyond the standard 30-day period in the agreement. Robert is asking to be reinstated as well as reimbursed for lost wages with interest.
The third grievance was filed Feb. 28, Perron said, and accuses Quebec Agriculture Minister André Lamontagne of defamation.
Robert and his union's position has been backed by the opposition parties in Quebec. All three parties said at a Feb. 14 press briefing that the firing of Robert was an affront to both public health and the protection of whistleblowers.
Members of the official Opposition Quebec Liberal Party — in power during the period when Robert appeared to be getting muzzled —along with the Parti Québécois and Québec solidaire have all supported an SPGQ petition expressing solidarity with Robert and saying he acted as a whistleblower.
More than 51,000 people have signed the petition, which calls on the government to reinstate Robert, publicly apologize to him and compensate him, as well as “ensure that the spirit” of the whistleblower law is respected.
Québec solidaire MLA and former La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal said the situation was eerily reminiscent of the former federal government of Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, which was found in a federal investigation to have violated its own rules by muzzling federal scientists.
“It reminds me of a government I have already covered in Ottawa, the Harper government,” he said. “There is clearly a shared philosophy that is becoming more and more apparent between the behaviour of Mr. Harper and (Quebec Premier François) Legault.”
Struggled for years to alert superiors
Robert had noticed that Christian Overbeek, the head of Quebec’s public body on grain research, which is majority funded by the ministry, is also the president of a trade group of producers and is a lobbyist. Overbeek has spoken against excessive regulation of pesticides, a central issue that the grain research body examines.
Robert also realized that the board of directors of the public research body was entirely filled with corporate representatives. In fact, management had been pressuring all sorts of researchers not to disseminate or interpret the results of research projects, while the board had tried to discourage them from publishing their results in scientific articles, according to the Radio-Canada investigation.
Tens of millions of kilograms of pesticides are used each year in agriculture, forestry and land management in Canada. Farmers spray pesticides on crops to get rid of weeds, or boost the harvest. Tests reveal one popular herbicide called glyphosate, for example, shows up in low amounts in a variety of foods Canadians eat.
Health and environmental groups have grown concerned about their overuse and in one case, an alleged link to cancer. One major manufacturer in the pesticide industry was alleged in court to have been involved in manipulating scientific papers about health effects.
When Robert went to discuss the matter of corporate influence, he got nowhere fast.
“He was told to shut his mouth and not speak about it anymore,” said Perron. "When he saw that nothing was going to happen...he gave an internal note of the ministry regarding his first denunciation to a reporter from Radio-Canada, and the reporter used this document."
Robert declined comment when reached by National Observer. “Unfortunately I was advised not to give any interview,” he said, adding that SPGQ had informed him that speaking to media could jeopardize any legal procedures he may undergo in future.
Overbeek says critics took a cheap shot
The Radio-Canada news report that triggered the investigation that led to Robert's dismissal was published March 8, 2018. The report said that the ministry had been hit with some 15 employee resignations, including seven researchers since 2016, out of 35 employees.
The ministry initiated an inquiry into who leaked the document, said Perron.
When they asked Robert whether he had leaked the document, he said yes he had, out of an obligation to inform the public about the dangers that could be inherent in the food Canadians eat.
Overbeek has since said in statements that, as research and planning partners, grain producers of Quebec “promote the development of valid and useful scientific knowledge on an independent basis without interfering with the internal affairs of other organizations.”
"I have always respected the mandates that were given to me, the ethical rules that applied to me, as well as the opinions of specialists on good governance. That's what I continue to do today.”
Earlier in February, La Presse reported that Overbeek may withdraw as president of CÉROM, which is set to hold a general assembly next month.
But on Feb. 20 Overbeek was interviewed by Quebec independent news outlet La Vie Agricole, where he said he thought his portrayal in media as the "evil Christian" was a cheap shot.
"These people should be held accountable for portraying me in this fashion. I cannot understand it," he said. He also cast doubt that changes at CEROM would necessarily result in his departure as president.
Perron, who represents 25,000 government professionals across almost 60 departments and agencies, said Robert's story reminded him of the tobacco industry.
“Mr. Robert denounced an attempt to hide scientific information from the public that was supposed to be disclosed,” said Perron. “Where have we seen that before? With tobacco companies.”
University of California research published in 2011 showed how tobacco companies had known for decades that cigarette smoke contains cancerous substances, but hid that information from the public.
In a statement sent to National Observer on Feb. 20, CropLife Canada president and CEO Pierre Petelle said Perron's comments were "blatantly false." He said the "plant science industry has the utmost confidence that the products we develop and deliver to farmers are backed by rigorous science that demonstrates their safety for both people and the environment."
"Canada has a rigorous, world-renowned regulatory system that ensures the safety of all pesticides registered for use in Canada. Our industry has an unwavering commitment to sound science and we are committed to continuous improvement. We will continue to work diligently to develop innovations that enable farmers to be more sustainable and deliver safe, high quality food to Canadians and those around the world."
Agriculture minister takes credit, then backpedals
When Robert was let go of his job on Jan. 24, he was informed that he was dismissed because he had continued to speak out after being told not to do so, and because he had leaked an internal document, Perron said.
However, the day after Robert's firing was reported in the press on Jan. 30, Lamontagne, the agriculture minister, claimed that he himself had ordered the firing. “It's my decision, so I'm very comfortable with my decision,'' he told media.
He also claimed there were other reasons that led to Robert’s firing, despite the provincial legislation protecting whistleblowers.
A few days later, the minister reversed course, saying he didn’t fire Robert after all.
Instead, Lamontagne said he had "made a mistake by taking on my shoulders the weight of this decision, which is actually an administrative decision...in the heat of the moment, I did not speak well. In fact, a minister does not hire or fire officials. And I did not intervene in any way."
But the next day, he told Quebec journalist Paul Arcand that his “intuition” guided his decision on Robert.
These twists and turns in Lamontagne's explanation are the basis of the third grievance, said Perron. The minister, he said, in his comments has "confirmed that he has no factual information to say there were ‘other reasons’ to fire him."
Minister calls for ombudsman inquiry
The minister then called for an inquiry by Quebec’s ombudsman to ensure Lamontagne had no involvement in Robert’s firing, and that the firing was properly carried out and was not retaliation for Robert’s actions.
The union and Quebec’s opposition parties, however, want Robert reinstated while the inquiry is happening. The union says the ombudsman isn’t supposed to protect the minister, but to protect the public.
Meanwhile, the handling of grievance cases could take at least a year.
“I am completely in agreement with all those who look at this situation and who consider that, possibly, Mr. Robert would have been the scapegoat of an inappropriate approach,” said official Opposition critic for Quebec's Treasury Board, Liberal MLA Gaétan Barrette, a physician and former health minister who sat in cabinet until the Liberals were defeated in the October 2018 Quebec election.
Editor's Note: This story is part of a series exploring the pros and cons of pesticide use in Canada, the strengths and weaknesses of its regulatory landscape and who exercises the greatest influence on this landscape. It is being produced in collaboration with The Echo Foundation. National Observer retains full editorial control.