A Canadian forestry professor’s critical views on a controversial herbicide were not the reason he was fired, but nonetheless, his termination was unjust, a judge has ruled.
Rod Cumberland, previously employed at the Maritime College of Forest Technology in New Brunswick, was fired from his post in 2019 after creating “a toxic atmosphere” at the college, according to court documents. Cumberland insisted his vocal criticism of glyphosate, Canada’s most popular pesticide, sparked his dismissal. He also argued his dismissal was propped up by the institution's cozy relationship with the province’s forestry industry and powerful Irving family, but the judge didn’t buy it.
“I reject the argument that Mr. Cumberland’s dismissal was because of his views on glyphosate or was part of a conspiracy involving players in the forestry sector including the Irvings,” Court of King's Bench Chief Justice Tracey DeWare wrote in her decision.
However, DeWare ruled Cumberland was wrongfully dismissed and ordered the college to pay him $48,644.57 for the seven-month notice period he was owed. She said the college should have raised specific concerns with Cumberland in the months leading up to his termination and made it clear that he would have needed to dramatically change his behaviour to keep his job. Instead, the college was “sloppy” and failed to address those issues, the judgment read.
Glyphosate, the herbicide in question, is in popular sprays like Roundup. Forestry companies in the province use it to kill vegetation — like weeds, grasses and deciduous trees — that competes with the softwood trees harvested by the lumber industry. While companies such as J.D. Irving Limited, which runs the largest forestry products company in the province as part of the Irving Group of Companies, maintain the product is safe, there is ample opposition to its use.
Glyphosate has been dubbed a “likely carcinogen” by the World Health Organization, and places such as Laval, Que., have banned its use, citing concerns around public health and nature. Health Canada, along with the New Brunswick government and Natural Resources Canada, continues to insist the chemical is safe. Cumberland has long been a staunch opponent of glyphosate use.
Cumberland is “understandably disappointed with the balance of the judgment,” said Paul Champ, Cumberland’s lawyer, in an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer. “The evidence showed that Irving was very much in the background here, and were raising concerns with the college about Mr. Cumberland’s views.”
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While the judge characterized the college’s handling of the situation as “sloppy,” Champ wrote that he thinks it demonstrated unfair treatment of an employee. The lawyer presented emails obtained through a freedom-of-information request that showed the New Brunswick government, Natural Resources Canada, pro-glyphosate scientists and Irving raising concerns about Cumberland’s views on glyphosate leading up to his firing.
However, based on all the evidence presented, DeWare determined Cumberland’s communications and interactions with several students and colleagues were “completely inappropriate” and one of the factors that caused him to be fired.
Some of these interactions include Cumberland taking hats off the heads of students and forcing them to apologize in order to get their hats back, changing the classroom clock to make students think they were late and barring late students from entering the classroom, according to emails submitted as evidence.
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer