Montreal

Quebec's agriculture minister defends decision to fire whistleblower

After 32 years with Quebec's Ministry of Agriculture, agronomist Louis Robert was fired last week for handing private documents over to Radio-Canada — documents that backed his claims of private-sector interference in a public study of pesticide use.

Louis Robert was fired for sharing confidential documents with the media

Quebec Agriculture Minister André Lamontagne told reporters he is comfortable with his decision to fire a whistelblower who called attention to private sector interference in pesticide research. (Radio-Canada)

Quebec Agriculture Minister André Lamontagne is defending his decision to fire a whistleblowing bureaucrat. 

After 32 years with Quebec's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, agronomist Louis Robert was fired last week for handing private documents over to Radio-Canada — documents that backed his claims of private-sector interference in a public study of pesticide use.

Lamontagne told reporters outside the Coalition Avenir Québec caucus meeting that he was briefed on the matter after being named minister last fall. 

"It's my decision, so I'm very comfortable with my decision,'' he said, though he remained vague about the reasons for the firing. 

While the province has legislation protecting whistleblowers, Lamontagne said there were other factors that led to the dismissal of Robert.

Last year, Radio-Canada reported Robert, a seed expert, tried to raise the alarm internally, but his superiors were turning a blind eye, so he brought his proof to the media, sharing documents to back his claims. 

Private sector interference in research

The Radio-Canada report highlighted private sector attempts to intimidate researchers and interfere with the dissemination and interpretation of research findings. After the story broke in March, several researchers resigned.

An internal investigation was launched in September as government officials searched for the whistleblower and Robert decided to come clean, Radio-Canada reports. 

Last Thursday, Robert was fired for transmitting confidential documents to a reporter in violation of secrecy obligations. He has since declined to speak with reporters as he intends to appeal his dismissal.

Two other agronomists were suspended without pay. They were handed three- and five-day suspensions for speaking with a reporter on the same subject without authorization — violating the department's media relations policy.

Quebec's whistleblower law protects employees who disclose information within their department. But disclosure to the public is protected only if the employee believes there is a serious risk to health, safety or the environment.

Union, opposition decry firing

The president of the union that represents Quebec's government workers, Richard Perron, told Radio-Canada this is the first time he has seen a minister fire somebody like Robert.

The president of the union that represents Quebec's government workers, Richard Perron said this is the first time he has seen a minister get involved in a firing.

"I have never seen a minister get personally involved in the dismissal [of an official], especially of someone who is five levels of management under him," said Perron.

When it is a matter of public health, he told CBC's Breakaway that it is shocking to see someone fired "because he wanted to protect the people. He wanted to protect the good agriculture. And he wanted to prevent that we put too much pesticides in our vegetables and our fruits in Quebec.

On Wednesday, the Parti Québécois and Quebec Solidaire asked the Ministry of Agriculture to reinstate Robert, allowing him to return to his duties.

The Liberal Party, which was in power when the whistleblower hunt was launched, claims that the Minister of Agriculture should review all the information and then explain the situation.

With files from the Canadian Press and Radio Canada

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