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Quebec's ombudsman slams Agriculture Ministry for firing pesticide whistleblower

A Quebec government agronomist who was fired after exposing private-sector meddling into public research about pesticides has been offered his job back following the release of a scathing report into the way the province handled his case.

Louis Robert, who warned of private-sector meddling in study, offered his job back after ombudsman's report

Quebec's ombudsman Marie Rinfret held a news conference Thursday after her report was made public. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

A Quebec government agronomist who was fired after exposing private-sector meddling into public research about pesticides has been offered his job back following the release of a scathing report into the way the province handled his case.

In her report made public Thursday, the province's ombudsman, Marie Rinfret, said the Agricultural Ministry failed to follow Quebec legislation protecting whistleblowers after Louis Robert went public with his concerns.

"Our investigation shows that the law was not respected and that the breaches were significant," she said.

The CAQ government reacted swiftly, with a political about-face.

Premier François Legault, who had originally backed the Agriculture Ministry's decision to fire Robert last January, said the veteran agronomist could come back to work.

The Agriculture Ministry's deputy minister, Marc Dion, handed in his resignation, Radio-Canada confirmed.

Robert has declined to comment on the latest developments.

Industry pressure over pesticide use

Robert's dismissal came after he shared private documents with Radio-Canada that backed his claims of private-sector interference in a public study of pesticide use.

According to Radio-Canada's reporting, industry representatives were pressuring scientists to avoid publicizing findings that demonstrated neonicotinoids — a class of insecticides — are harmful to bees and other pollinating insects.

Louis Robert was a soil and seed specialist in the Ministry of Agriculture for 32 years before his firing. (Jean-Simon Fabien/Radio-Canada)

On Thursday, Rinfret warned the ministry's handling of his case could hamper any future whistleblowers' trust in the law that's supposed to protect them. 

As part of a series of recommendations, she called on the ministry to come up with a plan by the end of September to better handle such situations.

She also said the province should strengthen measures to protect whistleblowers.

In a statement, the union representing Robert welcomed the job offer, adding that it will be seeking "compensation for the damage to reputation and stress he has suffered."

"The union hopes that the case of Louis Robert will have served as a lesson to the government apparatus and that never again will an employee find himself in a similar situation in the future," said Line Lamarre, head of the union representing civil servants.

Yes Minister 

The Coalition Avenir Québec government has been under intense criticism for Robert's firing. 

Agriculture Minister André Lamontagne made contradictory comments about the situation earlier this year. 

Louis Robert was fired last January after speaking out about private-sector interference in a government study on pesticides. He has now been offered his job back. (Radio-Canada)

Lamontagne first indicated he authorized Robert's dismissal. He then said he misspoke — that he'd had nothing to do with it.

He also initially said Robert's dismissal had had nothing to do with his actions as a whistleblower.

But Radio-Canada later obtained the dismissal letter, which indicated Robert was let go for demonstrating a lack of loyalty by leaking documents to the media.

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