New Brunswick

Documents show concerns about instructor's views on glyphosate ahead of firing

The head of the Maritime College of Forest Technology said he wanted to keep “a positive relationship” with the forestry industry as he fielded complaints about Rod Cumberland, an instructor he later fired.

Cumberland's criticisms triggered emails between Natural Resources, college director, J.D. Irving

Former instructor Rod Cumberland is suing the Maritime College of Forest Technology for wrongful dismissal, claiming his views on the use of the herbicide glyphosate led to his firing. (CBC)

The head of the Maritime College of Forest Technology said he wanted to keep "a positive relationship" with the forestry industry as he fielded complaints about an instructor he later fired.

Officials at Natural Resources Canada were complaining to college director Tim Marshall about Rod Cumberland, a biologist and instructor who opposes the spraying of the herbicide glyphosate in New Brunswick forests. 

Cumberland's internal criticism of how glyphosate would be discussed at a 2019 scientific conference triggered the emails between the federal department, the college and J.D. Irving Ltd. 

College instructors "should not be undermining federal scientists," a person whose identity was blacked out wrote to Natural Resources Canada official Derek MacFarlane in a Jan. 18, 2019 email.

Rod Cumberland was the New Brunswick government's deer biologist for 15 years before going on to work at the Maritime College of Forest Technology in Fredericton. His dismissal led to a number of protests and a call from the Green Party to investigate the firing. (Radio-Canada)

"We will look into this," MacFarlane, a senior advisor at the department and former director of the Atlantic Forestry Centre, responded 45 minutes later.

Cumberland argued a Jan. 18, 2019 conference on vegetation management at the University of New Brunswick was one-sided in favour of glyphosate. He was not included in any of the email threads discussing his criticism.

Centre director Peter Fullarton wrote to Marshall Jan. 23 that Natural Resources Canada was "disappointed and troubled" by Cumberland's comments, which he called false, and "what we perceive as his influence (bias) on his students." 

Marshall responded that "it is very important to me that [the college] maintains a positive relationship with the organizations working in the sector we aim to serve."

Cumberland was fired from his instructor position at the Fredericton college five months later. 

Marshall relayed the decision to several government and forest industry officials in an email at 8:06 p.m. the same evening.

College won't comment on emails

In a court filing in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit by Cumberland, the college says he attended the conference and was "disrespectful and was openly dismissive, rude and insolent" toward the scientists.

The college denies Cumberland was fired for his views on glyphosate, though his dismissal letter says his "undermining" of the conference was one of the reasons.

Marshall turned down an interview request from CBC News about the emails. 

"Given that this is an HR matter and is presently before the courts, I respectfully decline to comment," he said.

Natural Resources Canada refused to comment, saying it was up to the college to speak about the firing of one of its staff.

Cumberland's wrongful dismissal lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial April 4.

His lawyer Paul Champ obtained the 169 pages of documents and emails through the federal Access to Information Act and gave them to CBC News.

Criticism of conference triggered discussion

Cumberland emailed Prof. Van Lantz, the dean of forestry at the University of New Brunswick, on Jan. 16, 2019.

He complained that the upcoming scientific conference hosted by UNB on vegetation management science was presenting "but one perspective" on glyphosate and should have relied on "a broader range of so-called 'experts.'"

He accused the forest industry of hiring "select scientists" to provide their opinions on the herbicide while ignoring "independent research" and "critical analysis" on the issue.

Cumberland sent a similar note to all faculty and students at the college, who had been invited to the seminar.

Gerald Redmond, the former executive director of the Maritime College of Forest Technology, was told by the school his services were no longer needed the day after he criticized the firing of Cumberland. (CBC)

Marshall's June 20, 2019 letter firing Cumberland claims he was "actively discouraging" college students from attending the conference.

However, the instructor's email to students in January said he was "glad" they were attending but told them there was an "entirely different perspective" on glyphosate.

Lantz forwarded Cumberland's email to him to two Natural Resources Canada scientists scheduled to speak at the event.

He said he'd remind Cumberland that one goal of the conference was to "discuss research needs and identify future topics for discussion, and that he is welcome to participate in this discussion."

Two days later, on Jan. 18, someone whose name and email signature was blacked out in the released documents emailed MacFarlane, the federal senior advisor.

The person wrote that he'd heard about Cumberland's letter and would like to see a copy.

MacFarlane promised to look into it and in a later email said Natural Resources Canada staff "definitely need to raise this" with Marshall, the college director.

J.D. Irving included in email chain

Fullarton replied that he was sending out emails drafted by MacFarlane to the college, Natural Resources Canada and J.D. Irving Ltd.

He later got a thank-you email from a recipient whose name was blacked out when the documents were released to Cumberland's lawyer. That email includes a J.D. Irving Ltd. security note at the bottom.

In a Jan. 19 email, MacFarlane mentioned the need to respond to the college and to another entity whose name is redacted.

J.D. Irving's vice-president of communications Anne McInerney said the company receives "regular communication" from the college as part of the Healthy Forest Partnership, which organized the UNB conference.

"We can confirm that we never saw the letter Mr. Cumberland wrote," she said.

McInerney did not answer a question about whether JDI authored any of the redacted emails or had said anything about Cumberland's employment.

J.D. Irving’s director of research and development Andrew Willett (right), with co-CEO Jim Irving, told a committee hearing last September opposition to glyphosate was driven by misinformation. (Legislature livestream)

At a legislative committee hearing last September, Irving's director of research and development Andrew Willett said concerns about glyphosate were driven by misinformation, not science.

"We can't make public policy and we can't make public investments on something Karen from Facebook said or something we read on Google," said Willett, noting Health Canada has declared the product safe.

Scientist said he wasn't influenced

In another email thread in the documents, one of the federal scientists set to speak at the conference, Chris Edge, said neither industry nor the government influenced his work on glyphosate.

"My role is not to provide my opinion, it is to conduct scientific research and communicate the findings to the public, policy makers, and other scientists," he wrote. 

The package of documents also includes a version of Cumberland's letter with edit-track comments critiquing his arguments.

They point out he had only two academic publications at the time and that the two "independent" scientists he suggested be included at the conference had published no research on herbicides.

In July Natural Resource Canada's assistant deputy minister Beth MacNeil approved a statement for Fullarton to provide to a reporter asking about the firing.

The statement said Fullarton "has not discussed Mr. Cumberland's glyphosate research with board members" of the college, which includes industry and government representatives.

Instructor seeking damages

Cumberland is seeking $115,442.73 in damages, which he says is equivalent to 14 months reasonable notice of his dismissal. He is also asking for punitive damages, for a declaration that his Charter rights were violated and to be reinstated as a professor at the college.

In January 2020 the college said in its statement of defence that Cumberland's views on spraying had no role in his firing and he was let go for making sexist and discriminatory comments and undermining his colleagues' authority. 

The college accused Cumberland of making disparaging remarks about the college; bullying, harassing and belittling his students; and setting classroom clocks ahead and preventing students arriving late from entering the room.

'Undermining' academic chair: college

Its court filing said Cumberland was "undermining" academic chair Gareth Davies by "constantly questioning his policies, decisions and teaching abilities," including by raising "'concerns' and questioning decisions via email to the entire faculty."

The reason, the college argued, was that Cumberland had applied for the academic chair job and had lost out to Davies.

But former college executive director Gerald Redmond told CBC News in July 2019 he believed Cumberland's views on glyphosate were the "real reason" for his firing.

Redmond, who retired as director in 2017 but kept teaching at the college, said he had felt "pressure" from the college's board to "sanction" Cumberland for his comments on glyphosate.

Redmond himself was let go as an instructor at the college the day after making those comments.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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