Former college directors describe pressure from forestry industry over instructor's views
Former forestry instructor Rod Cumberland suing college for wrongful dismissal
Two former executive directors of the Maritime College of Forest Technology say that industry officials complained to them about an instructor's anti-glyphosate views in the years before he was fired.
Robert Whitney, who retired from the position in 2014, testified in Court of King's Bench on Monday about conversations he had about Rod Cumberland after the instructor sent out an email about glyphosate on his college account.
"We can get rid of him. He has no tenure," Whitney remembered being told at the time by Blake Brunsdon, then the chief forester for J.D. Irving Ltd. and an industry representative on the college board.
And Gerry Redmond, Whitney's successor, said he was approached by industry representatives on the college board "on a couple of occasions … wanting me to sanction Rod to prevent him from talking about the glyphosate issue."
Cumberland is suing the college for wrongful dismissal, alleging his 2019 firing from the college was motivated by his vocal criticism of the use of glyphosate by the forest industry.
The college argues it fired Cumberland because he had bullied students and undermined a colleague.
"It had absolutely nothing to do with glyphosate," one of the college's lawyers, Chad Sullivan, said during his opening statement Monday.
"He was terminated because he became intolerable to work with."
Whitney's testimony centred on an email that Cumberland sent on his college account in 2014 calling for a ban on herbicide spraying because of his belief it was responsible for a decline in the deer population in the province.
Whitney said his only objection to the email was that Cumberland sent the email on his college account.
Students and staff were encouraged to follow their passions through community involvement, he said, whether that was in sports, religious groups or other activities.
Cumberland's email prompted a "barrage" of calls, emails and visits to his office by industry representatives, Whitney testified.
Brunsdon, he said, was "concerned that the college's brand had been used to promote a personal interest and he was very much concerned that the students might be exposed to a one-sided perspective … on the use of herbicides."
Whitney told him the use of the college email account was embarrassing but he testified Monday that Cumberland's views were within the acceptable terms of the debate over spraying.
"Even in science, there's lots of room for argument about the validity of one perspective or another," he said.
He rebuffed Irving's offer, in a Jan. 28, 2014 letter from Brunsdon, to present what the company called "a more science-based review" of literature on glyphosate "to ensure that facts are being considered in addition to opinions."
Whitney responded that students were already getting that in their courses.
To have an additional perspective from an outside organization like J.D. Irving Ltd. would be "just the same or worse as having a biased view in the classroom," Whitney wrote in a Jan. 31, 2014 letter.
He told the court that Cumberland had a right to his opinions. "I would be really concerned about a wildlife biologist who was not concerned about the fate of wildlife," he said.
In cross-examination, Whitney acknowledged that his retirement as executive director was five years before the firing.
"The board had turned over quite a bit," college lawyer Clarence Bennett said.
"Right," Whitney said.
The former executive director also admitted that Brunsdon's comments about getting rid of Cumberland didn't lead to anything.
"That didn't happen, right?"
"That's right," Whitney said.
In his testimony, Redmond said that he pushed back on the industry criticism.
"If they had problems with his research, they should bring forth those individuals to counter his arguments, moreso than me suppressing his ability to be a scientist and present his information," he said.
Redmond acknowledged during cross-examination that he got complaints from students and other instructors about Cumberland's classroom behaviour when he was the college director.
In one email Cumberland told a student, "Put on your big boy pants and man up."
Redmond said he didn't think that phrase was condescending or inappropriate.
"Not in the culture of our college. I didn't see it as anything out of the ordinary. It's an expression. What we wanted to do is train these students to take responsibility for their own actions. That's just a figure of speech."
Redmond also acknowledged he had posted allegations on a pro-Cumberland Facebook page without knowing whether they were true or not.
He said a post alleging that the forestry industry was stalling the case from going ahead to run Cumberland out of money for his lawyers was based on "my gut feeling, my opinion."
"I still believe what I said," Redmond said.
"You still believe that Mr. Bennett and myself are financed by the forestry industry?"
"I have no idea," Redmond answered.
In another post Redmond implied that delays in the case getting to trial, including a judge's infection with COVID-19, were suspicious.
"In your view is the judge in on this conspiracy as well?" Sullivan asked.
"There's been delay after delay after delay," Redmond said. While some were legitimate, "it just looks strange to me."
Asked if he was willing to say that the posts were untrue, Redmond answered, "I have no idea whether they're true or not."
Sullivan said Redmond had no more solid basis for his claim that Cumberland was fired over glyphosate.
"You don't really know," the lawyer said. "You've got a gut feeling, right?"
Cumberland starts testimony
Cumberland himself began testifying late on Monday.
He said he began researching glyphosate more than a decade ago when he noticed as a Department of Natural Resources biologist that the deer population was increasing near urban areas but not in public forests.
He started attending seminars where glyphosate was discussed and found them one-sided.
"I thought they might present some of the independent research … but there was nothing about that."
After Tim Marshall, the current director and the man who fired Cumberland, took over as executive director of the college in 2017, Cumberland said he told him that he was involved in the spraying issue and there didn't seem to be any concern.
"I assumed that he knew that that was my issue and those were my concerns, and if there was another seminar I would probably be there to ask questions," he said.
Cumberland's testimony will continue Tuesday.