Governments say glyphosate is safe, but some say 'poison' is being sprayed on northern forests

The debate over the aerial spraying of a herbicide called glyphosate is heating up this summer in northern Ontario. Some believe it's killing more than plants and it seems their lobbying is starting to pay off.

Hundreds of hectares of Crown land in northern Ontario sprayed every summer

Lodge owner Gerry Vautour first raised concerns about the spraying of glyphosate in the bush north of Massey about a decade ago and now wonders if it's what gave him cancer. (Erik White/CBC)

For Gerry Vautour it started with complaints from his customers.

"I had bear hunters up here at the time and these helicopters flew over top of them and were spraying on them," remembers the owner of East Bull Lake Wilderness Resort north of Massey.

"I felt it was my responsibility to find out exactly what it was they were spraying and they said 'Oh, it's just Roundup. There's no problem with Roundup."

In the decade since Vautour has learned that many people have a problem with Roundup and its active herbicide glyphosate.

The makers of Roundup have been sued successfully by Americans who claim it gave them cancer and several U.S. states have banned the herbicide.

Nova Scotia and Quebec have also stopped spraying it from helicopters on clear cuts so newly planted trees can grow.

Hundreds of hectares of clear cut forests in northern Ontario are set to be sprayed with glyphosate this summer to allow new trees to grow. (Erik White/CBC )

Vautour, now 75, has prostate cancer and doctors are worried it might be spreading to his thyroid.

He wonders if it's related to the spraying, but he doesn't know. 

"Nobody can tell me that. But why are all these things happening?" Vautour says.

When he first heard about the spraying all those years ago, one of the first people Vautour told was his friend Raymond Owl, an elder from Sagamok First Nation.

Both men have heard stories about trees and blueberries suddenly dying in the bush and have noticed a disturbing absence of animal life in areas that have been sprayed with glyphosate. 

The 76-year-old Owl has been lobbying both governments through the Traditional Ecological Knowledge Elders group.

After not getting anywhere with federal and provincial bureaucrats, Owl says his group is planning to file a lawsuit against Canada for violating the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850.

Raymond Owl of Sagamok First Nation is part of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge Elders group that is fighting the aerial spraying of northern Ontario forests. (Erik White/CBC )

He says the government did not consult First Nations living along the North Shore of Lake Huron before it began spraying this chemical on their forests.

"It's still our land. We never sold it. We just gave you a right to live here. That's all you got. But you don't have authority what you do to our land," says Owl.

"First Nations doesn't want any chemical at all. If it kills one little bug, one blade of grass, that's too much."

The spraying of the herbicide on hundreds of hectares of northern Ontario is sanctioned by the provincial government, but it's paid for by forest companies looking to plant more trees to cut down in the years ahead.

Eacom Timber Corporation plans to spray 780 hectares in the north shore forest near Massey this year.

But director of public affairs Christine Leduc points out that is less than 0.1 per cent of the total forest.

She says in response to some of the concerns from the public, Eacom is looking to move away from aerial herbicide spraying and clean up some clear cuts using crews on the ground instead. 

"Ultimately the decision to use those methods lies with the province, but for our part, where there's opportunities and reasonable alternatives we are committed to reducing our use of aerial spraying," Leduc says.

Forest companies say glyphosate is sprayed on clear cut areas so that new trees, like these young pines, can grow and be harvested in the years to come. (Erik White/CBC)

Statement from the Ministry:

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry did not make anyone available for an interview, but did provide the following statement:

"Herbicide use is very limited in Ontario and they are only used when absolutely necessary – it usually amounts to less than 0.2 per cent of Ontario's forested area in any given year.

Glyphosate is used on Crown forests, only when necessary. Under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, people operating in the forest are required to ensure management practices provide for healthy, diverse and productive Crown forests and their associated ecological processes and biological diversity. Conifer is renewed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the forest, to provide economic benefits to Ontarians, and to provide important wildlife habitat (including marten, moose, deer, and caribou).

Forest managers control vegetation to meet forest stand objectives.  They make decisions on which control methods to use, including herbicides, based on site conditions and the competing species to be controlled. 

In April, 2017 Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency completed a re-evaluation of glyphosate, finding it does not present unacceptable risks to human health or the environment when used as directed. The re-evaluation reaffirmed current use of glyphosate in forestry including its safety for people entering sprayed areas, such as hunters.

MNRF relies on Health Canada's pesticide registration and the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Park's classification to ensure that pesticides used in Ontario's forests are safe."


  • A previous version of this story stated that several counties in southern Ontario have banned glyphosate.
    Jul 03, 2019 11:20 AM ET


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to


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