Rod Cumberland, a former college professor who has long crusaded against the use of a herbicide called glyphosate, alleges his environmental views cost him his job at the Maritime College of Forest Technology (MCFT) in Fredericton, N.B.
As the August date for his wrongful dismissal trial approaches, he says a suite of emails his lawyer obtained through a freedom-of-information request will prove it.
Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that impacts you, Canada, and the world. Don't miss out.
The emails show his colleagues at the college, as well as Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) staff and forestry players such as J.D. Irving, calling Cumberland’s views on glyphosate biased and stressing he "should not be undermining federal scientists.”
When Cumberland began to campaign against glyphosate, a herbicide used in popular sprays like Roundup, his view was considered fringe. It’s since become more mainstream: glyphosate has been designated a “likely carcinogen” by the World Health Organization, and places such as Laval, Que., have banned its use, citing concerns around public health and nature.
Its presence is felt in New Brunswick, too, where for a couple of months each year, helicopters fly over forests spraying glyphosate onto thousands of hectares of Crown land all to benefit the province’s largest industry — forestry. Cumberland has long worried about the impact glyphosate is having on the deer population and human health.
When Cumberland was fired, the college presented entirely different reasons for his dismissal. MCFT says the professor bullied and harassed students, and that his views on glyphosate had no bearing on his termination. Court documents dismiss his claims as an attempt to “avoid responsibility for his offensive and inappropriate behaviour.” The college’s statement of defence says Cumberland was let go for inappropriate conduct towards students and teachers. The document alleges he called students homophobic slurs, made sexist remarks and insisted “carbon dating was nonsense.”
The school also alleges Cumberland applied for the academic chair position and when he didn’t get the job, began to “harass and undermine” the man who did by “constantly questioning his policies, decisions and teaching abilities.”
Cumberland denies those allegations. His lawyer in the wrongful dismissal case — Paul Champ, known for representing Ottawa residents against the Freedom Convoy — will argue the slew of emails and documents he obtained prove Cumberland was wrongfully dismissed because of his long-standing crusade against the herbicide. He is seeking $115,442.73 in damages.
Cumberland, who ran as a People’s Alliance Party of NB candidate in 2020, was once a competitive lumberjack. He now spends his time as an arbourist and chainsaw safety instructor. He lives amid agricultural land outside of Fredericton — shirts dry on his clothesline, and his dog and cat run around the yard as he trims his fruit trees in a work coat. Farther back on his property is a shelter covering stumps to practice axe-throwing. A “Stop Spraying New Brunswick” sign sits at the end of his driveway.
The opinions Cumberland has shared on glyphosate are becoming more commonplace.
The herbicide is an international lightning rod, pitting the environmental movement against glyphosate's main producer, Monsanto (now Bayer), and polarizing scientists who disagree about its toxicity and whether it causes cancer and other health problems.
In New Brunswick, citizen groups such as Stop Spraying NB campaign for glyphosate spraying bans, and Indigenous leaders have spoken out against the chemical, saying it harms human health and impacts traditional food and medicine sources.
On the other side are the New Brunswick government, NRCan, pro-glyphosate scientists and the most potent corporate force in New Brunswick — J.D. Irving Limited, which runs the largest forestry products company in the province as part of the Irving Group of Companies. At a hearing on the herbicide in September, CEO Jim Irving said a ban on glyphosate would be “disastrous” and have a huge impact on their business. Health Canada, along with the New Brunswick government and NRCan, continue to insist the chemical is safe.
Before Cumberland was fired, all of those bodies chimed in on his views on glyphosate in hundreds of pages of emails obtained by Cumberland’s lawyer and recently given to Canada’s National Observer. The documents show Cumberland’s superiors exchanged dozens of emails with NRCan government scientists and forestry members raising concerns about his views in the months leading up to his firing. NRCan members sit on the college’s board, as does an Irving representative.
Cumberland’s campaign against glyphosate started long before joining the college, when he worked in New Brunswick’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as chief deer biologist, monitoring the province’s deer population. He started sounding the alarm on glyphosate and its effects on deer internally while still working for the department. Cumberland said he was stonewalled after bringing up how he thought a massive drop in the deer population (from 286,000 in the 1980s to around 70,000 in 2014) could be linked to the forestry industry’s use of the herbicide to kill vegetation that competes with the softwood trees it harvests.
He eventually quit the department and took his views public, drawing the ire of J.D. Irving Ltd., which called Cumberland “irresponsible” in an open letter on its website that has since been removed but is still accessible through the WayBack Machine.
The Irving empire wields immense power in New Brunswick; Irving-owned stores sit at key corners in many towns and cities. In Saint John, about an hour south of Fredericton, the company operates Canada’s largest oil refinery. Throughout the province, hardware stores, trucking, construction companies and more operate under different names as Irving-owned companies. J.D. Irving Ltd. is the largest private owner of forests and wood products and leases land from the provincial government.
Glyphosate use is being phased out in Europe, which will ban the product come December. However, Canada’s federal government continues to approve its use, most recently in January 2019, a decision the Federal Court of Appeal has ruled needs to be further justified.
In 2018, international concern about glyphosate shot up when a U.S. groundskeeper who worked with the product won a lawsuit against Monsanto after his doctors testified the product likely caused his terminal cancer. The verdict brought previously unseen Monsanto documents to light, which the judge said proved the company knew its products were “dangerous.”
The documents also showed Monsanto reached out to scientists and provided ghostwritten articles for them to publish that downplayed the harms of glyphosate and its classification as carcinogenic. The company also reached out to Canadian professors for help dispelling worries about the product. Specifically, in 2016, Monsanto reached out to University of Guelph professor Len Ritter, a glyphosate proponent.
“Len did confirm that he has been contracted by the province of New Brunswick and the Ontario Public Health Agency, among others, to assist with their review of the IARC [WHO] findings on glyphosate,” reads part of an email from Monsanto.
“While Len does not want to work with us directly, it sounds like he is delivering the interpretations and messages we would like to have put forward on this subject.”
Ritter was listed as a scientific expert in New Brunswick when the provincial government, NRCan and J.D. Irving Ltd. and other forestry groups started forestinfo.ca, a site designed to dispel “myths” around glyphosate in 2015. Although forestinfo.ca is currently down, an archived page captured by the WayBack Machine shows a “Myths & Facts” section that shoots down common glyphosate criticism.
Along with forestinfo.ca, NRCan and the government of New Brunswick also hosted a series of talks in Atlantic Canada on glyphosate, which sparked Cumberland’s latest controversy with the herbicide.
Six months before he was fired, Cumberland caught wind that one of the glyphosate talks was to be held at the college’s K.C. Irving Theatre — named after the founder of the Irving empire. The presentations minimized the harms associated with the herbicide and included PowerPoint slides from NRCan scientists stating, for example: “Glyphosate poses minimal risk of direct harmful effects on wildlife.”
Cumberland objected to the presentations and said so in a letter to Van Lantz, dean of the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management at the University of New Brunswick, whom he knew from his days as a student at the school. In an interview, Cumberland said he wrote to Lantz because he considered him “fairly level-headed” and thought he might listen to his concerns around the glyphosate event slated for later that month.
Cumberland wrote he was concerned about the “selective sharing” set to take place and argued the seminar needed a broader range of voices.
The documents obtained through access-to-information requests show Lantz forwarded the email to other college board members, along with scientists and staff at NRCan. Canada’s National Observer reached out to Lantz about the email but did not hear back. Ritter (mentioned in the Monsanto papers) was also copied and appears in the access-to-information documents multiple times.
In the same email, Lantz told NRCan scientists he would tell Cumberland “some of the stated objectives of the seminar are to discuss research needs and identify future topics for discussion, and that he is welcome to participate in the discussion.”
Cumberland’s letter set off a flurry of emails between numerous NRCan employees, the college and the forestry industry. They critiqued his views on glyphosate and questioned his academic performance as a scientist, noting he’d only published two papers.
Cumberland also shared his concerns over the pending presentation in a similar letter to college staff and students, stating he was worried students would get a narrow, pro-glyphosate perspective.
“Rather than simply accepting the opinions that will be shared at this forum as the final word on this issue, it might be more balanced and wise to caution you that there is an entirely different perspective held by very qualified and decorated scientists and practitioners — both here in N.B. and in the greater research community, but to date, they have not been provided the opportunity to present their research or opinions,” the letter stated.
Peter Fullarton, NRCan employee and a board rep at the college, fired back an email to Tim Marshall, the college’s director, picking apart Cumberland’s letter.
“Our researchers are professional and are held to the highest levels of scientific rigour. To have one of your staff attempt to influence his students and others to not trust or respect the professionalism or independence of federal research scientists is very concerning” reads part of the exchange.
“Rod refers to their work as ‘opinions’ ... yet in his note, he makes his opinion very clear. I'd be more than happy to meet with you and discuss this issue.”
In another, a party whose name was redacted wrote to say Cumberland “should not be undermining federal scientists.” That note was Cc’d to NRCan’s Derek MacFarlane, who responded, “We will look into this” and, in a subsequent message, “We definitely need to raise this with (Cumberland’s boss) Tim Marshall.”
A few emails in the chain are either to or from “JDI” — at the bottom of an email from Fullarton, an external email alert notification shows the message was being sent to the Irving company. The company’s response is redacted.
A few months later, in June 2019, Cumberland was fired.
His termination letter listed numerous reasons for the move, including his conduct towards students, and accused him of “undermining the content of the seminar on the Science of Vegetation Management and actively discouraging students from attending the seminar, despite the fact that the seminar was vetted and approved by the MCFT.” In bullet points, it says he also made inappropriate comments, prevented students from attending class if they were late and adjusted the clock ahead to make students seem late when they weren’t.
Cumberland’s side of the story had some support from his colleagues. Shortly after he was fired, Gerald Redmond, a former college director who was a teacher at the time, was also let go. Redmond publicly criticized Cumberland’s dismissal and told CBC he thought his views on glyphosate were likely the "real reason” for his firing.
Both the college and J.D. Irving Ltd. didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. NRCan said: “The individual in question was employed at the Maritime College of Forest Technology (MCFT), any comments regarding their dismissal would be best directed to the college.”
As for Cumberland, he is as against anything Irving and glyphosate as ever, and said he will remain so regardless of the trial’s outcome. He refuses to gas up at an Irving station or buy wood from an Irving hardware store.
“I'm a man of faith. And He's looked after us this far. And He's not gonna let us down now,” he said.
“However it plays out, it plays out.”
This article has been updated.
Irving's are New Brunswick . Disagree with them, get fired. They had a newspaper editorial cartoonist fired in the last few years . So yes , Irving's were responsible. Kind of like the UCP in Alberta. Disagree or criticism, consequences.
It would be useful to get Jonathan Wilkinson, the Minister of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault on the record on this issue. When it is finally acknowledged that mass application of glyphosate (and suppression of unwanted broadleaf species) is a crime against nature and public health, future generations can hold our govt leaders accountable. Also, where are the ENGOs? No word from them? * In managed forests across Canada, the logging industry sprays herbicides to eliminate fire-resistant deciduous, broadleaf trees, which serve as a natural firebreak. Monocultures of coniferous trees are far more prone to fire. Industrialized logged forests of same-age trees (i.e., tree farms) with canopies touching are more prone to intense fire than mixed-species, multi-age old growth. Another example of human meddling with nature with severe blowback.
"B.C. forest fires would be less severe if we didn't kill off the broadleaf trees" (Vancouver Sun, 2019) • https://vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/james-steidle-b-c-forest-fires-wo...
"'It blows my mind': How B.C. destroys a key natural wildfire defence every year" (CBC, 2018) • https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/it-blows-my-mind-how-b-c...
Self-styled Greenpeace "co-founder" turned corporate shill Patrick Moore claimed weed-killer Roundup was safe to drink -- but refused to drink a glass of the stuff when it was offered: https://www.straight.com/blogra/420331/video-patrick-moore-refuses-drink... https://www.newsweek.com/patrick-moore-scientist-who-offered-and-then-re...