Forestry college instructor wasn't fired for views on glyphosate, judge rules

·4 min read
Rod Cumberland, pictured in December, was seeking $300,000 in his wrongful dismissal suit against the Maritime College of Forest Technology in Fredericton. (Ed Hunter/CBC - image credit)
Rod Cumberland, pictured in December, was seeking $300,000 in his wrongful dismissal suit against the Maritime College of Forest Technology in Fredericton. (Ed Hunter/CBC - image credit)

A forestry college instructor was fired because he was a "disruptive and destructive force" and not because of his views of the herbicide glyphosate, a New Brunswick judge has ruled.

Rod Cumberland's treatment of students and the "obvious toxicity" of his relationship with Maritime College of Forest Technology leaders led to his dismissal in June 2019, Court of King's Bench Chief Justice Tracey DeWare says in a 41-page decision.

In a trial last fall in Fredericton, the former instructor's lawyer suggested that members of the college board from the forest industry, including J.D. Irving Ltd., had pushed for the firing after Cumberland challenged government scientists on glyphosate at a seminar.

But DeWare said it was Cumberland's rigid teaching style and his rejection of a new, more "inclusive" style at the college that ended his job there.

"Mr. Cumberland was terminated from his position with the college as a result of his attitude and behaviours which rendered his continued employment impossible," DeWare wrote.

"Mr. Cumberland was not dismissed as a result of his views on glyphosate. Mr. Cumberland's termination was not engineered by J.D. Irving Ltd."

Awarded more than $55,000

DeWare did, however, say that college executive director Tim Marshall and academic chair Gareth Davies failed to warn Cumberland that his job was in jeopardy and "did not address the problems head on."

That meant he had no opportunity to change his behaviour and was not fired with just cause.

"Given the rigidity of Mr. Cumberland's mindset, I find it unlikely that he could have adequately addressed their concerns if properly advised; however, he was never given the chance and he is therefore entitled to the benefit of the doubt," DeWare wrote.

She concluded that this entitled him to seven months' notice of his firing.

DeWare awarded him $48,644.57 in severance and also ordered the college to pay $6,700 toward his legal costs.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

In an emailed statement, Cumberland's lawyer Paul Champ said the ruling "confirmed what Mr Cumberland had been saying all along, which was that there was not just cause to terminate his employment."

While the judge called the failure to warn Cumberland "sloppy," Champ called it "unfair treatment."

He also said his client was "understandably disappointed" with the rest of the judgment and repeated the allegation "that Irving was very much in the background here."

"Mr. Cumberland remains a man of strong convictions who feels deeply and passionately about New Brunswick forestry and wildlife. He will continue to speak out where he feels responsible stewardship of forestry in this province is threatened."

The college's lawyer, Clarence Bennett, said school officials would not comment.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

The trial heard that Cumberland made derogatory and sexist comments to students and strictly enforced class times to the point of preventing students who were late from taking part.

He also sometimes changed the clocks in the classroom to the wrong time.

The well-known wildlife biologist worked for the provincial government before joining the college in 2012.

Outspoken on glyphosate views

He has been outspoken about his view that glyphosate is harmful to animal health.

In January 2019 Cumberland insinuated in an email to colleagues and students that government scientists scheduled to appear at two seminars on glyphosate were not independent and had been manipulated by the industry on the issue.

He later attended the seminars and made comments to some of the participants.

J.D. Irving vice-president of woodlands Jason Limongelli, a member of the college board, wrote in an email that Cumberland was "undermining" federal scientists.

And Marshall wrote in an email about the importance of maintaining "a positive relationship" with the industry.

DeWare said, however, that there was "ample evidence" that Cumberland was fired for his conduct, not his opinions, and pointed out that Marshall and Davies never raised his behaviour about the seminar with him directly.

She said "if the other overwhelming problems" with his position hadn't already existed, Cumberland likely would have been only reprimanded about the seminars —  as he had been when he expressed his views on glyphosate on college letterhead in 2014.

But by the time the seminars happened, "the employment relationship appears to have been irrevocably broken down," she wrote.

Evidence in the trial showed that the college, which trains provincial forest rangers, had "a somewhat militaristic approach" until 2017, when Marshall was hired and tried to create "a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere," the chief justice said.

"Mr. Cumberland did not share Mr. Marshall's point of view with respect to changing the culture at the college. These differing visions for the college appears to have resulted in almost immediate tension between Mr. Marshall and Mr. Cumberland."

She called Cumberland "an individual of strong convictions and not someone who can easily embrace the points of view of others when such views do not align precisely with his own."

He eventually became "a disruptive and destructive force within the college," she said.