New Brunswick forestry college purges critic of glyphosate

Written by Tracy Glynn on July 6, 2019

Rod Cumberland speaking out against herbicide spraying at a rally at the New Brunswick Legislature in 2014. Photo from the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

Instructors at the Maritime College of Forest Technology in Fredericton have long been aware that their criticisms of J.D. Irving Ltd.’s forestry practices in New Brunswick put their jobs on the line. No instructor has perhaps been so mindful of this risk than Rod Cumberland who on June 20 was fired from the college.

One day after coming to Cumberland’s defense in the media, Gerald Redmond, the forestry college’s former Executive Director, had his teaching contract with the college terminated. 

Cumberland has an almost three-decade career as a wildlife biologist, first working as the province of New Brunswick’s deer biologist then as an instructor with the college.

The competitive lumberjack is renowned for his criticism of the spraying of glyphosate on the province’s forests. Cumberland argues that the spraying of glyphosate to grow softwood plantations wipes out vegetation, an important food source for deer and other forest wildlife.

After a brief meeting with the forestry college’s Executive Director Tim Marshall on June 20, Cumberland was handed a letter of dismissal. The letter outlined eight reasons for his dismissal, including stopping students from attending his class if they were late, insisting that they remove their hats in class, making offensive remarks in the classroom and damaging the reputation of the college.

“If you boil the reasons down, they amount to following the rules and telling the truth. These are character traits most employers look for,” according to Cumberland.

Cumberland is a certified wildlife biologist with The Wildlife Society that requires he take a pledge to his profession. Assuming that Cumberland takes his professional responsibilities seriously, that would explain why he insists such issues as herbicide and its effects on New Brunswick’s wildlife must be based on science.

Redmond believes “the management and governance of the college has failed to protect Cumberland and have facilitated his termination at the college because of vested interests who want to muzzle his professional opinions.” 

“As past Executive Director, I experienced these attempts to sanction Rod for speaking up on this important wildlife issue. The other issues cited in his letter of termination that focus on his classroom management and teaching approaches are simply ‘window dressing’ to cover up the real reasons for his dismissal,” says Redmond, who has been an instructor at the forestry college since 2000 and was the college’s Executive Director from 2014 until his retirement in 2017.

One day after publicly defending Cumberland on CBC Radio on July 2, Redmond was told by the college that his teaching services were no longer required.

In response to the NB Media Co-op’s query to the forestry college requesting clarification on the reasons for Cumberland’s dismissal, Executive Director Tim Marshall sent a statement declaring that the college is not doing interviews and that the college’s Board of Directors is not involved in daily operations or personnel issues. The statement declared that the reason for Rod Cumberland’s termination was not related to his position on glyphosate, and that Redmond had recently disclosed confidential information belonging to the forestry college, which he obtained during his tenure as the college’s Executive Director.

What’s changed with the college’s governance since Redmond’s departure as Executive Director? Critics of glyphosate spraying say one addition to the college’s board of directors is noteworthy: Jason Limongelli, Vice-President of J.D. Irving Ltd.

J.D. Irving and spraying

Glyphosate is a poison used to kill plants. J.D. Irving sprays the most glyphosate-based product of any forestry company in a province that also sprays more glyphosate on its forest than any other province, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s 2016 report on glyphosate.

The province of New Brunswick has continually defended the practice of glyphosate spraying of approximately 13,000-15,000 hectares of Crown forest as part of the province’s silviculture program, stating that Health Canada deems the product safe. Opponents disagree and reference the World Health Organization’s 2015 classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

To date, approximately 35,000 people in New Brunswick have signed a hard copy petition against glyphosate spraying of the forest, making it the petition with the most signatures ever submitted to the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly. Green Party Leader David Coon has presented this petition to the Legislative Assembly a number of times.

Opponents believe that the province of New Brunswick is not moving to ban glyphosate or stop the public funding of glyphosate spraying because it goes against the interests of the province’s largest forestry player, J.D. Irving Ltd.

In early 2016, Halifax Media Co-op journalist Miles Howe, with support from the NB Media Co-op, submitted information requests for correspondence at the Department of Natural Resources. The documentation received confirm J.D. Irving’s influence in Crown forest management as well as the Department of Natural Resources’ actions to deal with Cumberland.

Following the wishes of J.D. Irving Ltd. and contrary to the advice of wildlife biologists, the Alward Conservative government implemented a forestry strategy in 2014 that reduced the percentage of conservation areas on Crown land from 28 to 23 percent, allowing clearcutting in areas that had previously been off-limits to the practice for ecological reasons.

In a letter from James D. Irving, Co-Chief Executive Officer of J.D. Irving Ltd. to Premier David Alward on February 27, 2013 obtained by Howe, Irving complained about statements made by then Minister of Natural Resources Bruce Northrup that were in support of maintaining the conservation area at 28 per cent. A few months later, Northrup was shuffled out of his ministerial position and the conservation area had been reduced to 23 per cent.

In other correspondence obtained by Howe, the Department of Natural Resources initiated email communications with the province’s largest forestry players, including J.D. Irving, AV Group, Fornebu Lumber and Acadian Timber, to discuss how to deal with Cumberland’s statements on glyphosate spraying. The correspondence reveals that despite being stonewalled by government, Cumberland continued his efforts to communicate his concerns with glyphosate spraying to the government.

The anti-spraying movement has grown in the past few years. In 2014, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick was joined by a number of wildlife organizations in calls to ban glyphosate in the woods. The Miramichi Headwaters Salmon Federation’s Kevin Shaw spoke out against spraying the forest in 2017 despite the possibility of reprisals from J.D. Irving for going public with their group’s opposition.

Following the increased mobilization against spraying the forest with glyphosate, a website, ForestInfo.ca, was launched by the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that defends the use of glyphosate. J.D. Irving Ltd and Forestry Protection Ltd., the company that sprays the forest, are listed as partners on the website. Stop Spraying NB has debunked claims made about glyphosate on the government-industry website.

#BringBackRod

Redmond and some former students at the forestry college believe Cumberland should be reinstated. “Rod Cumberland is one of the finest, most experienced and professional wildlife biologists that I have had a pleasure to know and work with.  On top of that, he is an incredible educator and communicator,” says Redmond.

“Cumberland does his research and is never intimidated to speak out when something is amiss. The glyphosate herbicide issue and its impact on deer and other biota, is just one example of his commitment to fixing a serious wildlife management problem. At the end of the day, I believe that he will be vindicated by the naysayers who dismiss this toxic chemical as benign and safe. Already, we are seeing courts award huge damages to humans who have died and/or have been debilitated by glyphosate,” says Redmond.

Redmond calls the cutting of his courses within the Continuing Education section of the College “rather petty and vindictive attempt to censure me for supporting Rod Cumberland.”

Green Party Leader David Coon and People’s Alliance of New Brunswick Leader Kris Austin have joined Redmond in calling for the Department of Post-secondary Education, Training and Labour to conduct a third-party investigation of Cumberland’s dismissal. The forestry college, located at the Hugh John Flemming Forestry Centre in Fredericton, is funded primarily by the province and operates as a cooperative that includes government, educational institution and industry representation on its board of directors.

Redmond is behind the Facebook Group, Friends of “Rod Cumberland.” A number of Cumberland’s colleagues and former students have shared testimonials on the site that describe Cumberland as a caring instructor who pushes his students to do their best.

Joseph English, a recent graduate of the college, posted that he was one of the students disciplined for being late and wearing a hat in Cumberland’s classroom. According to English, Cumberland “is one of the few reasons I am who I am today, and how I’ve found a love for this industry.” Today, English does aerial firefighting with the government of Alberta’s Agricultural and Forestry division.

Matt Wood, another graduate of the college, notes a deeper problem linked to Cumberland’s dismissal:  “We are losing the fight against propaganda on a regular basis. Critical thinking skills have become dulled and our ability to discern between fact and bullshit is diminishing . . . The monetarily powerful have a way of stifling objection to their actions and there is no one more vocal in his objections than Rod to herbicide spraying as a landscape-level vegetation management practice. Perhaps the threat of having a well-informed base of students from which to draw future employees was an unacceptable outcome.”

Cara Gillis, class of 2015 who went on to study forestry at the University of New Brunswick and the University of Northern British Columbia, shared that Cumberland stands out as an instructor whose office door was always open.

“Rod taught us to stand up for what is right, which is why I, and the rest of his former students, will not stand for this decision, and why we will now ‘go to bat’ for a man who always supported us,” shared Gillis.

Update, July 30, 2019: The Maritime College of Forestry Technology sent this statement to the NB Media Co-op regarding the dismissal of Rod Cumberland on July 29, 2019.

Tracy Glynn is a doctoral researcher with RAVEN – Rural Action and Voices for the Environment and was the Conservation Council of New Brunswick’s forest campaigner from 2006 to 2018.

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