André Lamontagne, Quebec’s agricultural minister, was on the defensive after a blistering report by the province’s ombudsman.
Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS
QUEBEC — The province’s agriculture minister is refusing to apologize to a whistleblower who tried to denounce alleged private sector meddling in pesticide research and paid a heavy price when his own government ministry turned against him.“With all due respect, I was not there,” André Lamontagne, minister of agriculture, told reporters. “The whole thing that led to the firing of the employee … our government was not there.“These things happened under another government, under another minister.”Lamontagne was reacting to a blistering report by the province’s ombudsman, which said Quebec’s ministry of agriculture “committed serious violations” of the province’s whistleblower legislation when one of the ministry’s own agronomists, Louis Robert, tried to denounce the meddling internally.Not only did the bureaucrats charged with looking into his allegations not follow up, they betrayed him by making his identity public to his superiors who ultimately fired him (on Jan. 24, 2019) for spilling the beans, ombudsman Marie Rinfret said in her report tabled Thursday in the National Assembly.She went further, saying the Robert incident might discourage other whistleblowers from coming forward.“What is at stake is confidence that such a mechanism must inspire for potential whistleblowers,” Rinfret writes. “Without this trust, they may very well decide not to go down that road, despite the importance if their disclosure for the public interest.”The firing came shortly after Robert, desperate to get the information out, leaked documents to Radio-Canada.That was after he failed in October 2017 to get the ministry’s disclosure officer, Geneviève Masse, to heed his warnings about a potential conflict of interest at the Centre de recherche sur les grains (CEROM). That organization is largely funded by the public purse.Masse did not act, deciding that CEROM, an outside organization, was not her responsibility. This was a mistake, the auditor said, rapping Masse on the knuckles for failing to apply the government’s 2017 whistleblower law.Despite the fiasco, Masse has kept her job and has been promoted to associate deputy minister.Rinfret’s report Thursday does not deal with the allegations of meddling specifically. She will produce another report on that matter later.She also does not deal with the firing, because her mandate does not allow her to intervene in work relations.But Thursday’s report sparked a commotion at the legislation, with Lamontagne calling a news conference to respond. He immediately announced his deputy minister, Marc Dion, the man in charge of the bureaucracy at the time, had resigned.Dion had already indicated plans to retire in July. He advanced the date by a few weeks.Reminded that he was minister when Robert lost his job, Lamontagne stuck to his talking points that the events happened under the Liberals’ watch. The Coalition Avenir Québec government was formed Oct. 18, 2018.Lamontagne instead announced the government intends to make contact with Robert and offer him the possibility of resuming work at his old job in the ministry, the one he had held for 30 years.“We won’t play ostrich,” Lamontagne said. “This report is harsh and critical of the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des pêcheries et la l’Alimentation (MAPAQ).But the opposition parties were not buying the government’s line, calling it a political whitewash.They noted Lamontagne has already admitted he bungled the file when he said in February he personally took care of Robert’s firing.“It’s such a mess, so many errors were made, I do not see how the current minister of agriculture can stay on the job,” the Liberal critic for agriculture, Marie Montpetit, said at a news conference.“He (Lamontagne) saw nothing, did nothing, is responsible for nothing,” added Gaétan Barrette, the Liberal treasury board critic. “He washes his hands of the whole thing.”“What happened at this ministry should not have happened,” added Québec solidaire agriculture critic Émilise Lessard-Therrien. “In all respects, the ministry trampled the rights and violated the confidence of Mr. Robert.”Parti Québécois critic Martin Ouellet stopped short of calling for Lamontagne’s head, but said he needs to shoulder the blame.Rinfret calls on the ministry to draft an action plan to correct its failings by July 30, 2019. Treasury Board president Christian Dubé immediately pledged to table a new bill this fall reinforcing the whistleblowing email@example.comTwitter.com/philipauthierRelated