MONTREAL – Quebec’s agriculture minister said Monday he went too far when he claimed it was his decision to fire a whistleblowing public servant who had raised concerns about pesticide use.
Last week, Andre Lamontagne said he personally approved the dismissal of department agronomist Louis Robert for transmitting a confidential document to a journalist.
The minister told reporters Monday he had misspoken and the firing was an “administrative” decision. He said he has asked the Quebec ombudsman to investigate the dismissal.
“I made a mistake last week in the news conference when I took responsibility for this decision, which in reality was an administrative decision,” Lamontagne said.
He said that in the heat of the moment, his reflexes from his previous life as an entrepreneur rose to the surface and he “went to bat” to defend his management team within the department.
“In fact, I neither fired nor authorized the firing of Mr. Robert,” the minister said, noting that according to the rules he is not the boss of the department’s employees. He added that because hiring and firing decisions are not the minister’s to make, he does not have the authority to restore Robert to his job.
Last week, Lamontagne had been very clear.”It’s my decision, so I’m very comfortable with my decision,” he said when asked about the firing. He remained vague about the reasons behind Robert’s departure but suggested there were other factors at play besides the leak to the media.
On Monday, Lamontagne said he had simply been informed of the disciplinary action against Robert. He said he asked about the process and was satisfied it had been “thorough and marked by caution.”
Robert, a seed expert, spoke out last year against what he said was private-sector interference in a public study on pesticide use. He was fired Jan. 24.
Quebec’s whistleblower law protects employees who disclose information within their department. But disclosure to the public is protected only if the employee believes there is a serious risk to health, safety or the environment.
Robert’s union has vowed to contest his firing, saying it was unprecedented for a minister to intervene in the dismissal of an employee five levels below him in the bureaucratic hierarchy.