This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2010

26 million hectares of forest, $17 billion, and one lonely bush pilot

Ashley Walters

For years, Joel Theriault has waged a losing battle against pesticide spraying in Northern Ontario forests. He’s made enemies in the logging business, the Ministry of Natural Resources—and even among his fellow environmentalists. What keeps him going?

Joel Theriault

Illustration by Dushan Milic

On a chilly afternoon in mid-June 2009, bush-pilot-turned-environmental-activist Joel Theriault is once again flying over the deforested landscape near his home. My passenger headset mutes the rush of air and deafening noise of the plane’s engine. Peering out of my side window, I can see the spider-veined pattern of rivers that flow through industrial-stamped forests, around checkerboard farmland, and regroup into lakes. As seen from the air, deforestation carves its brutal honesty into the land, vividly illustrating our self-destructive relationship with the forest. I recall Theriault’s earlier exasperation with the public’s ignorance of what happens to a forest that’s being logged: the tracts of cleared land are easy to see, but there is much more going on. The invisible threat is from the chemical herbicides that forestry companies spray—chemicals that seep unseen into nearby streams, marshes and lakes. “Where does the herbicide run-off go? We’re north of the Arctic watershed, so all our water goes up to the Arctic. But 40 miles south of us they’re doing the same thing and all of that water flows down into the Great Lakes and eventually makes its way into Toronto’s water supply. So, I think if people from Toronto recognize that they are being exposed to non-essential chemicals—which are being banned on their front lawns for health and environmental reasons—they’d be outraged.”

At one time, the name “Joel Theriault,” when spoken in the small northern Ontario town of Foleyet, could elicit threats of violence. For the past six years, Theriault has been involved in what Linda McCaffrey, director of EcoJustice Ottawa, characterizes as a “David and Goliath situation.” It’s resulted in childhood friends turning against him, a lawsuit from one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies, Theriault’s struggles within a prominent environmental law organization, alienation from other activists, and stonewalling from a government agency. These are the result of Theriault’s mission to stop the use of herbicide spraying in northern Ontario forestry operations. “I’d better change it, or it’s going to drive me nuts,” he says.

Theriault’s battle affects 90 percent of Ontario’s land. Of the 58 million hectares of the province’s forests, 88 percent are owned and managed by the Ontario government (known as Crown forests) and occupy an area larger than many European countries. Although Crown forests are public, roughly a third (about 26 million hectares) are open to commercial logging, a $17-billion industry regulated by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) that needs to be maintained. An essential part of this maintenance is the regeneration of clearcuts—allowing logged areas to grow back in a uniform fashion. For the last 20 years, that has meant the aerial spraying of herbicides to kill off competing vegetation so that the new trees will survive. Industry and government argue that it’s a cheaper, more efficient, and less hazardous way to maintain forests (since workers would otherwise be manually thinning vegetation or conducting controlled forest fires). Critics say that spraying chemicals on land used by local communities to hunt, fish, and camp is destructive and dangerous.

“It’s very challenging to grow conifers without herbicides,” says Susan Pickering, the former divisional forester for boreal Ontario employed by the multinational pulp and paper company, Tembec Enterprises, Inc. The industry’s herbicide of choice is glyphosate, which kills every unwanted plant, blade of grass and piece of vegetation it comes into contact with by destroying an essential protein-processing enzyme. Within six to eight months it chemically binds to the soil, making the ground safe for conifer seedlings to be planted (since the chemical is no longer available for uptake by their roots). The most widely used glyphosate-based herbicide in forestry is Monsanto Canada’s Vision, more commonly known by its agricultural brand name, Roundup. Ninety percent of the forestry market sprays glyphosate-based products, affecting approximately 70,000 hectares of Ontario’s forests annually. Theriault has seen what results from the aerial spraying of glyphosate over the forests near his home. “You can see it from the air, you can also see it from the ground. Everything’s dead except for the pine trees.”

Theriault rejects the notion he’s pitted himself against an immovable opponent. He can hold his own in a fight, although his adolescent appearance would suggest otherwise. He is 28 years old with delicate features and a smooth, rosy complexion—a striking contrast to his unkempt hair and patchy beard, which lends him a wild-wilderness-nut look. In his community, Theriault is well-known for his intensity and uncompromising commitment to his convictions. “He’s got more tenacity than I would have thought,” says his mother, Jeanne. “If he thinks it’s right and the best thing for the environment or the world or mankind, it’s above dispute.” Theriault is determined to win the war that has consumed much of his time, resources, and energy over the last six years. “I think you’ve got to pick an issue that bothers you that is attainable, that is manageable,” he says. To him, trying to transform the forest management practices of a couple of multi-billion dollar corporations in northern Ontario is “the most attainable of the issues out there.”

Joel Theriault on one of his fishing tripsThe forest was a constant feature in Theriault’s childhood. He was raised in an isolated outfitting lodge, the Ivanhoe River Inn. The lodge borders the northern Ontario forests a few minutes’ drive outside Foleyet, a town with a population of 216 in the district of Sudbury. The Ivanhoe River Inn is stationed on the edge of Ivanhoe Lake, a moderately sized body of water among a smattering of snake-like rivers that spread across northern Ontario. For over 10 years, Theriault has spent his summers working for his parents as a pilot at the lodge, flying supplies and clients to one of the family’s 31 isolated cabins on the lakes in northern Ontario. It was during this time that Theriault’s interest in herbicides began to deepen. As a pilot he began to notice changes in the landscape. Once-familiar swaths of greenery, shrubs and dense, dark forests took on a sickly yellowish-brown hue. From the air, vast clearcuts gave fallen trees the appearance of twigs strewn over patches of mud. Forests quickly became barren, marked by the occasional patchwork of brown brush. Theriault was horrified by the transformation and felt a personal responsibility to prevent its further destruction. “If you spend enough time somewhere—as it was for me—I kind of look at it and say, ‘Well, this is kind of a part of me.’ You start to claim some ownership over it,” he says.

In 2004, a hunting trip sparked Theriault’s interest to find out what exactly was being done to the forests around his home. Theriault was hunting in the Pineland forest, a mile away from cut blocks that housed signs stating that the area had undergone a recent herbicide spray. As he waded into a blueberry patch he discovered a black bear and quietly raised his rifle, shooting and killing the animal. Theriault used its meat in a stew for himself and his girlfriend at the time. When she suffered odd symptoms (dry itchy eyes, itchy throat, headache, nausea, heart pains) 20 minutes after the meal, Theriault saw it as nothing more than a bout of hypochondria. “We didn’t think anything of it,” he recalls. “I just thought, ‘Well, it’s not real, this is just something that’s in your mind.’” He admits his own throat felt strangely itchy after the meal, but ignored it. The next day, he cooked more of the bear meat—but this time telling his girlfriend it was deer, only to see her complain of the same reaction. Theriault’s curiosity was piqued. It just didn’t make any sense, he thought. He fed the same meat to some unsuspecting friends. “I had a couple of friends over, they’d eat the meat and I’d ask them, ‘How do you feel?’” It was tasty, but they experienced a dry, itchy sensation, they responded. To Theriault, it was more than coincidence. He knew that he’d been hunting near a former spray site. He had a hunch that what he’d been experiencing was a result of ingesting meat containing high concentrations of herbicides. But he couldn’t get a commercial or government lab to test the meat for herbicide contamination. While it’s true that some health effects associated with glyphosate-based herbicides include eye and skin irritation, headache, nausea, numbness, elevated blood pressure, and heart palpitations—Theriault had no way of linking the herbicide to his girlfriend’s symptoms.

Three years later, in 2007, Theriault experienced another bizarre incident that confirmed his earlier suspicions that herbicides were poisoning the wildlife near his home. He shot another black bear and when he field-dressed and quartered its carcass, he balked at the sight of its lungs. “Instead of nice healthy pink lungs, its lungs were totally bloodshot and full of blood lesions everywhere. They looked like red Jell-O.” White mossy spots covered the bear’s liver. Theriault says that the area that he was hunting in was a few miles from where herbicides had been sprayed.

Theriault’s experiences are not isolated. Similar reports of herbicide sprays killing rabbits and causing moose to develop cysts were noted in 1992. At that time, Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Board conducted one of the longest and most expensive hearings in Canadian history, in which Forests for Tomorrow (a coalition of environmental groups) challenged the forestry practices of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the industry—including the use of herbicides. During the four-and-a-half-year hearing, community members, aboriginal leaders, hunters, anglers and foresters all came forward to testify to the effects they thought Vision was having on the ecosystem. A particularly striking statement came from John Steinke, a guide who relayed what he witnessed while walking in a forest a week after it had been sprayed. “My dog couldn’t have survived if I didn’t carry it around,” he told the judiciary. “Most notable is the total lack of wildlife; there isn’t a bee, there isn’t a bird, there is nothing there.” The hearing ultimately decided that herbicide would continue to be used in forestry, as it was not threatening human health and was essential to the survival of the industry. Rick Lindgren, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association and co-counsel representing Forests for Tomorrow recalls the hearing. “On some of the big ticket items like herbicide application and clearcut size we didn’t see much progress at all. In fact, all it really did was entrench the status quo.” Lindgren attributes the hearing’s results to the difficulty of altering long-established federally approved herbicide practices. “It was hard to say, ‘well, maybe you shouldn’t have registered these things for use, or the registration should be reconsidered in light of new or growing scientific evidence which suggests that there may be potential risks to applicators and the ecosystem,’” says Lindgren. The expert he’d arranged to testify on herbicide alternatives in forest regeneration practices was unable to attend at the last minute and the public testimony didn’t constitute hard evidence against the use of herbicides. “It’s one thing to say, ‘well they came in and sprayed and I saw this disappear, I no longer saw this species, I no longer saw that species.’ But try to prove cause and effect, that was difficult,” he says. Ironically, just as Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Board was rendering its decision to uphold the use of herbicides in the forestry industry, Quebec was moving towards enacting a provincial policy that would see all herbicides banned from use in public forests by 2001. But no precedent was set.

It’s difficult to win a battle that hinges on changing government regulations when the government itself resists. Brennain Lloyd, the project coordinator of the northern Ontario environmental group Northwatch, says that the Ontario government advocates for herbicide use in forestry: “The Ministry of Natural Resources’ mandate is to promote and support forest management, and what forest management requires in the present industrial worldview is the use of herbicides, so those things seem to be accepted as givens within the ministry.”

The MNR’s lack of presence on the ground during forestry operations is a result of the 1995 Ontario government reform agenda known as the “common sense revolution,” which slashed the budgets of ministries to reduce government spending and taxation, often through privatization. The MNR lost 50 percent of its forest management staff—including half of its field inspectors—and millions from its budget. In 1998, the MNR formally transferred Crown forest oversight to the forestry industry. “I had concerns that it was letting the fox look after the henhouse,” Lorraine Rekmans, the former executive director of the National Aboriginal Forestry Association, says of the shift in policy.

Theriault has tried to use government bureaucracy to his advantage in attempting to halt forestry operations. "It's amazing how one individual can shut down industry," says one forestry worker.

In fact, even though the MNR requires the forestry industry to adhere to certain standards in its application of herbicides, the industry is left to regulate itself, a policy known as the “forestry self-inspection system.” “The whole thing is constructed on a fundamental conflict of interest,” says Mark Winfield, a professor at York University who conducted a comprehensive review of the system. “Employees are effectively going to have to report non-compliance on the part of their employers,” he says. “That’s obviously problematic. Winfield’s research found that forestry inspections conducted by MNR employees uncovered violations at a much higher rate than those conducted by industry-employed inspectors. Michael Irvine, the MNR vegetation management specialist, acknowledges the criticism of the self-inspection system, but argues that forestry companies are subject to independent audits that examine the degree to which their ground operations comply with the province’s sustainable forest management regulations. But “the quality of the audit reports vary,” says Winfield. The process is poorly documented and varies from auditor to auditor.

Meanwhile, the chemical regulatory branch of Health Canada (the Pest Management Regulatory Agency) responsible for approving glyphosate-based herbicides has been widely criticized for its pro-industry bias. The federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development has rebuked the PMRA for its slow and unresponsive regulatory approach and dependence on risk-assessment data from chemical companies that lack quality assurance and independent validation. The PMRA, along with the federal Minister of Health, have also been accused of ignoring scientific evidence of environmental and health risks when approving glyphosatebased products for use in Canada. As of September 25, 2009 a lawsuit has been launched (by a retired B.C. pediatrician, Josette Wier) against the federal Minister of Health on these grounds.

Theriault has tried to use government bureaucracy to his advantage in attempting to halt forestry operations. Over the course of six years he has filed several requests for individual environmental assessments that temporarily froze forestry operations near his home, sent foresters off the job, caused the industry to lose money, and inflamed tempers. “It’s amazing how one individual in Foleyet can shut down industry,” says Susan Pickering, who worked for Tembec when Theriault’s request for an environmental assessment (called an EA by insiders) froze the company’s operations in the spring of 2006.

Theriault recalls a time when his repeated requests for environmental assessments even caused his childhood friends who now work in the forestry industry to turn against him. “My fishing and hunting friends all of a sudden wanted to fight with me. Wanted to actually fist-fight me. They were so pissed because their bosses were telling them I was going to shut down the forestry in the whole province and they were all going to be out of jobs.” Although Theriault was never subject to physical violence, he was careful not to go to the local bar without friends, in case any confrontations arose. “I’d make sure I had backup there in case I had a group of belligerently drunk forestry guys who all wanted to fight me. Which was very well within the realm of possibility. What do you say to a drunken forestry guy who hates your guts because he thinks that you’re going to put him out of work?”

Theriault also noticed that with each environmental assessment request he made, the Ministry of Natural Resources became less receptive to his requests for information on forestry operations. “So I just stopped asking as myself,” he says. “It was unproductive for Joel Theriault to ask for information. It was more productive for aliases to ask for information. because then the guards were down.” In June 2009, foresters working for Tembec were sent off the job as a result of an assessment request filed by Theriault, which temporarily suspended the company’s logging operations. At the time, Tembec’s chief forester in Ontario, Alan Thorne, described the issue as “very sensitive,” explaining that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” could be lost. Of the EA requests filed by Theriault to date, none have resulted in a permanent halt to herbicide spraying.

Despite Theriault’s energy and obvious enthusiasm for his cause, his go-it-alone style has often backfired. Theriault attended law school—“I think that having a law degree is going to give me the tools to incite change that might not otherwise happen,” he says—but things haven’t exactly worked out as he planned. As a student of environmental law, Theriault focused on gathering evidence for his case against industry. To sharpen his arguments, he wrote papers on herbicides, discussed the issue with professors, attended and organized herbicide workshops, wrote petitions against the use of herbicides in forestry, went to forestry planning meetings, wrote letters to the editors of local and national newspapers on the subject of herbicides, and solicited help from other activists. He also started a website,, which he says was set up to showcase harmful practices and embarrass industry. The site, now relocated to, contains aerial photos and videos of deforested land, numerous letters to the editor written by Theriault criticizing the industry’s use of herbicides, as well as his correspondence with scientists, academics, activists, and members of industry or government on the subject of herbicides.

Theriault’s aggressive critiques of the industry and government were often self-defeating, getting him kicked out of community forestry planning meetings and alienating him from other activists. “A lot of people who work in forestry, the pesticide industry or government really disdain me because of my activism,” says Theriault. Susan Pickering, who worked for Tembec until 2008 when she became the program manager for the forest research partnership at the Canadian Ecology Centre, adds, “I know that Joel has had court orders not allowing him to speak to the Ministry of Natural Resources because of his language.” Although the MNR denies filing a restraining order, Theriault says he’s been asked to leave meetings in which the Ministry officials were present.

Other activists have also steered clear of Theriault because of his reputation. Jennifer Simard, the executive director of the Mushkegowuk Environmental Research Centre, and an active member of the First Nations community in northern Ontario, has, like Theriault, witnessed the damaging effects of herbicides used in the forests near her home. Simard met Theriault at a 2006 symposium on forestry herbicides that she helped organize.

She describes Theriault as a “dedicated guy,” but his singleminded pursuit of a pesticide ban has also tended to alienate potential allies. “It’s too bad, and I think that he could be very helpful if he would just be more of a team player.” “Joel is a very intense individual, highly committed,” says Brad Morse, one of Theriault’s law professors. “But Joel has a bit of an aggressive streak. He’s not at all shy to challenge people. Joel doesn’t let anything stand in his way. I’ve suggested to him on some occasions to calm down a bit and to think more strategically.” Linda McCaffrey, Theriault’s former articling principal at EcoJustice in Ottawa, says he “has an unusual amount of confidence in himself and his priorities. I had been told by one of his professors that he was very talented and that he wasn’t easy to keep under control. And he’s not easy to keep under control, he’s absolutely his own person. He knows what he wants and he knows what he thinks.”

Theriault’s efforts culminated in the last year of his law degree when he directed a team of students to gather research for a petition submitted to the Canadian government in 2007. It was a request for an investigation of a violation of the Fisheries Act by Domtar and Tembec, claiming that Ontario lakes and rivers near their forestry operations were being contaminated with herbicides. It cited repeated incidents in which glyphosate contamination of drinking water occurred as a direct result of its use in forestry. In Denmark, glyphosate contamination in ground water resulted in the chemical being banned, and in 2006 glyphosate was detected in the well water of the northern Ontario town of Cochrane, although there was no proof linking the contamination to forestry activities in the area. The petition was ultimately rejected on the grounds that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove waterway contamination. Theriault was ultimately willing to do what the government wasn’t. His petition requested that specific lakes and rivers near forestry spray sites be tested for herbicide contamination, although Theriault was already on a mission to do this himself. After finishing law school, in his first week of articling in Toronto at environmental law advocates EcoJustice, Theriault told his bosses he wanted a week off. “I basically told my bosses in Toronto, ‘look, I want to go north to go water sampling. So we’ve got two options. Either you guys can send me up for a week and we’ll call it work, or if we can’t agree on that, then I’d like a week off. ‘ That’s how I said it.” Theriault acknowledges that his request was unusual, “Who takes a week off without being there for a week? Not many people. But I did.” His bosses granted him a week off to take water samples but Theriault was embarking on a task that would be a challenge for a multidisciplinary team of scientists to complete, let alone an individual. “He was highly committed, highly ambitious, courageous, very determined and not very experienced [in collecting water samples],” says EcoJustice director Linda McCaffrey, who worked with him in Ottawa. “After you’ve got all these samples you have to have them analyzed. And pesticide samples can be hellishly expensive to have analyzed. And you have to know who can analyze them. You can go to a commercial lab and, depending on the lab, they can give you an analysis result and it may not be meaningful at all.” Theriault admits his task was daunting, “It was a bastard trying to get water samples,” he says. For one, he had no idea where and when the spraying was happening. He asked MNR for that information, but the ministry told him it didn’t receive that information until long after spraying occurred, and that he’d have to ask the forestry companies directly (who, understandably, had no interest in sharing the information with him). So Theriault would fly around in his father’s seaplane, listen to his radio, and wait.

"Joel has a bit of an aggressive streak. He's not at all shy to challenge people. I've suggested to him on some occasions to calm down a bit and to think more strategically."

Theriault says he never would have known exactly when spraying took place if it wasn’t for the radio in his plane, which allowed him to intercept the communication of industry pilots who sprayed the herbicide. “I’d go up in the airplane and I’d hear: ‘Okay, Charlie Golf Lima X-ray Zulu. Two miles west of Five Mile Lake, aerial allocations ten’… I know exactly where you fuckers are. And that’s how I followed them.” But Theriault then had to spend time on the ground finding bodies of water near the spray sites. He spent hours driving remote rugged logging roads looking for signs announcing a recent spray. “In a week I probably put on 700 kilometers driving forester roads looking at signs,” Theriault says. “And the next part, after you know it’s been sprayed, is to be at the shoreline of the creek when the first rainfall hits.” So Theriault squatted at the shores of lakes, waiting for rain. “Just sitting there, just waiting and saying, ‘Fuck, I hope it rains soon, I’m ready to go home.’ And then trying to get those kind of water samples, which turned out to be just kind of impossible.”

Theriault gathered two water samples that he believed might have been exposed to Vision, but the commercial lab where he had them tested showed that any herbicide in the water was below MNR-regulated levels. Theriault was determined to keep trying, but his bosses at EcoJustice were not pleased. “After that it was like, ‘oh that was a big waste of time, a big disappointment.’ There was a lot of confidence lost after that,” Theriault says. “I think they kind of looked at it and they said, ‘Wow. Nice kind of vacation for you Joel. Now we’re going to do our work.” The crusade was temporarily suspended—but far from over.

A week after theriault’s sampling trip, and two weeks after his petition was filed with the federal government against Domtar and Tembec, Theriault was served with legal papers from Domtar. The company claimed that his website was libelous in its attempts to pose as the organization. Two weeks later, a lawyer from Domtar phoned Theriault’s boss at EcoJustice in Toronto. By Theriault’s account, “Domtar called and said, ‘Look this guy’s driving us nuts. We’re going to bring in legal action against him if you don’t stop him, and we’re going to bring legal actions against you guys personally.’ So that freaked out my bosses.”

He left the Toronto office in what everyone involved politely refers to as a mutually agreed-upon “leave of absence.” Several months later, Theriault moved to EcoJustice’s Ottawa office on the condition that he no longer advocate on the herbicide issue. McCaffrey, at EcoJustice in Ottawa, recalls the ordeal. “A Domtar lawyer phoned one of the lawyers in the Toronto office and accused Joel of unprofessional conduct,” she says. “I don’t know what the specific allegations were, but I guess they boiled down to a general allegation that his conduct was unprofessional in some way, but I don’t know what way that would have been. Anyway, the result was that Joel came to Ottawa to finish his articles. He agreed to give up his campaign and focus just on the work of this office.” (Domtar refused to comment on its interactions with EcoJustice or Theriault.)

In December 2007, Domtar took Theriault to court over his website domain name, resulting in being transferred to the corporation. Theriault was disappointed with his employer’s response to Domtar. “EcoJustice is this environmental activist group, you’d think that they’d see through the bullshit,” he says. Theriault was also discouraged because Domtar had effectively silenced him on the herbicide issue. “I couldn’t say anything about Domtar without fearing that I’d be laid off again and publicly humiliated and have my career destroyed.” Theriault was demoralized and exhausted. Domtar and Tembec continued to spray herbicides in the forests near his home, his petition had failed, and EcoJustice would only rehire him on the condition that he’d stop advocating for the issue that he cared about most.

In September 2008, Theriault finished his articling with EcoJustice in Ottawa, and continued to work with them until November 2009. He’s a certified lawyer, although he has yet to find a full-time job. He half-jokes that he’s temporarily retired, as he still spends summers working for his family’s business. But Theriault is far from giving up on the herbicide issue. In the evenings he can be found nursing a beer, composing editorials to his local newspaper on the subject. But his frustration is mounting; it’s become painfully clear that for years the only tangible progress he’s made is delaying forestry operations near his home and angering industry—and making enemies for himself. “Have I changed things so far? No I haven’t. No, I’m still plowing away at it. It’d be a different story if I was sitting here, complaining and griping about an issue and doing absolutely nothing,” he says, “which is where most of the world fits in.”

Theriault has recently filed a new environmental assessment request. Companies that spray pesticides around domesticated livestock grazing areas are required to abide by strict exposure limits; Theriault is asking that forestry companies be held to the same standard when spraying around animals that are hunted in the wild. He argues that hunters and local communities should be protected from pesticide-laced food just as surely as supermarket shoppers are. So far, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment has been receptive.

But while flying in his seaplane, I feel a blunt isolation from the devastation of the land, although its scars are clearly mapped out before me. I see Theriault reach his arm out of his tiny rain-stained window and snap pictures of the flattened landscape sliding below us. The crackle of my headset breaks the muffled silence as I hear Theriault’s voice. “I would rather just see this all burned and be able to re-grow from there than what’s being done.”

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