The Ghost of OGEN: Why OGEN’s Master Grower is suing

The Ghost of OGEN why Daniel Saez sued the Canadian Cannabis Company

This story first appeared in Volume 3. Read the whole issue here.

Sitting in the back of a cab, Daniel Saez listened to his driver, Binyam Asress, profess a deep love of Spain. At times leaning forward, animated and engaging, Saez seemed an authentically friendly and interested character. Asress finished his story of living like a local in Saez’s homeland with a shrug and a laugh but as Saez searched for a story in kind about his experience in Canada he faltered.

“That story melts my heart,” Saez said, his voice cracking. “I’m not having a really good time now.”

In videos posted to Asress’ Instagram account Saez recounts his time working for OGEN Ltd., a licensed cannabis producer in Calgary, Alberta. The President of the company, Darren Brisebois, flew to Barcelona to offer Saez a job in 2019 as the company’s Master Grower. He then extended Saez’s contract (and working visa) in 2020 only to fire him abruptly less than four months later. Saez is suing the company for damages in civil court. He argues OGEN broke its contract with him by constructively dismissing him. Constructive dismissal is a legal phrase essentially meaning OGEN sought to undermine Saez’s performance at work in order to have a reason to fire him. After interviewing Saez and several other people with direct knowledge of OGEN’s working environment a disturbing picture emerged. The testimony of these witnesses revealed the following:

  • Two other employees sought to sue OGEN for wrongful dismissal but ended up settling with the company out of court.
  • OGEN’s HR department did not keep appropriate information confidential from company leadership, leading to fears of retaliation among employees for complaints involving supervisors and senior leaders in the company.
  • On more than one occasion—and for a period of more than a month—employees paid for growing supplies out of their own pocket (e.g. cloning gel).
  • A lack of proper facilities for employees (e.g. no lunch room with heat).
  • OGEN claimed the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy despite laying off all but six employees in the early stages of the pandemic.

In Alberta, it is legal for an employer to fire an employee without cause or notice as long as the employee is given an appropriate amount of pay in lieu of that notice. It seems to be the preferred disposal method for anyone President Darren Brisebois needs, or wants, to get rid of quickly.

Binyam Asress and Daniel Saez talk about OGEN firing him without cause
Daniel Saez opens up to his Uber driver Binyam Asress about his time working at OGEN in Calgary, Alberta

Michael Dansen—which is a pseudonym we are using to protect the identity of a source—worked at OGEN prior to Daniel Saez’s arrival. Although he eventually quit due to a lack of trust in the company’s leadership, Dansen remembered being excited about working with OGEN’s new master grower.

“I was stoked,” Dansen said, “and I’ve never been like that.”

In addition to degrees in both agricultural and industrial engineering, Daniel Saez worked for the Strainhunter’s Greenhouse Seed Company for five years. He has international experience in everything from pest management to breeding. He spent his life building skills to prepare for a legal cannabis market but the move from Spain to Canada almost didn’t happen. On top of the pay cut he would take stepping away from his consulting work Saez had to factor in his house in Spain and his upcoming wedding. In the end, the lure of being a master grower for one of the world’s first legal cannabis companies, combined with OGEN’s persistence, was too much to ignore. He signed.

The day before Saez arrived at OGEN’s facility in early October 2019 founder Steve Dunphy quit. According to more than one source the decision followed a particularly notable “screaming” match between Dunphy and President Darren Brisebois. Saez ignored the situation and kept his head down.

“I was shocked,” he said. “But for me, I’m an expert on plants. I told myself: ‘Focus on plants, Danny. That’s what you like, that’s what you love. Just do your work. Focus on your work and you will be safe.’”

For the next few months Saez informed nearly every new decision OGEN made when it came to cultivation. He experimented with nutrient schedules, advised on pesticides, conducted phenotyping, breeding and all the other tasks expected of a master grower.

Daniel Saez and Benji Selma at OGEN
Benji Selma and Daniel Saez worked together at OGEN. Selma quit shortly before OGEN fired Saez with no notice or cause

In the new year employees in the cultivation team received a survey from a magazine called Cannabis Business Times located in Ohio. Based on the results of that survey the magazine awarded OGEN “Best Cannabis Companies to Work for — Cultivation.” Everyone we spoke to attributed the positive survey responses to Saez’s presence within the company.

Another anonymous source we’ve named Kenneth Parcel had been with OGEN since its early days until he too was fired by Brisebois.

“People didn’t take notice of OGEN until Danny sarted with the company,” Parcel said. “The way Darren trotted that around came back to bite him in the ass.”

In February of 2020—right as COVID hit North America—an article about OGEN’s win appeared on the magazine’s website. Brisebois is the only subject interviewed.

In one photo of OGEN’s garden Brisebois is positioned between Brandon Godfrey (who quit and whose partner quit with him) and Saez, who is now suing. Note Brisebois’ lack of hairnet and protective glasses.

“When you look at the award its Darren on the cover page,” Parcel said. “Maybe put the focus on the team that got you there.”

OGEN does not appear in Cannabis Business Times’ rankings for 2021 at all.

“I don’t recall if OGEN participated,” wrote Noelle Skodzinksi, Editorial Director of Cannabis Business Times in an email. “We don’t share the names of companies that applied but don’t rank.”

In early 2020 the full extent of the pandemic became clear and OGEN, like many companies, laid off 80% of its staff (24 of 30 non-management employees). Despite the layoffs it would later receive funds from the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). The amount claimed is unknown.

“We made extra hours,” Saez said, “Literally, one of the worst moments to be alive and to be working. The six people in production who worked through COVID felt like we were risking our lives just to make sure everybody else could keep their jobs once all this was over.”

During the following months Health Canada inspected OGEN’s facility virtually to approve an already delayed expansion for production. Re-staffing for the upcoming approval became paramount. The expansion required a tripling of OGEN’s workforce. In the shuffle, Brisebois fired Lou Smith, the company’s Head of Operations and someone with 20 years of production experience, by email. In his place, Brisebois hired one of his own former associates, James Brophy, who had no experience in the cannabis industry. Smith reportedly threatened to sue OGEN and instead settled.

In May of 2020 OGEN received their expansion approval and work began to fill up new rooms. It isn’t clear exactly when problems with Human Resources began but several sources independently described a complete lack of faith in its ability to protect employee confidentiality.

“Things I told them that should have been confidential were repeated,” said one employee. “All of production was making the joke: ‘If you don’t want Darren to know don’t tell [HR]’.”

Darren Brisebois, President of OGEN
Darren Brisebois is the President of OGEN Ltd.

Throughout the latter half of 2020 Saez kept getting complaints from production staff about James Brophy’s ability to manage their departments. Saez’s duties focused solely on plants. It fell to Brophy to make decisions about everything else, including promotions, roles and vacation. When Saez told employees they should report their complaints to HR they scoffed, explaining it functioned more like a snitch line than a confidential way to lodge complaints. The employees told him they feared retaliation from senior leaders in the company. Saez decided to test the allegation himself.

“I made something up,” Saez said, “I said that I rejected an offer from B.C. and I wanted to know what was going on with my contract. The next day [Brisebois] contacted me, yelling ‘Why is everyone telling me you rejected an offer from BC?’”

Not only were operations and HR broken but finance, too, became problematic.

“We couldn’t buy fucking rooting gel,” an employee said. “Yes, I guess you could clone without it but what the fuck? That’s the cheapest expense. We bought it for months, probably two or three months.”

Brisebois himself lacks any experience in cannabis beyond his work with OGEN. He began work as a contractor with the fledgling company early on in its history and somehow attained the role of President when the company had less than 10 employees. Two of the original founders, Steve Dunphy and Ryan Crooks, have both left the company since Brisebois took the reins.

Culture, though, is ultimately set by owners. Brisebois makes six figures largely because he executes decisions made by OGEN’s shareholders. So, who are they? Gary Edwards started in construction, pouring concrete for residential developments close to Calgary. Allan Morrison owned the homes Edwards poured the concrete for and now also owns 31.8% of OGEN through Hawksworth Holdings Limited. With 33.1% of the remaining shares, Edwards is the one really running the show. He also owns a resort in Costa Rica called Bodhi Tree. Morrison and Edwards are likely both aware of the issues in their company but are leaving Brisebois to decide on specifics.

When we first saw the video of Saez in the cab we wanted to give OGEN the benefit of the doubt. We really liked the flower Saez’s team produced and thought the price point was generous given the competition. So we reached out directly to OGEN’s Instagram asking for their comment. They declined to give an interview on the topic and essentially stated the matter was before the courts.

As we learned more about the working environment beyond the Saez lawsuit we reached out again to Darren Brisebois specifically over LinkedIn but received no response. Later, when we posted on our social media channels about their refusal to answer our questions we received a lengthy response from Brisebois which directed us to court documents and also referred us to the award they won before he fired Saez.

Brisebois also offered to fly us out but still did not agree to a phone call. We declined the flight because of COVID risks and the appearance of bias (read our ethics statement for more on that) and continued to press for a telephone interview. To this day OGEN still will not take our questions.

In August of 2020 Saez finally took vacation. Before he left he sat down with Brisebois to discuss his contract.

“After one year what do you have to say? My contract is going to expire in September and I don’t know if you want to renew it or not,” Saez said. “You’re not telling me anything.”

“No worries,” Brisebois said, “once you’re back from holidays you’ll have an answer from the investors and from me.”

Although his original plan to go home to Spain fell through because of COVID, Saez still took time off. When he returned to work a number of people thanked him for their new promotions. Perplexed, Saez booked a meeting with Brisebois.

“I went to the President again and I recorded everything,” Saez said. “I said ‘Why didn’t you come to me? I would have accepted. I’ve only been managing teams because there was nobody to manage them. It’s not even in my contract. Just ask me don’t operate behind me.”

The new contract Brisebois had promised back in the summer still hadn’t materialized. With complaints about Brophy and HR reaching a fever pitch, Saez tested HR’s confidentiality with his lie about refusing an offer from B.C. During that meeting with HR he also mentioned that he still didn’t have a contract. Whether it was due to that meeting or not, a few weeks later a new contract finally appeared for him to sign.

“Hey,” an HR employee said, “you have to sign this.”

“What is this?” Saez asked.

“It’s a section of your contract.”

“Well, I’m not going to sign this. I need to talk with Darren, the President. He told me he would have an answer for me after summer. It’s October .”

“Darren isn’t here ,” the HR employee said, “and you need to sign this otherwise you are going to run out of your work permit.”

Saez signed but wasn’t happy. After this he tried for months to sit with Brisebois and discuss his contract. In early December the pair finally met in private only for Brisebois to blame all of the company’s problems on Saez. For almost three hours Brisebois accused Saez of poor decisions leading to lower quality product. In every case, Saez responded by showing Brisebois an email where Saez had disagreed with the very same decision while it was being proposed but was asked to go ahead with it anyways. In many cases the decisions were about post-harvest handling (drying, curing, packaging, etc.) that were not within Saez’s area of responsibility.

“I guess you’re doing too much,” Brisebois said. “You’re everywhere.”

“Yeah,” Saez said. “I’m exhausted because I’m doing someone else’s job. I want to do my work. Not everyone else’s work. I’m just worried about the company and you are accusing me of things that I’m not even responsible for. And by the way you never came to me with a better offer you forced me to accept my contract for two more years.”

Stunned, Brisebois stuttered for a moment before saying he would talk with the investors.

“I’ve been waiting since August. And the way you did it, extending me without talking to me first, that was really bad. I think I deserve better than that.”

In the company’s statement of defence OGEN accuses Saez of being the cause of all the company’s problems. Our sources tell a different story.

Benji Selma, learned how to grow weed in California. He’s a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S. and came to work at OGEN in part because of Saez’s reputation. Selma oversaw at least part of the company’s phenotyping program.

“Everything changed when Darren told Danny to step away from the floor,” Selma said. “A few weeks before I quit they [Brophy and Brisebois] came to the floor screaming all over the place. They gave me shit because one day I left a few minutes early.”

Selma didn’t stick around to find out if things would get better. As the person overseeing their phenotyping program he felt entitled to more respect. He now consults for another LP in Alberta.

Jeff Aubin owns Smoker Farms, a micro-cultivator in the Kootenays. Saez visited his facility several times on behalf of OGEN to help install feeding systems. Aubin had nothing but good things to say about Saez.

“He would be the number one top worker that I’ve ever seen in any cannabis industry ever,” Aubin said. “If I could have him on staff here he would have never left Canada. Danny’s work ethic is 11 out of 10.”

“Danny wasn’t the bad guy,” Kenneth Parcel said, “everyone loved Danny, including me. He was slowly being pushed out of his role.”

Whatever criticisms Brisebois had of Saez must never have been communicated to the owners. Over the 2020 holiday season Gary Edwards, principal shareholder of OGEN and concrete magnate, asked Saez if he could help with another microcultivator Edwards owned in Okotoks, Alberta.

Specifically, Edwards asked Saez to bring his genetics in to start a breeding progam at the new LP. One question we have for OGEN is about how they acquired their genetics. All seeds and clones must be declared within weeks of a license being granted. If a company wants a new strain they need to breed or buy from another LP. How did OGEN introduce new genetics prior to Edwards’ new license?

In response to Edwards’ request for new seeds Saez deferred, saying he was interested but would discuss specifics in the new year. Weeks later, in early January 2021, roughly half a dozen employees quit OGEN including long-time cultivator Brandon Godfrey. In attempting to determine how many overtime hours he had worked, Godfrey accessed a security system used to track movement through the facility. When Brisebois found this out he tried to bar Godfrey’s access to that system despite it being the only way to independently track worked hours at the facility.

Godfrey and his partner left the company because their concerns about the work environment were not being addressed. Godfrey felt so betrayed by the company’s senior leaders he reportedly cried and spent several hours with Brisebois explaining his reasons for leaving.

On January 8th an anonymous post about OGEN appeared on “Observed multiple incidences of management covering up their own inexperience and mistakes on employees.”

A week later, during a meeting about THC results, Saez began receiving text messages from Brisebois that were a complete reversal of the President’s attitude only a month earlier.

“We’ve never seen Lemon Zkittles above 24%—you’re getting 25.2%,” the texts from Brisebois read. “Keep doing what you’re doing. The THC results are crazy.”

In another text, Brisebois wrote he would talk to the investors to increase Saez’s compensation. The texts made Saez wonder if the wave of employees quitting finally made Brisebois realize things needed to change. Maybe he would finally deliver on all the promises he made not just to Saez but to the rest of the employees as well.

That Friday, right before the production team’s weekly post-work beer session, Brisebois called Saez off the floor. He asked Saez to enter all of his notes about the phenohunt into OGEN’s computer system. The company would soon receive lab results for the hunted plants and Brisebois wanted to have everything in one place.

A few minutes later, while Saez worked on transferring the notes, Brisebois showed up in Saez’s office. Saez described his conversation with Brisebois as follows:

“I talked with the team,” Brisebois started, “and people need some motivators.”

“Man, I’ve been telling you for awhile,” Saez responded. “It’s because of the way we are managing everything. I’m trying to protect them but it’s difficult when you are asking them to do 50 million things at the same time. They’re just burnt out. The salary’s not that good. I want to do something to solve it. I’ve been telling you for fucking months and you were ignoring me. Now you come to my office telling me exactly what I told you months ago. Like OK. Perfect.”

Brisebois then began talking about increasing compensation, improving roles and other ways to boost morale. Eventually, he left to use the washroom. When he came back to Saez’s office he stood in the door and said:

“Ok, give me your key card. You are gone.”

“Sorry, what?” Saez asked.

“Yeah,” Brisebois said, “give me your key card you are done here.”

“I don’t understand,” Saez said, “What do you mean my keycard? For what? Why do you need my key card?”

“You are being fired,” Brisebois said.

“Are you serious?” Saez asked.

“Yes, absolutely serious.”

“Ok, do you want to think about it for a couple of minutes and come back? I’m fine if you regret your decision.”

“Nope,” Brisebois said. “I made the decision already.”

“Ok, then give me a reason for firing me.”

“Nope, go home. Talk to your wife and tell me next week if you want to stay in Canada or leave.”

“I moved to Canada for you guys,” Saez said, “obviously I want to stay here otherwise why would I move here? Why would I extend my contract an extra two years to stay here if I don’t want to stay here? What the fuck, man? Give me a reason—a solid reason—why you are firing me.”

“You were not able to contain the negativity of the team.”

Saez grabbed a copy of his contract and held it up.

“Tell me where I manage people? Point to the spot on these papers where it says motivating is my responsibility. You took that out of my responsibilities. You gave it to the cultivation supervisor so why are you now blaming me?”

“Leave. Leave,” Brisebois said. “Leave now. Give me your key card.”

Saez collected his things in a box and with Brisebois and another employee flanking him he walked out of the building for the last time.

Saez’s team, who were waiting for him in the parking lot to have Friday beers, spotted him being escorted to his car.

“Danny!” One of them called out, “What the fuck are you doing?”

“I’ve been fired,” Saez shouted back.

The small crowd broke down in tears and confused shouting.

In March, two months after Saez’s termination, Brisebois terminated OGEN’s Health, Safety and Security Supervisor, Justin Almgren.

“The way they treated Danny was just downright disrespectful,” Almgren said. “My leaving was 100% due to mismanagement of that company and I honestly felt ashamed to work for a company that treated their people the way they did. It was disgusting.”

Having been with the company for several years, Almgren arrived at an agreement with OGEN’s leadership around laying him off so he could return to school. On his last day, minutes before a barbecue celebrating his transition began, Brisebois called Almgren into his office.

The pair were joined by James Brophy. When all three emerged several minutes later Almgren walked quickly to his car with Brisebois and Brophy following, shouting at him. Several employees waiting to congratulate Almgren on his last day observed this event. Almgren proceeded to hire a lawyer and is suing OGEN for wrongful dismissal.

For Saez the termination and the negative feelings surrounding it consumed him for months. It still affects him today. Not even the investors—who had enthusiastically begged him for seeds only weeks before his termination—would respond to his farewell text.

Theoretically, it’d be easy for Saez to find another job but that new company would need to sponsor him for immigration as well. Immigration issues rarely proceed quickly. At the time, Saez wondered how he would provide for himself. He wondered what he did wrong.

“I’ve never been fired in my life. Now every time I get an offer I’m scared I’ll be treated the same way,” Saez said. “Look what happened when I put all my knowledge, experience, genetics and everything in. What if they take it again?”

OGEN reportedly continues to face staff shortages due to high turnover but is technically not doing anything wrong by firing employees without cause or notice. In Alberta, as mentioned earlier, an employer can fire an employee without notice or cause as long as that employee is given an appropriate amount of pay. In Saez’s case that amount is about a week’s pay. OGEN did give this to Saez. OGEN also gave Saez an additional $1,200 “COVID Bonus” which is likely related to the company’s claiming of the CEWS government benefit. On top of these two relatively small sums, OGEN offered Saez a settlement but only if he signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Saez decided to file a lawsuit instead, alleging that OGEN breached their employment contract. He charges they owe him the balance of the salary he would have collected had OGEN not sabotaged the relationship.

Based on the facts we’ve collected and presented here we believe OGEN breached the following section of its contract with Saez:

“OGEN will not, without reasonable cause, conduct itself in a manner calculated or likely to destroy or seriously damage the relationship of trust and confidence between itself and Daniel Saez.”

Ultimately, a judge will decide whether there is merit to Saez’s claim. The judge’s decision will be based on the proofs either side musters for the trial. If Saez’s claim is not awarded it is likely because of the Albertan laws around wrongful dismissal. You can read both the statements of claim and defence on our website.

Saez returned home to Spain but the suit remains. A hearing date will likely be scheduled in mid-2022 and Stash will do its best to cover that along with any new leads that come our way. In the meantime, OGEN’s former employees struggle to carry on.

“Even now,” Michael Dansen said, “I’m still trying to make sense of what happened.”

“I feel bad for the people that are still there,” Justin Almgren said. He is now pursuing his Red Seal in Mechanical Refrigeration at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. “Those people are my friends. I hate to see them treated so poorly. They work super hard and deserve better. It’s sad because a lot of them are too scared to say anything.”

In Spain, Saez is picking up the pieces of his former life and hoping his story can help people protect themselves in the future.

“It’s been a long way to get to legalization,” Saez said, “and now all these mega corporations are taking everything from us: genetics, knowledge, experience, contacts, culture. I believed that OGEN was going to be different. I was very wrong my friend.”

This story first appeared in Volume 3. Read the whole issue here.

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