British Columbia

Highway of Tears email deletion referred to RCMP by B.C. privacy watchdog

A scathing report from the B.C. privacy commissioner reveals the premier's office routinely skirted freedom of information requirements by deliberately deleting records.

Transportation ministry staffer facing potential perjury charges for lying under oath

These images are of 18 women and girls whose deaths and disappearances are part of the RCMP's investigation of the Highway of Tears in British Columbia. The women were either found or last seen near Highway 16 or near Highways 97 and 5. (Individual photos from

Transportation ministry staffer George Gretes could be facing charges after a report by B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham that reveals he lied under oath when he denied that he intentionally deleted Highway of Tears emails and records. 

Denham has referred the matter to the RCMP, and Gretes has resigned.

The report, titled Access Denied, also found that Michele Cadario, deputy chief of staff in the premier's office, routinely contravened freedom of information laws by bulk deleting emails on a daily basis. Denham's investigation cited Cadario as having no email records, despite working in the premier's office for two years.

"That's hard to get your head around," said NDP Leader John Horgan in reaction to the report. "You're the second most powerful person in the premier's office and you don't use email?"

The Ministry of Advanced Education was also found to be in contravention of freedom of information laws due to "a negligent search for the records by the chief of staff."

Denham's says her report points to practices that threaten the integrity of access to information in B.C. 

"It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the problems that my office discovered in the course of this investigation," she wrote. "It is important that the government take immediate action to restore public confidence in the access to information process."

Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services Minister Amrik Virk said Denham's report "made a number of important findings" and announced that the government will hire former B.C. privacy commissioner David Loukidelis to advise it on how to address the recommendations.

But Horgan said Virk should also resign because of freedom of information concerns that came to light when Virk was minister of advanced education.

"It's almost ludicrous to have him responsible for freedom of information now when he was circumventing it," said Horgan. "He was the minister for advanced education and had to leave the portfolio around freedom of information issues."


Denham's investigation began when her office was approached by Tim Duncan, a former executive assistant to B.C.'s minister of transportation and highways.

B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has referred to the RCMP her findings about the intentional deleting of emails. (CBC)

He claimed to be bothered by an incident in relation to a request for email records about the so-called Highway of Tears, a notorious stretch of highway along which a number of women have been murdered or gone missing. 

Duncan claimed Gretes was unhappy to see he had applicable email records on his computer and ordered him to "triple delete" them. When he hesitated, Duncan claimed Gretes grabbed his keyboard and mouse away from him and deleted them himself.

Duncan did not complain at the time and went on to work for the Liberal caucus. He was let go from that job in March, but after returning to Alberta, decided to speak out.

"He said he sympathized with the families of the murdered and missing victims on the highway because his own father had been murdered in a domestic incident in 2010," Denham writes. 

'Triple deleting'

According to the report, "triple deleting" means first moving an email to the computer system's "deleted" folder, expunging the email from the folder itself and then manually overriding a backup that allows the system to recover deleted items for up to 14 days. 

Denham says Gretes first flatly denied the accusations, but in a second interview, after being presented with forensic evidence that showed items had been triple deleted, "Gretes admitted that he did not tell the truth in his original testimony and that he did triple delete emails." 

"I cannot overstate the gravity with which I view the false testimony given during this investigation by George Gretes," Denham says in the report. 

Systematic deletion

Denham also expressed disbelief at the results of an investigation into allegations that emails were being systematically deleted in the office of the premier. 

The issue centres around the retention of so-called non-transitory records. According to the report, those include "decision records, instructions and advice, as well as documentation of a policy matter or how a case was managed."

Transitory records are "convenience copies, unnecessary duplicates and working materials and drafts once the finished record has been produced."

But according to the report, the deputy chief of staff in the premier's office "has not personally retained a single email she has ever sent from her government email address."

Cadario claimed "very few" of the emails she sends are non-transitory because she doesn't create government policy or give policy advice. But Denham notes that Cadario's job description included providing "strategic advice to the chief of staff, premier and executive council to advance government's policy and legislative objectives."

Denham recommended mandatory records-management training for all employees as well as the legislation of independent oversight of information management requirements. She also says the government needs to introduce sanctions when those requirements are not met.