Manitoba Liberal leader calls on minister to quit over St. Boniface soil testing snafu

Dougald Lamont, the leader of the Manitoba Liberals, says the minister of sustainable development should be turfed after the release of an advisory note that shows the Sustainable Development department first learned the results of soil testing in St. Boniface by at least June 4 — over a month before affected residents were informed.

Dougald Lamont says Rochelle Squires 'wasn't doing her job' after government sat on report

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires says she regrets that her department did not tell her about the report until June 21. (CBC)

Manitoba's Liberal leader is calling for the resignation of Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires after documents revealed the government delayed releasing test results which detailed heavy metal contamination in St. Boniface homes for more than a month.

Dougald Lamont, who is also the MLA for St. Boniface, says the minister should be turfed after the release of an advisory note that shows the Sustainable Development department first learned the results of soil testing in St. Boniface on June 4 — over a month before affected residents were informed.

"None of the explanations make sense to me," said Lamont. "There is no excuse to withhold important information to people's health."

The report showed that 24 homes tested had heavy metal levels in their samples, which exceeded Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment guidelines for soil quality.

The information has called into question when Squires first knew about the results of the tests.

'No reason not to release the report'

Squires initially said she had learned about the results a few weeks before the residents were informed, but was precluded from releasing the information because of the byelection called on June 19. 

"There was no byelection going on (on June 4), there was no reason not to release the report," Lamont said.

Lamont was responding to information revealed in documents first obtained by the Winnipeg Free Press through a Freedom of Information request. 

Squires says the bureaucrats who were aware of the report — including the department's director Don Labossiere who penned the report — failed to tell her until June 21.

She says she had two meetings with her assistant deputy minister, but the information was not given to her.

"I had two of those meetings between June 4 and June 21 and I regret that it wasn't brought to my attention," she said.

"I always ask what are the issues burning within the department."

By June 21, the provincial byelection in St. Boniface had been called. Squires says she received a legal opinion from the Crown counsel that if they publicly disclosed the information, they would be violating the Elections Financing Act.

Director wanted 'face-to-face' meeting

Section 92 of the Election Financing Act states a government department or Crown agency "must not advertise or publish any information about its programs or activities" during an election period. 

She was also told by the chief medical officer the information did not qualify as a public health emergency, meaning they couldn't bypass the rules of the Act in order to release the information. 

The department was given permission to deliver the letters to affected residents, and they were hand-delivered to homes on July 13.

When asked the reason for the delay in sending the letters to residents, Squires said it was due to delays in learning what they were allowed to do under the Act. She said she asked Labossiere​ why he didn't tell her earlier and he told her it was because it was waiting to tell her in person.

When asked why Labossiere did not attend the press conference — as he did when the results were first announced in July — she said it is her responsibility.

"I am the minister responsible for Sustainable Development and I am accountable and responsible for my department," she said.

Lamont isn't buying Squires' response.

"The story just doesn't add up one way or the other," he said. "If her argument was that she just didn't read it then she wasn't doing her job."

Association not surprised by government decision

The South St. Boniface Residents' Association have long advocated for the government to take seriously concerns about the quality of air and soil surrounding St. Boniface's industrial park.

Those concerns were further validated last summer, when Shirley Thompson, an associate professor with the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba, took soil samples in the area.

Teresa Cwik says she worries about the potential health risks of contaminants in soil, air. (CBC News)
She found high levels of lead, cadmium, copper and zinc, among others.

The researchers from the University of Manitoba then started collecting soil samples from more than 100 residential properties as well as parks, ditches and streams in the areas bordering Mission Industrial Park.

Teresa Cwik, a spokesperson for the association, said the news that the department sat on the information was not a surprise. 

"We always found that our concerns and our research was never respected by the Department of Sustainable Development," said spokesperson Teresa Cwik. "We should take priorities over elections."