Manitoba

Kinew calls for ombudsman probe into delay of St. Boniface soil test results

The leader of Manitoba’s Official Opposition is calling on the province’s ombudsman to investigate after documents show the Pallister government waited more than a month to release test results that found heavy metal contamination in the St. Boniface neighbourhood.

Opposition leader contends delay was 'a bid to minimize the St. Boniface byelection'

NDP Leader Wab Kinew is calling on the province’s ombudsman to investigate why the Manitoba government waited more than a month to release test results that found heavy metal contamination in the St. Boniface neighbourhood. (Jeff Stapleton CBC)

The leader of Manitoba's Official Opposition wants the province's ombudsman to investigate after documents show the Pallister government waited more than a month to release test results that found heavy metal contamination in the St. Boniface neighbourhood.

An advisory note reported on Tuesday shows the sustainable development department first learned the results of soil testing in St. Boniface on June 4 — more than a month before affected residents were informed.

New Democratic Party Leader Wab Kinew sent a letter to the Office of the Manitoba Ombudsman on Wednesday asking the office to find out why the results weren't released sooner.

"I believe that residents of St. Boniface, particularly those whose properties tested positive for heavy metal contamination, were treated unfairly by the Minister and Premier Brian Pallister," the letter reads.

"It was unfair St. Boniface families and the wider public be denied important information that has a direct effect on their health and safety."

Test results

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.

Of the properties flagged for high heavy metal levels, 18 had lead levels that exceeded national guidelines, six had high zinc levels and four tested positive for copper. Some samples exceeded levels on more than one metal.

Residents were informed of the results by hand-delivered letter on July 13, and Squires initially said she had learned about the results a few weeks before that, but was precluded from releasing the information because of the byelection called on June 19.

The advisory note, obtained by the Winnipeg Free Press through a Freedom of Information request, has called into question when Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires first knew about the results of the tests.

On Tuesday Squires said bureaucrats who were aware of the report failed to tell her until June 21.

University of Manitoba researchers and volunteers went yard-to-yard in south St. Boniface Monday collecting garden vegetables and soil samples for testing amid concerns the dirt is contaminated. 1:52

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.

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

Squires says 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.

'A public health issue'

In his letter Kinew contends Squires "collaborated with the Premier and his office to co-ordinate the release of this report in a bid to minimize the St. Boniface by-election."

He told media Wednesday he doesn't think the election blackout rules applied in this situation.

"There's clear exceptions in the election law if there's a public health issue, if there's an emergency, if there's something that's going to affect an average Manitoban in a real way," he said.

"I think that this instance, it clearly falls into this category. This is something that became known to the government and they ought to have notified people of it right away."

In a statement to CBC News on Wednesday Squires said the government will co-operate with an investigation by the ombudsman, should the office decide to pursue the matter.

"As an independent office of the Legislative Assembly, the ombudsman makes their own decisions on matters for further investigation," she said in an email.

"Should the ombudsman pursue an investigation, we would co-operate, as we always do. As noted previously, we will also conduct a review of my ministry's internal processes when dealing with information of this kind."

Liberal Party Leader Dougald Lamont, who is also the MLA for St. Boniface, called for Squire's resignation over the issue Tuesday.

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

On your mobile device, click here to read the full letter to the ombudsman.