Nova Scotia

Rankin responds to official's 'delete' note among workplace death records

When Nicole Gnazdowsky didn't get the answers she was seeking, she set out to learn what the government was saying about her brother's case behind the scenes. On Monday, she received the massive email file that was the result of her freedom-of-information request.

Nicole Gnazdowsky's brother, Andrew, died last October while doing surveying work at N.S. Power reservoir

Nicole Gnazdowsky says she will never stop looking for answers into her brother's death. (Robert Short/CBC)

Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Iain Rankin says it is not appropriate for a senior government official to suggest that contents of a meeting about a workplace safety death should be deleted.

Rankin's comments Wednesday were in response to an email from an official in the provincial Labour Department who wrote "delete after meeting" in notes referring to the October 2020 drowning death of Andrew Gnazdowsky.

"No," Rankin said during a campaign stop in Antigonish, N.S., when asked if that was appropriate. "Government records should be available for FOIPOP," he said, referring to the province's freedom-of-information legislation.

Following Rankin's comments, a spokesperson for the Labour Department said no files have been deleted. Monica MacLean wrote in a statement to CBC that deletion is not a practice in any government department.

Gnazdowsky was doing survey work at the Marshall Falls reservoir in Sheet Harbour, N.S., when he died. His older sister, Nicole Gnazdowsky, has been pressuring the government for answers.

Earlier this week, she received more than 500 pages of emails in response to her freedom-of-information request. Buried in them was a comment from Scott Burbridge, a senior labour official, in an email update about the department's investigation unit.

"***NOTE: This is the matter that family member complained to the Premier & Minister about. This is and will be heavily scrutinized!" he wrote about the Gnazdowsky investigation, followed by: "***Delete after meeting."

Rankin told reporters he doesn't have the authority to do anything about it during the election campaign, but he promised to address it after the vote. Rankin is Nicole Gnazdowsky's MLA.

In documents released under freedom-of-information legislation, a senior labour department official wrote 'delete after meeting.' (Nova Scotia government)

The email chains over several months show her quest was discussed at the highest levels, including with senior Rankin aides. In many cases, the exact contents of those discussions are redacted so the disclosure file contains page after page of blank spaces. 

When CBC News reporter Elizabeth McMillan approached the Labour Department last spring for reaction to Gnazdowsky's questions, her query touched off a flurry of email exchanges involving senior government communications advisers.

But while McMillan's questions are included in the documents disclosed to Gnazdowsky, the discussions on how to respond were redacted, other than to decline McMillan's request for an interview.

McMillan's story on the case was widely shared in the department. The day after it was published, Burbridge described Gnazdowsky's actions as a "hostile attack."

"This is a request for a meeting to discuss a matter that has gotten out of hand relative to a hostile individual who has initiated a now public attack, both personal and professional," Burbridge wrote.

Deputy minister apologizes

As the matter dragged on, Gnazdowsky's frustration and anger became more apparent.

In a May email to Duff Montgomerie, deputy minister of labour, and Christine Penney, the senior executive director of the department's safety branch, Gnazdowsky wrote: "I also want you both to know that the face-to-face meeting was vile. CBC only scratched the surface with yesterday's article about the plethora of issues in your department."

Andrew Gnazdowsky graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Saskatchewan in 2017. (Submitted by Nicole Gnazdowsky)

Gnazdowsky accused Montgomerie of smirking and not paying attention during the meeting, which prompted an apology from the deputy minister.

"We sincerely apologize if you perceived our meeting as not demonstrating the empathy, compassion and caring you deserve," he wrote in his email. 

"I wish I could find the right words to clearly convey how deeply saddened my team and I are by the tragic loss of your brother that occurred at his workplace."

Discussions about investigator redacted

But when it came to questions about when the department would complete its investigation and whether it would lead to charges, Gnazdowsky is still waiting for answers.

She raised questions about the original investigator assigned to her brother's case, noting the woman could be in a conflict of interest because she used to work for Nova Scotia Power's parent company, Emera. The utility owns the reservoir where Andrew Gnazdowsky drowned.

The department discussed Nicole Gnazdowsky's concerns, but those discussions were redacted from the emails she received. The investigator was eventually replaced, although the file doesn't reveal whether that was a result of Gnazdowsky's questions.

Told not to contact department staff

On Tuesday, Gnazdowsky received an email saying she is no longer to contact staff with the Department of Labour.

"Your communication with [department] staff has become inappropriate, abusive and disrespectful," wrote Lora MacEachern, the associate deputy minister of justice.

"You were advised that any threatening, disrespectful, or harmful conduct in your dealings with staff members would not be tolerated."

MacEachern advised Gnazdowsky that she and her family would continue to receive monthly written updates on her brother's case.

Gnazdowsky said in an interview that she is not giving up.

"This is my little brother. I have to live every single day of my life now without the one person that I always thought I would have," she told CBC News. 

"And so if they think that this is going to go away, they're very wrong."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Blair Rhodes

Reporter

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 40 years, the last 31 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety. He can be reached at blair.rhodes@cbc.ca

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