I can understand why Nicole Gnazdowsky might have become a “hostile individual.”
I can’t understand why Premier Iain Rankin can claim — as he did last week — that he doesn’t have the authority to act in her case because there’s an election campaign underway.
Let’s start with Gnazdowsky. Her 26-year-old “little brother,” Andrew, is dead, and she hasn’t — despite her best, never-give-up efforts — managed to get clear answers to her many questions about how and why, and who, if anyone, will be held accountable.
Andrew Gnazdowsky was an engineer. On Oct. 16, 2020, he was working for Brunswick Engineering, a New Brunswick subcontractor at Nova Scotia Power’s Marshall Falls reservoir in Sheet Harbour. A piece of company-controlled equipment — a six-foot remote-controlled boat — malfunctioned, so Gnazdowsky, a “strong swimmer” swam out about 100 metres to retrieve it.
Instead, he drowned.
It would be a full day before his body was recovered.
Other than the little information she could glean from his co-workers, Nicole Gnazdowsky heard nothing from Nova Scotia Power, GEMTEC, the main contractor, Brunswick Engineering, the subcontractor, the Workers Compensation Board, or even the provincial Department of Labour and Advanced Education, which was responsible for investigating the workplace death.
In May — seven months after the incident — Gnazdowsky told Examiner reporter Zane Woodford that everyone involved seemed to expect she should simply go to the site where her brother died, “do an identification and then drive home and plan a funeral. Nobody ever bothers to tell you why, or how you ended up in that position. There’s no information available, or person available to help you navigate what you’re about to face, [or] to give you any information about anything.”
She had questions, lots of them. She told CBC reporter Elizabeth McMillan that when she went to the reservoir where the incident happened it didn’t seem dangerous at all. “My brother was a competitive swimmer. He was healthy. He was six feet tall, like a big guy. He could have swum that at any point in time… How did that happen here, of all places?”
She finally tracked down the provincial occupational health and safety investigator assigned to the case, Courtney Donovan, who told her the department had two years to investigate her brother’s death. If charges were eventually laid, she explained, Gnazdowsky could get information from the courts. If she wanted more information, she could file a freedom of information request.
In early January, Donovan did inform Gnazdowsky the investigation was close to complete with a final report due at the end of February. When Gnazdowsky called back then to ask for an update, she was told the investigation still wasn’t complete and that Donovan was now busy with another file. She could check back at the end of March.
Instead, Gnazdowsky began nosing around on her own. She quickly discovered what she believed was a conflict of interest. Donovan had previously worked for Emera, Nova Scotia Power’s parent company, which owned the reservoir where the incident happened.
Gnazdowsky complained to her MLA — our then-freshly minted premier Iain Rankin — who passed her concerns on to the labour department. She was eventually told by its manager of investigations, Scott Burbridge, that Donovan was no longer working on the file.
During her conversation with Burbridge, Gnazdowsky says he also told her he hadn’t known there had been severe bruising around her brother’s face. She’d seen that with her own eyes when she went to the funeral parlour to make preparations for his funeral.
When she finally got a copy of her brother’s autopsy, Gnazdowsky discovered there was no reference to the bruising there either. She believes the bruising could be significant. What if the heavy, malfunctioning remote-controlled boat he’d swum out to fix had somehow hit him in the face and knocked him out?
No one would tell her whether the bruising was even part of the investigation.
“Why can’t you say yes or no?” she wanted to know. “Because we know it, we saw it, it haunts my dreams. Are you going to look at it?”
She noted something else about the autopsy report. It showed her brother’s date of death as Oct. 17, the day his body was recovered rather than the 16th, the day he drowned. Once again, Gnazdowsky believed that could be important to the investigation. The dam was open on the day he died; it was closed the day his body was taken out of the water. Could water currents or pressure in the dam have had something to do with his death?
It took what she described as “a rather unpleasant conversation” with the medical examiner’s office to get them to revisit and revise their report.
Gnazdowsky kept digging. She tracked down Nova Scotia Power’s “safety protocols” for working on or under the water, including with watercraft. Such work is designated “high risk” and requires a “safety plan.”
Was there a safety plan? Was it followed? Did Nova Scotia Power conduct its own investigation of the incident? What did it find?
When those questions were put to Nova Scotia Power, the ass-covering, standard-issue, your-call-is-important-to-us non-answer came back in the form of a statement from spokesperson Jacqueline Foster:
There’s nothing more important to us than the safety of our employees, contractors and customers. We continue to cooperate with the investigation by the Department of Labour. Given the department is leading this investigation, any questions should be directed to them.
Is there some provision in the law that says Nova Scotia Power is not allowed to answer questions about its own safety protocols and whether they were followed? Is there some PR 101 rule that says officials cannot give simple honest answers to simple honest questions?
If you were a skeptical sort — or if you happened to be the sister of a dead man whose death remained unexplained — you might begin to wonder if the silence was more about getting stories straight than getting answers.
As Gnazdowsky told Woodford:
Everybody involved should be embarrassed by the job they’ve done to get to this point… This has become my fulltime job, to stay on top of them and make sure that they’re looking at the right things and that they’re going to find the right answers, not only for Andrew but to be preventative in the future. It doesn’t sit well with me that they can take all this time to do these investigations and in the meantime there’s nothing done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
All this time…
That was in May. It’s now almost the end of July. More than 10 months have passed since Andrew Gnazdowsky died. And there is still no word on when the investigation will be complete or whether charges will be laid.
Last week, in response to a freedom of information (FOIPOP) request, Nicole Gnazdowsky received 510 pages of government emails, transcribed calls, media strategy notes and meeting summaries concerning her interactions with the government.
Much of the material — including discussions “at the highest levels, including with senior Rankin aides” — was redacted. But The Coast reporter Lyndsay Armstrong, who examined the materials, say they “reveal an effort by Nova Scotia’s government to delete information that could tarnish its image.”
After one meeting, Burbridge noted that “this is the matter that family members complained to Premier & Minister about… *** Delete after meeting.” In another memo, he called Gnazdowsky a “hostile individual who has initiated a now public attack, both personal and professionally.”
What was that hostile attack? According to Armstrong, the attack he was referring to appears to have been an email in which Gnazdowsky wrote:
How many times are you going to say you’ve completed the investigation before you actually do? Why don’t you just give me and Elizabeth the files so we can figure it out without having to sort through lies on top of info?
On Tuesday, after Gnazdowsky went public with the FOIPOP material she’d received, the department of justice sent her an email, telling her she was no longer permitted to contact its staff about the death of her brother:
Your communication with [department] staff has become inappropriate, abusive and disrespectful. You were advised that any threatening, disrespectful, or harmful conduct in your dealings with staff members would not be tolerated.
Reporters asked Premier Rankin on the campaign trail last week whether Burbridge’s instruction to delete an official government message was appropriate.
“No,” he said quickly and correctly. “Government records should be available for FOIPOP.”
But then — of course — he went on. “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.”
Really? The premier of the province doesn’t have the authority to govern during an election campaign? Then who does?
No wonder Nicole Gnazdowsky has become a hostile individual.
Perhaps we should all be.
Correction: This version has been corrected to clarify it was the department of justice — not labour — that informed Gnazdowsky after she publicized the freedom of information material she’d received that she was no longer permitted to contact department staff. Intriguingly, she says she’d “never been in contact with anyone there before.”