How a woman found she was a person of interest in Nova Scotia government files

Click to play video: 'N.S. woman ends up on RCMP radar after confrontation with MLA'
N.S. woman ends up on RCMP radar after confrontation with MLA
WATCH: Privacy concerns are being raised after a Nova Scotia woman who lost her brother in a workplace accident ended up on the RCMP’s radar. Nicole Gnazdowsky had a verbal confrontation with MLA Iain Rankin, who later contacted police. A legal expert says there are several concerns raised, notably, that those considered security risks aren’t notified. Graeme Benjamin reports – Jul 21, 2022

A Nova Scotia woman pursuing answers in the workplace death of her younger brother has found herself on a provincial watchlist.

Nicole Gnazdowsky used the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) Act to access files from an incident with former Liberal premier, and the MLA for her area, Iain Rankin.

What she found was that her personal information and photo were included in a government “person of interest” file.

Now, Gnazdowsky wonders why the province didn’t tell her it had a file on her, and what being a “person of interest” even means.

How she got here dates back 21 months.

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Andrew’s death and the pursuit of answers

Andrew Gnazdowsky was “one of those people that walks into a room and you can just feel that his presence is there,” his sister said.

Before his death, he was doing well in life.

“He had so many friends and he loved his dogs, and he just bought a house in Rothesay in New Brunswick. He was really just starting to pull everything together,” Gnazdowsky said.

Andrew and Nicole Gnazdowsky are seen together. Submitted

Andrew died at a Nova Scotia Power dam in Sheet Harbour on Oct. 16, 2020, when he drowned while trying to get a piece of floating surveying equipment.

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He was an engineer in training for a company out of New Brunswick, that was hired for work on hydro dams for Nova Scotia Power.

Part of his job was overlooking a piece of equipment that monitored underwater elevation. Gnazdowsky compared the equipment to a drone on water, with motors on each side. The day her brother died, one of those motors stopped working and the machine was going in circles. Her brother thought he could swim and retrieve it.

“I stood on that beach where he entered and I was like, ‘I’d go swimming here any day of the week,'” she said, adding that there were no warning signs for swimmers.

“Him being a big, strong guy, used to be a really good swimmer, it was just like, ‘Screw it, I’ll go grab it.’

“His co-worker said that … he booked it out there and he was out in the water pretty quickly. And then all of a sudden he was calling for help.”

Nicole Gnazdowsky visits the Marshall Falls beach, near Nova Scotia Power’s Sheet Harbour hydro dam, where her brother drowned. Submitted

After his death, Gnazdowsky said the drowning was called a tragic accident and the book was closed — though that has since changed — but she wasn’t satisfied.

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“How could somebody just drown? … He’s a strong swimmer, the place doesn’t look dangerous,” she said.

“I saw bruises on his face at the viewing too…. He would have been working under the assumption that that dam was off, because you should not be putting workers anywhere near the water when the dam’s on.”

Gnazdowsky said she began putting things together and looking into the incident herself. She went to the Department of Labour, wanting to know why her brother didn’t have a boat to retrieve faulty equipment, and why a medical examiner’s report contained false information, including the date of death.

Now, three companies, including Nova Scotia Power, are facing charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

“It’s because I came in and I spent months pointing out every issue in their investigation,” said Gnazdowsky.

Click to play video: 'N.S. woman’s fight in brother’s death leads to security warning'
N.S. woman’s fight in brother’s death leads to security warning

In 2021, Gnazdowsky had a phone call with Rankin, who was the premier at the time, in which she said she wanted answers for what she believed were gaps in the investigation. Following the call, Rankin arranged a meeting for Gnazdowsky with Duff Montgomerie, then-deputy minister of the Nova Scotia Department of Labour.

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But she said that meeting was not useful, and “it was just honestly more traumatizing.”

She has made several attempts to contact Rankin besides that, including going to his constituency office.

After the 2021 summer election, in which Rankin was voted out as premier, a new labour minister came to power: Jill Balser. Gnazdowsky wanted more answers from the new Tory government, but she believes she was met with red tape.

The ‘person of interest’ file

On Oct. 24, 2021, Gnazdowsky ran into Rankin at a dog park and began recording their interaction.

The following exchange can be heard in the 10-minute-long video, in part:

Gnazdowsky: “Because it’s not your role to help me?”

Rankin: “I helped you.”

Gnazdowsky: “You didn’t f—— help me.”

Rankin: “I got you the meeting. Who else can I get you a meeting with?”

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Rankin can also be heard in the video asking Gnazdowsky to let him inside his vehicle and to let him go home. Gnazdowsky refuses, and Rankin is heard making a phone call.

The FOIPOP documents provided by Gnazdowsky contained emails from Rankin and Nova Scotia’s corporate security officer Ian Burke about the dog park encounter.

An Oct. 25 email from Burke to the province’s corporate security manager read in part: “(Rankin) relayed to me he was verbally accosted by a female who is known to him in his role as Premier and MLA.”

“Her aggression towards him made him call (redacted)… I advised Mr. Rankin that he should file a report with RCMP in relation to the assault for file purposes if he did not wish charges and that police speak with Ms. Gnazdowsky and advise any further events that this file could be reopened.”

Burke ended the email by saying he had “opened a file” on his end.

Five hours later, Rankin emailed Burke saying he took his advice and filed a report with the RCMP.

That email also included the official incident description that Rankin had filed. It included, in part, the following: “Nicole repeatedly asked me to do more beyond my jurisdiction to help her. Her tone was of an aggressive nature … I let her know that I did help her as much as I could. She began to video record the conversation while she began to physically impede my access to my vehicle.”

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An email from Iain Rankin to corporate security officer Ian Burke outlines the incident report Rankin made. Submitted

Among the FOIPOP documents were also two pages of the Security Incident Report page on Gnazdowsky. It said the person of interest file was an action taken by Ian Burke, and listed the incident as “harassment.”

Another page titled “Person of interest” contained a table with her name, date of birth, address and issue summary, as well as her driver’s licence photo.

The ‘person of interest’ file includes Gnazdowsky’s personal information and photo. Submitted

Gnazdowsky wants to know what this means for her.

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“I have no idea what they do, like, are they jumping out of bushes? Is there blimps around? Are they just spying on my cellphone? I have no idea what it means to be a person of interest,” she said.

She said she has tried to get the entire contents of that person of interest (POI) file, but hasn’t had any luck.

Rankin declined an interview with Global News and declined to provide a new statement on the matter. A spokesperson pointed to his previous statement, which he gave shortly after the dog park incident, saying that based on the nature of the interaction and the advice of independent provincial government security staff, he was advised to contact RCMP, which he did.

Rankin’s office did not address questions around the person of interest bulletin.

The Nova Scotia Department of Justice also declined an interview request, but in a statement said the Government Corporate Security Office “routinely opens incident report files as a matter of prudent support for the safety of government staff.”

It further said the POI file was opened “in response to an incident involving an MLA and related to the duties of that position. As Corporate Security is ultimately responsible for security practices in all government buildings, proper record keeping is imperative to support awareness.”

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A followup from Global News regarding details of the person of interest bulletin received a response late Thursday, adding to the statement: “The internal reports are used to ensure that potential threats to physical security are identified with respect to provincial offices and buildings. As the reports serve an internal function, they are not disseminated outside of government and therefore, would not impact a person’s future job opportunities.”

Transparency concerns

Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University, said he did not know the province had such classifications as POI files in government.

“I guess who knows, maybe I’m on it somewhere — I guess (there are) lots of people thinking that,” he said.

MacKay said though they are available through FOIPOP, there are some privacy concerns with these files.

“How widely distributed is it? How many people know about this? That’s probably the key concern I would have,” he said. “And things like, when does it disappear? Is it a forever list or a list for a particular period of time?”

He said it’s “problematic that there isn’t some notice to the person that they are on a file, describe what the file is as a person of interest.”

MacKay said it’s concerning when there is negative information about a person on a file, and the person doesn’t know how long the information is there for, and whether it’s accurate.

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“Especially when you’re on that type of a file for expressing political opinion to a member of the legislature, that raises some serious questions about freedom of speech.”

The legal expert said political speech is, unless violent in the physical sense, protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Obviously, it doesn’t mean anything goes,” MacKay said. “There does have to be some respect, it has to be non-threatening in some way.”

But MacKay said Gnazdowsky’s case raises questions around transparency.

“There are people who can be threatening to government and respond in inappropriate ways, but if (a list of POIs) is available … it should be quite transparent. At least the people who are on the list should know that.”

Gnazdowsky’s parents sent a letter to Premier Tim Houston on Thursday, asking him to clarify what the POI file means for their daughter.

Richel and Glen Gnazdowsky told Global News on Thursday it’s been difficult for them to see the toll this 21-month-long process is taking on their daughter.

“Has she been aggressive? Yes, absolutely…. Has she been hostile? Has she been physically abusive? Has she threatened them at all? I don’t believe so,” Glen Gnazdowksy said.

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Glen Gnazdowsky said their family is now awaiting trial, set to begin in May of 2023, and that still having to jump through brick walls to get answers has been painful.

“I keep trying to impact legislation that’s in Nova Scotia, but not for myself. It’s not bringing my son back,” he said. “It’s to prevent other people from having to go through this exercise.”

Nicole Gnazdowsky said the situation is disheartening.

“It puts so much extra, just uncomfortableness, I guess, in my life. Like, I already lost my brother; this is already incredibly traumatic,” she said. “It’s really unfair.”

For now, some questions around what being a person of interest means remain unanswered.

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