Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires faced calls for her resignation Tuesday, amid claims she lied in her handling of a recent report on soil contamination in Winnipeg's St. Boniface neighbourhood.
"Minister Squires should resign," Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said.
"The government and Minister Squires withheld a report confirming toxic contamination of soil, and then tried to use the (St. Boniface) byelection blackout to justify withholding it, when they actually had it before the election."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew echoed Lamont's claims, but stopped short of calling for her immediate resignation.
"This is a sad, sad statement on this government. No one believes the minister when she said she didn’t know about this on June 4. It’s clear she’s lying about this," Kinew said.
The denunciations came after the Free Press revealed the provincial government withheld — for at least six weeks — test results that showed soil in south St. Boniface was contaminated with heavy metals, then repeatedly misinformed media about when the data were received, and why area residents were kept in the dark.
Documents obtained through freedom of information show Sustainable Development employees knew about the soil contamination test results much earlier than the minister had repeatedly told media.
In the face of mounting criticism, Squires reiterated her earlier statement: while her department may have been made aware as early as June 4, she was kept in the dark until later that month.
Premier Brian Pallister called the St. Boniface byelection (won by Lamont) June 19; the province made public the test results July 17 — the day the polls closed.
"That was when the advisory note was penned by the director, and I do take accountability for everything that occurs in my department. My director had penned the advisory note on June 4, and we have confirmation that it didn't get up to my office until June 21, when he had a face-to-face meeting with me. And I asked him, 'Why the delay?' And he said he wanted to brief me face to face," Squires said.
On Tuesday, Squires appeared at a news conference to answer questions about a Clean Environment Commission report alleging rampant abuse by Manitoba Hydro crews against northern Indigenous women in decades past.
Squires said the province was unable to release the bombshell report — dated May 2018 — until Tuesday, because other provincial departments needed to be consulted.
Lamont characterized the release of the months-old report as both an effort to distract from news about the handling of the St. Boniface soil study, and another example of the minister sitting on important information.
"I'm not a mind reader. I don't know exactly what their motivation is. But it seems to me they're trying to distract from a very serious issue and that makes it all the more important that minister Squires resigns."
Squires countered, telling media the Liberal leader needs to better acquaint himself with the timeline of events and the Tory government's efforts to address the issue of soil contamination in the neighbourhood.
"If the MLA for St. Boniface wants to make these kinds of accusations, he should know the facts matter. And let's review the facts in this case: our government had commissioned an additional 150 soil samples to be analyzed at the request of the community, and we also took action on an industrial entrepreneur in the region that is conducting business outside the scope of his environmental licence," Squires said.
"So our government is taking action when it comes to the air quality and the soil quality in south St. Boniface. And in regards to when I found out: it was on June 21."
Kinew, meanwhile, said there are legitimate questions to be raised about whether Pallister knew about the test results, prior to calling the St. Boniface byelection June 19.
The NDP leader also denounced Squires for effectively throwing two civil servants under the bus — director of environmental compliance and enforcement Don Labossiere, and assistant deputy minister Tracey Braun — rather than taking responsibility herself. On Monday, Squires told the Free Press that Braun and Labossiere inexplicably kept her in the dark, between June 4 to 21, that the lab results were in.
"The way we see this government operate, all the decisions are centralized in the premier's office. In the same way a cabinet minister shouldn't be throwing their assistant deputy minister under the bus, a premier shouldn't be throwing their ministers under the bus, too. That's why I think it's important to connect the dots to the premier," Kinew said.
"This all simply isn't credible... To me, it's just a further sign of her own mistakes and it's more evidence that she's in a panic because she's lying."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.