Nicole Gnazdowsky is frustrated. She has every reason to be. Three years after the fact, she is still waiting for answers about why her brother died in a workplace accident. Despite her best, exhaustive, exhausting efforts — which finally did lead to the courtroom this fall — she’s still not sure she’ll ever get the answers she seeks.
On October 16, 2020, her brother, Andrew, 26, an engineer, died at Nova Scotia Power’s Marshall Falls reservoir in Sheet Harbour. At the time, Gnazdowsky was employed by a New Brunswick company that had been subcontracted to survey under the water near a dam.
Something apparently went wrong with the equipment. Gnazdowsky swam out to fix it. He drowned. His body wasn’t recovered until the next day.
That was all his family was told. As Nicole explained to the Examiner’s Zane Woodford in May 2021, grieving family members were expected to “go to a site, do an identification and then drive home and plan a funeral, and nobody ever bothers to tell you why, or how you ended up in that position.”
When she began asking her own questions, she learned the workers’ compensation board’s occupational health and safety investigator assigned to the case, Courtney Donovan, had two years to complete her investigation. But Donovan wouldn’t provide Nicole with any other information, even about her brother’s injuries or the direction of the investigation.
“If we wanted any other information,” she says Donovan told her, “we could file a freedom of information request.”
The official investigation dragged on for five months with no sign of progress, so Nicole, a 2016 King’s Journalism School grad, began her own research. The more she learned the more obsessed she became, not only with what had happened to her brother, but also with the ways in which the labour department and the workers’ compensation board deal with workplace deaths. She began compiling her own database of such deaths in the country. She even enrolled in King’s J-School’s summer data school this summer “because I needed to understand how to put [what I’ve been learning] in a way that somebody else could understand.”
In her own inquiries, Nicole’s first “shock” had been her discovery that Donovan previously worked for Emera, Nova Scotia Power’s parent company and the company for whom the contractors were working the day her brother died.
It was a clear conflict of interest.
Nicole complained. The board eventually, seemingly reluctantly, apparently assigned a different lead investigator to the case.
We’ll come back to “apparently.”
In the process of her own digging, Nicole also discovered her brother’s autopsy report didn’t note the significant bruising on her brother’s face. She’d seen that for herself in the funeral home. Given that her brother was a strong swimmer, she began to suspect his facial injury could have been caused by the malfunctioning equipment — a large remote-controlled boat — hitting him in the face.
If that was true…
The autopsy also misstated the date of her brother’s death. That was significant because, by October 17, the day the autopsy claimed Andrew had died, the NSP’s dam had been closed. Five years earlier, in another workplace accident at another Nova Scotia Power damn in Annapolis Royal, another worker died after a dam was left open and sucked the worker in, killing him.
And then Nicole learned that the RCMP had turned over what could have been a crime scene to Nova Scotia Power even before Andrew’s body was recovered. By the time Nicole “arrived in the morning to do the identification, the site was just full of Nova Scotia Power people.”
Why had that been allowed to happen?
Nicole herself even provided investigators with a utility and review board report on Nova Scotia Power’s 2020 planned annual capital expenditure, which was published two months before Andrew was killed. That report not only suggested the province needed legislation to regulate such hydro refurbishment projects but also “specifically noted that the Sheet Harbour site had been assessed with the less effective risk assessment measure. So, the government was aware that this was a dangerous site.”
Despite her best efforts, nothing much seemed to happen.
Senior Labour Department officials labelled her a “hostile individual” and instructed others to delete some government emails concerning the case. By May 2021, after she’d gone public with her frustrations to the Examiner and the CBC, “I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody in the Department of Labour.”
The following summer, after she had been described as a “person of interest” by provincial officials in a news story, she was also laid off from her job with a firm that does government contracts. Nicole can’t say for certain the two are connected, but…
It took three years of Gnazdowsky putting “my grief on the side to try to fix this problem that nobody else was looking at,” before the labour department did finally charge three companies — Nova Scotia Power, along with contractors Brunswick Engineering and Consulting and Gemtec Consulting Engineers and Scientists Ltd. — with multiple Occupational Health and Safety Act charges for “failing to comply with a code of practice.” If convicted, the companies could face fines of up to $500,000.
Gnazdowsky, who sat through most of last month’s trial, isn’t convinced that will happen.
Sitting in the courtroom became so frustrating, in fact, she says she skipped a few days “to make a point because, at that point, I just felt like I couldn’t do anything else except not show up.”
- She says the prosecutor never questioned the medical examiner during his testimony about why the facial bruising on her brother had been missed in the original report, or the implications of the misdated date of death.
- “Nova Scotia Power was questioning one of the witnesses, and he said, ‘When you spoke to Donovan during your interview…’” Nicole notes “So, they were still referencing [the conflicted investigator’s work] when it was supposed to have been scratched and redone.
- An expert witness called to testify about dams never visited the actual site. “They didn’t even bother to send him out to the site or anything like that, so he was working off documents that Nova Scotia Power provided him [and said], ‘Oh yeah, this looks fine.’”
- The real issue, she says today, is that her brother “didn’t have representation in the courtroom.”
After that? There will likely be a civil lawsuit where she believes her brother’s interests can be better represented.
She continues to build her database of workplace deaths dating back to 2008, and her refusal to simply go away has inspired others. After I wrote an earlier piece about Nicole’s campaign for justice for her brother, a woman whose son had also died in a Nova Scotia Power workplace incident comments:
Seems Nicole Gnazdowsky got the same treatment that I did from the Department of Labour… No mention of power company’s safety protocol (or lack thereof) and no accountability from Nova Scotia Power. My son died in that workplace accident. Left a bride of three months to grieve with us. Same boilerplate condolences. All relevant MLAs, NS premier and chief medical examiner were in on many emails of my questions, concerns and correspondence. Maybe I should have been more hostile!!!!!!!! Carry on, Nicole!
One final note. After Nicole confronted her MLA, then-Liberal Premier Iain Rankin, the then-opposition leader and now Premier, Tim Houston, invited Nicole to run against Rankin “to embarrass” him during the 2021 provincial election. She didn’t. But she continued her letter-writing campaign on behalf of her brother after Houston became premier.
“I’ve emailed him obviously many times, and even my parents emailed him. He sent me a letter one time saying his new minister of labour would be in contact with me and that I should really like her. And then I never, ever heard from her.”
Correction: Nicole was laid off in the summer of 2022 after she had been described in a news story as having been designated a “person of interest” by provincial officials. Incorrect information, which appeared in the original post, has been corrected.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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