Email suggests N.S. government had imposed gag order on QEII plans

Halifax's chief administrative officer has informed the mayor and members of council they are now free to share information related to the QEII hospital redevelopment that the provincial government provided them in secret.

In an email sent Friday to elected officials, Jacques Dubé made reference to the Province of Nova Scotia confirming its position that information it had provided had been subject to a "non-disclosure agreement," or what's commonly know as a gag order.

The issue emerged last week when Coun. Waye Mason said the city had been forbidden from telling nearby tenants about the province's controversial plan to build a hospital parkade on Summer Street. Both Premier Stephen McNeil and the province's top transportation official denied any knowledge of it being kept confidential.

Dubé said in his email, obtained by CBC, that the city's municipal solicitor subsequently reached out to the province for clarification and was told the non-disclosure agreement was put in place in April 2018 and related to discussions at a "master planning level." 

Who provided the clarification of the province's position is unstated, but Dubé included a further assurance from the province that council is now free to talk about the closed-door discussion, given the information is now public.

"I also confirm that there are no other non-disclosure agreements in place between the Province and HRM relating to the QEII New Generation Project," Dubé quotes the unnamed provincial official as saying.

Province of Nova Scotia

Last week, groups upset with plans to build the seven-storey parking garage next to their operations expressed frustration they only learned about it after the province issued a tender for the work.

At the time, deputy transportation minister Paul LaFleche said it was up to the city to communicate with the Bengal Lancers equestrian club and the Halifax Wanderers soccer team, because those organizations were tenants of the city, not the province.

Mason said that was not possible because the province had imposed secrecy provisions on council. 

McNeil and LaFleche, the most senior bureaucrat responsible for the project, denied any knowledge of the province having imposed a gag order on council.

"To my knowledge, I don't know what that is," McNeil told reporters Thursday when asked about it. "I've not heard that. I've not seen that."

LaFleche offered a similar denial when he was asked about it on Wednesday, following his appearance before the Nova Scotia Legislature's public accounts committee.

"I have never heard of that," said LaFleche. "I don't know if we have any other staff, at any level who's ever heard of that."

The province has requested some municipal land in order to build the parkade. In his email, Dubé said the province had previously "insisted at various times" that the city keep the project information confidential, even as council sought to declassify it.

Provincial officials did not immediately respond to CBC requests for comment Monday.

Doesn't have 'story straight'

Peggy Cameron, of the non-profit group Friends of the Halifax Common, is opposed to the idea of using Common land for a parking garage and a power plant. The power plant would be located near the parkade, on the other side of the Museum of Natural History.

She said the secrecy surrounding the hospital expansion plans has fuelled speculation and misinformation.

"There's multiple indications that the province doesn't even have its story straight on what it is they are doing, let alone why they are doing it, and the public has certainly not been consulted, nor does the city seem to be fully aware of what's going on," said Cameron.

Cameron isn't convinced the province needs to expand across Summer Street, given the space it has already at its disposal, with the former CBC building about to be torn down and the land that was used for Queen Elizabeth High School available.