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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks on Toronto on June 11, 2013.

MOE DOIRON/The Globe and Mail

Ontario civil servants were uncomfortable with erasing the records of former premier Dalton McGuinty's office and put a stop to the practice shortly before he stepped down last winter, cabinet secretary Peter Wallace told a legislative committee. Then, when Kathleen Wynne replaced Mr. McGuinty a few weeks later, she ordered Liberal political staffers not to delete any of their e-mails.

These two actions, multiple sources have made clear, ended what had been a slipshod approach to the preservation of key government records. Mr. McGuinty brought in a law to preserve documents seven years ago but did not translate the policy into practice, allowing e-mails to be systematically erased. The problem came to light when opposition MPPs asked for government correspondence on the costly cancellations of two gas-fired power plants, only to be told some of it had been deleted. Some staffers regularly cleaned out their inboxes, while others had their entire accounts purged after they left the government.

On two separate occasions after a legislative committee launched a probe into the cancelled gas plants – in August, 2012, and January of this year – Mr. McGuinty's chief of staff asked civil servants how to permanently delete e-mail accounts, Mr. Wallace told the committee Tuesday.

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He said the chief of staff's office ordered the accounts of at least three departed senior staff members permanently erased. Mr. Wallace said he did not know how many other e-mail accounts might have been deleted.

But in January, civil servants took the "unusual" step of retaining computer hard drives, network drives and BlackBerrys belonging to Mr. McGuinty's former staff to make sure the records inside were preserved, Mr. Wallace testified. They also stopped scrubbing e-mail accounts and instead merely disabled them, allowing the e-mails to be preserved.

"They were observing that there was an intensity associated with this process with which they were uncomfortable," Mr. Wallace said.

After Ms. Wynne was sworn in on Feb. 11, she issued a directive telling staff to keep all their e-mails, a government source said. She has also ordered that e-mail accounts for former staff will no longer be deleted.

She was concerned that, with the brewing scandal over the gas plants and the demand for documents, something had to change.

But the haphazard approach to record-keeping under Mr. McGuinty went beyond the controversial gas-plant file. The Liberals introduced the Archives and Recordkeeping Act in 2006, which prohibited the destruction of government documents and mandated they be turned over to the provincial archives. But Mr. McGuinty and some of his cabinet ministers did not enforce the rules in their offices.

"You know what? As a minister I left a lot of that up to my staff, as I think other ministers did," said Government House Leader John Milloy, who held four different portfolios in Mr. McGuinty's government. "There were different degrees of following those rules in the past."

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Tranining, Colleges and Universities Minister Brad Duguid, who was in charge of energy during the cancellations, also left it up to others to make sure documents weren't destroyed.

"These are things that generally the ministry looks after or your staff looks after in terms of how e-mails are dealt with," he said. "It's an administrative function that the minister doesn't directly get involved with."

But it appears some staff were not even told they were supposed to be saving records. In a report by Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, a top staffer in Ms. Wynne's office who had also worked for Mr. McGuinty said he did not get any training on the laws around preserving documents until April of this year, after Ms. Cavoukian was investigating the matter.

Mr. McGuinty conceded last week his government was "inadequate" in making sure staffers knew what they were supposed to be doing.

In a recent interview, Ms. Cavoukian said she was surprised to find the government has no backup system to archive e-mails. E-mails that had not been deleted from an individual's accountwere backed up for just 24 hours. And Ms. Cavoukian hired a forensic computer specialist who found that once e-mails were deleted, they could not be retrieved.

The practice is in stark contrast to Toronto city hall, she said, where e-mails of former employees are transferred to the archives and retained for seven years.

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