The gloves came off Thursday in the Selinger government's fight against Ottawa and its plan to "rip apart" an immigration agreement the province says is responsible for bringing thousands of people to Manitoba.
Four Manitoba Tory MPs took the unprecedented step of denouncing the NDP inside the legislative building's rotunda -- they say Manitobans have been misled about the federal changes -- in what was an orchestrated afternoon of political theatre.
The event was witnessed by 400 immigrants and immigration workers invited to the legislature to hear debate on an NDP motion to get the Harper government to reverse its decision to end the 1998 Canada-Manitoba Immigration Agreement.
Paz Bowman, who immigrated with her parents and 10 siblings to Manitoba from Chile in 1976, said she's concerned Ottawa would recruit immigrants with specific job skills rather than help unify families.
"I'm here because I'm confused and I'm concerned and I'm worried about the future of this province if we restrict settlement services in such a way," she said.
The four Tory MPs, Shelly Glover, Candice Hoeppner, Joy Smith and James Bezan -- who would likely not speak about the immigration changes without permission from the Prime Minister's Office -- took turns slamming Premier Greg Selinger and his government while debate continued inside the house.
"The premier is trying to mix-message Manitobans," Glover said outside the house.
"We will not allow the provincial government to mislead Manitobans any longer. That's why we're here. A government is elected to represent the people and to tell the truth."
Inside the house, Glover, Smith, Bezan and Hoeppner sat together stone-faced on a sofa on the floor of the chamber behind the Tory benches watching question period, when the immigration issue took centre stage.
They either smiled or nodded their heads when their provincial counterparts defended Ottawa's decision to manage the immigration program.
They had to sit in the house because they could not get passes for the public gallery.
Smith said she and her colleagues had no choice other than to come to the legislature instead of holding a press briefing at constituency offices or another location.
"Today the MPs are coming in to straighten the story out," Smith said.
"The story has been totally misleading. It's scaring people. We have to get that story straight."
NDP MP Pat Martin, who was also at the legislature Thursday, called the presence of the Conservative MPs nothing more than the Harper government trying impose its will on the province.
"It's like a bunch of bullies and thugs trying to ram this down the throat of Manitobans," the Winnipeg Centre MP said. "This is unprecedented to have a bunch of federal MPs stand around here and try to intimidate our provincial government. What message does it send when they send a gang of their goons to stare down from the gallery at our democratically elected provincial government?
"It's intimidation and it's bully tactics."
Martin said it marked the first time a federal government has sent MPs to a provincial legislature to confront a government.
"The nerve. The audacity. The gall. They've got more gall than Caesar and he had all of Gaul."
Glover, Smith, Hoeppner and Bezan repeated the position of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney when he was in Winnipeg Monday to explain the federal changes.
Kenney said Ottawa wants to control immigration settlement services -- like it does with other provinces -- because it spends $36.5 million under the agreement with Manitoba.
Manitoba has delivered the program, which includes language classes and job-search skills, for more than a decade.
Kenney said the provincial nominee program's strategies to boost Manitoba's population and drive the economy won't change. The program allows the province to nominate immigrants whose skills match provincial needs and is one of the reasons for the increase in the number of newcomers. The program accounts for three-quarters of all new immigrants coming to Manitoba, about 16,000 last year.
Hoeppner said there will be no changes to the provincial nominee program under the federal plan and local organizations will still deliver settlement services -- all that will be eliminated is the middleman: the province.
Selinger said Ottawa's changes could ruin the program. "To sort of say that they're not related completely misses the point about why the program has been successful," the premier said.
"It's been successful because all the elements work together. Why do we want to take something that's working so well and rip it apart? It makes no sense."
Selinger said he had no issue with the four Tory MPs using the backdrop of the legislature as a launching pad against his government. "If four MPs want to come and see the legislature and see the democratic debate that we're having, that's excellent."
Did the NDP go too far?
Premier Greg Selinger defended a memo sent to immigration workers by Ben Rempel, assistant deputy minister of immigration. It solicited participation in the debate. So many people responded the government used a committee room for people to listen to the debate because there was no room left in the legislature's public gallery.
Selinger said Rempel was only responding to many requests about what the province is doing on the immigration file.
"He simply informed them that they have a choice if they want to listen to the discussion down at the legislature," he said.
The Tories said the memo is evidence the NDP used a civil servant to stage a political event. Here is an excerpt from the memo:
Tomorrow, Thursday, April 19, 2012, Honourable Christine Melnick, minister of immigration and multiculturalism, will table a resolution that the legislative assembly of Manitoba call on the Government of Canada to immediately reverse its decision to cancel the settlement annex of the Canada-Manitoba Immigration Agreement with the provincial government in order to maintain the successful Manitoba immigration model. The Manitoba government resolution is attached.
We would like to invite you to be at the Manitoba Legislative Building, 450 Broadway, at 2:00 p.m., tomorrow, Thursday, April 19, 2012, to witness this very important event.
assistant deputy minister
Manitoba Immigration and Multiculturalism