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Pallister demands email inquiry

Ex-minister sorry for 'misunderstanding'

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Did she lie to fellow MLAs or not?

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives say the only way to answer that is to find out whether former immigration and multiculturalism minister Christine Melnick fibbed to a legislative standing committee about her role in a four-sentence email signed by one of her senior bureaucrats.

To get to the bottom of it, Tory Leader Brian Pallister said Premier Greg Selinger should take the bull by the horns.

"The premier must call a committee of the house immediately and he cannot defer or delay taking action," Pallister said Friday. "There is an opportunity here to make this right and remedy this behaviour by bringing it to light... "

At issue is an email signed by Melnick's assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, that was sent April 18, 2012, to about 500 recipients in the ethnic and immigrant community. It invited them to the legislative building the next day for a debate on an NDP resolution condemning federal changes to the Canada-Manitoba immigration agreement.

Hundreds of people responded and crammed the public gallery of the legislative assembly, with many more sitting on the floor of a makeshift overflow room on the building's second floor. The event turned into a confrontation between the NDP and four federal Conservative MPs led by Saint Boniface MP Shelly Glover over Ottawa's plan to control delivery of immigrant services.

Rempel's email became public and government critics charged his neutrality as a top civil servant had been sacrificed for NDP political gain.

Under questioning from then-Tory critic Mavis Taillieu at a May 30, 2012, budget estimates meeting, Melnick denied her office directed Rempel to send the email.

But in a report released by the province's ombudsman on the matter this week, Melnick admitted she told her staff, including Rempel, "that those affected by the federal government's decision should be informed" of the provincial government's resolution.

"Responsibilty for the department's actions and their outcomes rests with me," she said in a written submission to Manitoba's acting ombudsman, Mel Holley.

On Friday, Melnick apologized.

"I wish to apologize for comments I made in the house that caused a misunderstanding about direction I provided regarding attendance at a legislative debate on settlement services for immigrants," she wrote in a statement.

"My intention was always to ensure that immigrant communities and the agencies that support those communities were well-informed about important changes to settlement services. The explanation I provided in the house did not properly convey the direction I had given, and for that, I apologize."

In his report, Holley said the matter only created a perception of partisanship and did not constitute personal or administrative misconduct.

In response, the government and civil service are to develop guidelines on how civil servants can avoid situations that could result in the perception of partisanship.

Holley only focused on Rempel's email and not on whether other NDP MLAs or political staff were involved in organizing the event. His office tried to find out who was responsible for allotting passes to the legislative building's public gallery the day of the debate, but was unsuccessful.

Selinger said Thursday the government will come up with guidelines so civil servants avoid falling into the trap of political partisanship.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 A12

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