Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Robinson target of complaint

Referred to Osborne House staff as 'do-good white people'

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Barbara Judt filed a complaint with the human rights commission against Eric Robinson for a comment he wrote in an email.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Barbara Judt filed a complaint with the human rights commission against Eric Robinson for a comment he wrote in an email. Photo Store

Deputy premier Eric Robinson has become the latest MLA to be put under the microscope for a comment he made concerning "do-good white people."

Robinson's choice of words in the Nov. 22 email are now the subject of a Manitoba Human Rights Commission complaint filed by Osborne House CEO Barbara Judt, the apparent target of what she calls Robinson's "racist attack."

Judt also said Robinson's comment and other dealings she's had with the province over the past few months over funding appears to be an "orchestrated effort" to get rid of her and her board.

"We just don't sit back like good little women," Judt said Friday. "We ask questions. We're shrewd businesspeople. They don't like that."

The matter goes back to last November, when the province learned through a report on the Free Press website local clothing store The Foxy Shoppe was holding a burlesque fundraiser with proceeds going to Osborne House.

Nahanni Fontaine, special adviser on aboriginal women's issues, fired an email to Robinson, concerned the event would tarnish Osborne House and its executive, including Judt.

The emails form part of a package of correspondence between senior government officials obtained through a freedom of information request filed by Judt last Dec. 19. They were leaked to Winnipeg media outlets Friday. Judt filed the request to find out what the province was saying about her and Osborne House and in particular Fontaine.

"This is SO bad and looks SO bad and is simply a bad idea on the part of the Osborne House ED (executive director)," Fontaine wrote to Robinson in a Nov. 22, 2012, email. "Like what was she thinking? Did the board approve this 'fundraiser' ?"

Robinson replied in a email two hours later, "I know nothing of this matter and haven't seen today's freep (Winnipeg Free Press) but I will now."

The remaining two sentences of Robinson's email were supposed to be blacked out.

However, clearly visible are the words: "On the surface it is not a very good idea and moreover further exploits an already vulnerable group in society. It also further demonstrates the ignorance of do-good white people without giving it a second thought."

When confronted by media on this choice of words, Robinson initially refused to apologize to Judt.

However, after his comment saw wide circulation in the media -- and pressure from the Progressive Conservative Opposition -- he issued a statement late Friday.

"The work Osborne House does is important for our community, especially aboriginal women who are suffering from the generational effects of discrimination and exploitation," Robinson said in a statement released through cabinet communications late Friday afternoon.

"I did not mean to offend anyone with the words I used. I still feel the event was in poor taste and could have been better thought out, given the clientele of Osborne House are women who have been exploited and victimized. Upon further reflection and discussion with the premier, the words I chose in the moment were regrettable, and for that I apologize."

Judt said she didn't expect Robinson's apology and will respond to it early next week. She said in hindsight, Fontaine and Robinson should have kept their mouths shut. "It's not the role of government to criticize like that," she said. "If they didn't agree with it (the burlesque show) maybe they should have done something to help."

She also said she would like to see a better working relationship with the province to resolve a funding impasse that has consumed much of the past few months.

The province funds Osborne House about $1.6 million annually and over the course of an average year the shelter helps about 9,200 women.

Judt said the issue with the province has to do with the number of counsellors it has on staff (12) and how they are funded. The result is the centre is about $150,000 short.

"Osborne House has felt the wrath of intimidation from senior level bureaucrats this past fiscal year," she said in a statement released Friday.

"We asked legitimate business-related questions, including why the Family Violence Prevention Program is demanding our volunteer board commit to taking on substantial personal debt instead of properly funding our operations and in return from government, we are the recipients of retaliation and bullying.

"This is exactly how our clients feel when they are in abusive relationships. Abusers pick away at their victims; nothing they do is right; they won't engage in discussion to resolve things; they pick fights and then blame the victim for everything."

Osborne House has also been subjected to two reviews ordered by the province this summer, one an update of an earlier internal review of labour-management relations and the other examining client services.

Judt said she wants the heavy-handedness of government to end.

"We want a change in mindset," she said. "We want to have a better relationship with the province. We've been asking the province for months to sit down and resolve these things so that everybody can get back to work."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 A3

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Updated on Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 5:58 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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