The Selinger government gave an untendered contract this year to a private company to advise it on the implementation of half of the recommendations of the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry report.
The government also failed to publicly disclose the $350,000 contract as required under provincial rules.
When the government released the long-awaited report on Jan. 31, it announced 31 of 62 recommendations would be referred to an implementation team headed by consultant Barbara Bruce. What wasn't clear was that the team consisted of Bruce and her company, AMR Planning and Consulting of Winnipeg.
Principal owners: Barbara and Angie Bruce
Areas of expertise: organizational development, human resources, planning and policy in health-related fields, research and evaluation, cultural training and curriculum development, and event planning.
Quote: "Our founding partners possess a proven track record of excellence working with national and regional businesses and organizations including those in the non-profit sector, Aboriginal industry, and all levels of government. We have also achieved recognition for our innovation and integrity, and for our ability to guide our clients in making improvements to both their operations and their bottom lines."
Connection to the NDP: Barbara Bruce, the lead AMR official working on the Phoenix Sinclair recommendations file, donated $350 to the party in 2011. Her partner Angie Bruce donated $250 to the NDP the same year. Barbara Bruce is also a board member to the Manitoba Gaming Commission, a provincial government appointment.
Sources: AMR website, Elections Manitoba website, province of Manitoba
In a recent report, outgoing provincial auditor general Carol Bellringer raised concerns about the prevalence of untendered contracts by government and the length of time it takes for them to be made public.
Bellringer found that of 50 untendered government contracts her office examined, 26 were "not supported by an acceptable circumstance needed to justify waiving competitive bids."
In an 18-month audit, the auditor also found 1,857 of the 2,133 untendered government contracts disclosed to the public were not disclosed within the 30-day time limit. Depending on the department or special operating agency examined, the disclosure period ranged from 48 to 182 days on average from the time the contract was signed.
Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross acknowledged the AMR contract had not met the disclosure rules. As of mid-afternoon Wednesday it had yet to be posted on the government's website even though it was in place by Jan. 31.
But she defended the government's decision not to ask for competing bids, saying it's important government work quickly to implement the Phoenix inquiry report's recommendations.
"We do not have a lot of time when we're talking about what we need to do to improve the child-welfare system," Irvin-Ross said. "I've made a commitment that we're going to work to strengthen it.
She said Barbara Bruce and AMR have the respect of First Nations and Métis leaders. The vast majority of kids in the care of child and family services agencies are aboriginal.
"I think that having somebody with the credibility of AMR Consulting and the principal Barbara Bruce is extremely important," the minister said. "She (Bruce) is an aboriginal woman herself. She's well-respected nationally."
Phoenix's remains were found in a dump on the Fisher River reserve in March 2006. She had been under the watch of CFS before her death at the hands of her mother and the woman's boyfriend. A provincial inquiry led by Ted Hughes began in September 2012. The province released Hughes' report Jan. 31.
So far, 31 of the report's 62 recommendations have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented.
The other 31 -- the ones referred to AMR -- will take more time to examine. Irvin-Ross said many are "extremely complicated," involving more than one government department and/or multiple stakeholders.
Among them is the replacement of the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA) with a Manitoba Representative for Children and Youth.
The new office would have greater independence from government than the OCA -- more along the lines of the provincial auditor or ombudsman. It would also have greater powers, with a mandate to advocate for all children and youth in the province who are receiving or are eligible to receive any publicly funded service -- as opposed to only advocating for children in the child-welfare system. It would also have responsibility to review not only child deaths but critical injuries to any child in care or recently in care.
The current children's advocate, Darlene MacDonald, whose term was renewed for three years this week, said she supports such an office.
Meanwhile, the Conservative critic said he doesn't understand why the contract with AMR couldn't have been tendered. Ian Wishart said many of Hughes' most critical recommendations are in the process of being implemented: "The remaining ones can take a little more time to be done properly. I don't see that there was a pressing need to abandon the tendering process."