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Manitoba premier took minister's misleading statement at face value

Christine Melnick is pictured in 2005. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marianne Helm

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Christine Melnick is pictured in 2005. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marianne Helm

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger says he and his staff were not involved in a controversial decision to invite government-funded immigrant service agencies to a legislature debate — an event that has been criticized by the province's ombudsman.

Selinger says former immigration minister Christine Melnick acted without his office's knowledge. He took her at her word when she denied being behind the plan, never questioned her, and was surprised months later to find out she in fact was.

"She put that on the public record ... and I took that at face value, that she was being clear about what she had done," Selinger said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"She certainly did not directly mislead me. She put it on the public record, which meant we were all subject to the same information."

"(My) staff were not involved."

The controversy dates back to April 19, 2012, when Melnick — the immigration minister at the time — introduced a resolution in the legislature criticizing the federal government’s plan to take over some immigration programs run by the province.

The previous day, her assistant deputy minister Ben Rempel and other bureaucrats issued an email to government-funded immigrant service agencies telling them of the event and saying that people should feel free to come — even if it meant taking the afternoon off work. More than 400 people packed the public gallery and an overflow room.

The Tory Opposition immediately accused the government of politicizing the civil service and rounding up immigrants to orchestrate a show of support for the government. It also said government-funded agencies and immigrants would feel pressured to obey the request to attend.

Melnick initially dodged questions in the legislature as to whether she had told Rempel to send the invitations. But she told The Canadian Press in late April that she did not tell Rempel what to do.

On May 30, 2012, Melnick repeated the statement, telling a legislature committee that no one had directed Rempel to send the invitations.

Nineteen months later, ombudsman Mel Holley revealed in a report that Melnick had in fact directed Rempel. He said the way the invitations were sent out "clearly gave rise to the perception of partisanship" in the civil service.

Selinger said he only found out that Melnick was behind the email in the fall of 2012 through staff, who had learned of the ombudsman's investigation, and did not go public because he wanted to let the ombudsman finish his probe.

Melnick, who was one of three cabinet ministers dropped to the back benches in a cabinet shuffle last October, has apologized for her misleading statement. She said she was suffering from undiagnosed diabetes at the time, which caused her to forget she had ordered the invitations be sent.

"I was not well physically. I had a forgetfulness of what had happened," Melnick told the CBC in December. She has not responded the repeated interview requests from The Canadian Press.

Memory loss is not normally directly associated with diabetes, according to a specialist at St. Boniface Hospital, but might be connected to overall fatigue from blood sugar levels.

"If you have unknown high blood sugars ... it can cause significant fatigue, and if you have enough significant fatigue, it may be that you're not at your best mental sharpness," said Dr. Sora Ludwig, an endocrinologist who stressed that she could only comment on diabetes in general and not on Melnick's specific case.

"It may decrease your ability to think clearly. It is possible, but it would really, in an individual case, be fairly dependent on the level of blood sugar."

Selinger has said Melnick will remain in the NDP caucus, and would not weigh in on whether he believes that diabetes made Melnick forget what she did.

"I'm not qualified to comment on undiagnosed diabetes and what the impact is on behaviour, but I simply say the minister has clearly said that she made an error ... and I've accepted that."

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives plan to pursue the issue when the legislature resumes in March and demand a committee be struck to investigate Melnick. Deliberately misleading the legislature is an offence punishable by incarceration under provincial law.

Politicians can avoid any punishment, however, if they are found to have inadvertently misled the chamber. Speaker Daryl Reid ruled in 2012 that then-finance minister Stan Struthers committed no offence when he falsely told a committee he had not received free National Hockey League tickets. Struthers said days later that he had forgotten he had received some and apologized.

Selinger would not say whether he would support the Tory push for an investigation into Melnick's actions.

"If such a proposal is put forward, it will be considered on its merits."

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