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Selinger knew "early on" his minister misled

Selinger knew Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger looks on at a press conference following the 2013 Council of the Federation fall meeting in Toronto, Friday November 15, 2013. Manitoba's opposition parties are calling for an inquiry after Premier Greg Selinger admitted he knew for months that a cabinet minister misled the legislature.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

WINNIPEG - Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said Tuesday he did not go public with the knowledge that one of his ministers misled the legislature about a staged immigration debate.

Instead, he waited 18 months as the provincial ombudsman investigated former immigration minister Christine Melnick.

"Relatively early on, I was aware of the fact that she may have issues with information she put on the public record," Selinger said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"The ombudsman had asked for that information and we wanted him to complete his investigation."

Selinger said he had no idea at the time that the probe would take as long as it did, and didn't want to "interfere" with the investigation.

Tuesday was the first time Selinger commented on ombudsman Mel Holley's report that was released last week.

The report revealed that Melnick had in fact told a senior bureaucrat to invite immigrants and immigrant service groups to the legislature on April 19, 2012 to witness a debate in which Melnick criticized the federal government's move to take over some immigration programs.

The revelation contradicted what Melnick told the legislature last year and has prompted opposition calls for an inquiry.

The day before the debate, Melnick's assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, had 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.

The Opposition repeatedly asked Melnick and Selinger whether a politician had told Rempel to send the email. When Melnick appeared before a budget estimates committee on May 30, 2012, she denied being behind the plan.

"There was no direction to send this email,'' Melnick responded, according to Hansard, the printed transcripts of the committee.

The ombudsman's report said Melnick's assistant deputy minister was aided by other bureaucrats in issuing email invitations to some 500 people. The report said the way the event was orchestrated "clearly gave rise to the perception of partisanship" in the civil service.

Selinger said Tuesday his government would not likely try a similar event again.

"In retrospect, I don't think you'd see anybody doing this any time quickly."

Melnick was one of three cabinet ministers demoted to the backbench in October. Selinger said the ombudsman's probe was a factor.

"Ms. Melnick is no longer a member of cabinet and ... this is one of the many factors that were considered."

Melnick has declined interview requests. She issued a short written apology last week in which she said: "The explanation I provided in the house did not properly convey the direction I had given."

Selinger's comments came five hours after Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister accused him of hiding. Selinger had rejected earlier interview requests on the ombudsman's report, and told reporters last week his government was still reviewing the document. It was given an advanced copy a month earlier.

Pallister is unlikely to let the issue drop. He has asked for a legislature committee to investigate Melnick and Selinger.

Under the province's Legislative Assembly Act, the legislature can conduct an inquiry into alleged false evidence given to a committee, among other offences, and can order imprisonment for anyone found guilty.

Unlike Melnick, Selinger never directly denied there was ministerial direction to issue the emails. But in fielding questions in the legislature in May 2012, Selinger alluded to the assistant deputy minister being responsible for the invitations.

On May 2, 2012, Selinger told the legislature "the public servant in question acted in the belief that he was doing what was in the best of all interests of Manitobans,'' according to Hansard.

The following day, he answered another question with "the civil servant took actions in the context of a non-partisan program, which benefits all of Manitoba."

Did Selinger know then that Melnick was in fact behind the plan?

"That wasn't entirely clear. I think we were starting to get some feeling about that," Selinger said Tuesday.

"I simply said the assistant deputy minister was acting professionally."

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