Manitoba Health Minister Erin Selby has apologized for recent remarks she made that referred to the deaths of a dozen infants in the 1990s — remarks that have some, including the grandmother of one of the babies, demanding her resignation.
Selby apologized during question period on Tuesday afternoon, in response to concerns raised the day before by Margaret Feakes, whose grandchild was one of 12 babies who died after undergoing heart surgery at the Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre's infant cardiac surgery department in 1994.
Speaking with reporters after QP, Selby again apologized several times.
"I know the pain these families faced. I heard it very clearly.I heard the family. They were in a lot of pain by the words that I used and I am sorry, she said.
But Selby said she won't resign, as she intends to stay on as health minister to work on improving Manitoba's health-care system.
The infant deaths were first brought up during a debate between Selby and Progressive Conservative health critic Myrna Driedger at a health committee meeting on March 26.
The two were in a heated exchange over the STARS air ambulance service, which was temporarily grounded in December over safety concerns.
According to a Hansard transcript of that meeting, Driedger said, "Back to the question, which the minister didn't answer, how old is the STARS helicopter that we are using right now?"
Selby did not answer the question, but instead spoke of "the importance of our critical incident legislation."
The health minister then accused the Progressive Conservatives, which were in government at the time of the baby deaths, of sweeping the matter "under the rug."
"We know how things were done when they were in office…. They ignored problems. They swept them under the rug," the transcript quoted Selby as saying.
"It is hard for me to imagine, but they allowed 12 babies to die and still didn't take into consideration what happened to learn from such devastation that those families went through. It was actually left to us to apologize to those families and to bring in legislation to make sure that didn't happen again."
Selby's statement offended Feakes, who said she couldn't believe the health minister would play politics with a tragic situation.
"Minister Selby doesn't have the right to politicize the memory of our babies and grandbabies. We only hope that minister Selby will do the right thing and resign immediately," she told reporters on Monday.
Feakes said Selby should step down as health minister and apologize.
"I told minister Selby that she disgusts me because that's the only word, that's what I'm feeling. It's a disgust to do this, for her to … those babies," she said, sobbing.
'Terrible communication,' says expert
Royce Koop, an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, says he doesn't think Selby will resign but he believes the latest misstep is serious.
"This most recent comment has been an example of terrible communication, of seeming a lack of competence on files that are of great importance," he told CBC News.
Koop noted that Selby was also accused of bumbling her message in January, when she said taxi drivers should be responsible for ensuring patients get home safely after leaving the hospital.
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At the time, she was responding to the deaths of two men who, in separate cases, died outside their homes after being discharged from Grace Hospital and driven home by taxi.
When asked how she defends herself against criticism that she doesn't directly answer questions, Selby would only say, "I think it's very important that we continue making improvements to things like our critical-incident legislation."