Damning emails withheld from media, opposition: Manitoba ombudsman

Manitoba's ombudsman says there is no plausible explanation as to why a revealing government document was withheld from the media and the Opposition Tories.
Christine Melnick said she was acting on orders from the premier's staff when she told civil servants to rally immigrant support workers for a debate more than two years ago. (CBC)

A report from Manitoba's ombudsman says there is no plausible explanation as to why a revealing government document — one that contradicted the official government position at the time — was withheld from the media and the Opposition Progressive Conservatives.

The report released Wednesday delves into an April 2012 immigration debate at the legislature that stirred up controversy because the government used civil servants to gather supporters to sit in the public gallery. For more than a year, then-immigration minister Christine Melnick denied being behind the plan and said a top civil servant made the decision on his own.

Freedom-of-information requests filed at the time by The Canadian Press, two other media outlets and the Tories revealed many civil servants were involved. But among the dozens of documents that were released, there was no link to the minister. It was only revealed late last year that Melnick did indeed give the order.

The ombudsman's report says there was one email that outlined Melnick's involvement that should have been included in the freedom-of-information responses, but was not. The report says immigration department staff told the ombudsman they missed that email when searching through the records in 2012.

"There is no evidence that the department deliberately withheld records," the report states.

"There is, however, no plausible explanation as to how this record was missed during the search. The record was in the email accounts of six staff, including the assistant deputy minister, the department's access and privacy co-ordinator, and the person responsible for conducting the search for records."

The report also states the missing email was made the same week, and dealt with the same issue, as the innocuous documents that were released.

"It is unclear as to how the (email) in question would not have been located, particularly given the fact that other emails from the same time period, with the same subject matter ... were located."

Opposition Leader Brian Pallister said he does not believe the missed email was an innocent oversight.

"The conclusion is clear that the people in charge of distributing the information chose not to distribute the damaging information," he said.

"Coincidentally, undamaging information was made available to us, but damaging information was not. That's not how the ... process is supposed to work."

NDP house leader Steve Ashton rejected that accusation and said it was an honest mistake.

"There was an omission. It happened. We recognize that," he said.

"There's really no evidence of any conspiracy theory here, as much as the leader of the Opposition wants to read (into it)."

Melnick told the legislature in 2012 she was not behind the idea to use civil servants to ask people to sit in the public gallery for the debate, then admitted to it last December. She said she had forgotten and blamed her memory loss on undiagnosed diabetes.

The event was criticized by the ombudsman at the time. He said having civil servants, who are suppose to be apolitical, issue invitations to 500 immigrants and immigrant service agency workers raised the spectre of partisanship.

Melnick was ousted from the NDP caucus last February after Premier Greg Selinger said he and his staff were not involved in the decision to use civil servants. Melnick said that was not true. She said a top Selinger adviser knew what happened from the beginning. Melnick also said she was told in 2013 she would have to take the blame to protect the premier.

Melnick has since been allowed back into the NDP caucus, although with restricted privileges. She cannot attend caucus meetings or have input into caucus actions. She has continued to vote with the NDP in the chamber.

The email that was withheld reads: "As requested by the minister, please see attached a draft letter of invitation for people and organizations to attend and support the resolution tomorrow." The email was written on April 18, 2012, by an interim director in the Immigration Department and sent to three people including assistant deputy minister Ben Rempel.

It was not included in responses to freedom-of-information requests filed by media outlets, including The Canadian Press, which sought all emails sent and received by Rempel between April 16 and 30, 2012, regarding the immigration debate at the legislature.