POLITICS
12/13/2013 11:05 EST | Updated 02/12/2014 05:59 EST

Manitoba Opposition wants inquiry into former immigration minister

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's NDP government tried Friday to end the controversy over a former cabinet minister who is accused by the Opposition Progressive Conservatives of lying to a legislature committee.

The government said Christine Melnick will not be sanctioned for telling the committee she wasn't behind a staged immigration debate.

But there was no sign the Tories would stop pressing for Melnick's removal from caucus and for an inquiry into her actions.

Melnick issued a short written statement late Friday afternoon in which she apologized for what she termed a misunderstanding over the debate last year.

"I wish to apologize for comments I made in the house that caused a misunderstanding about direction I provided," Melnick wrote.

"The explanation I provided in the house did not properly convey the direction I had given and, for that, I apologize."

Melnick came under fire over a legislature debate on April 19, 2012, when she was immigration minister. She had introduced a resolution 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 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.

The Tory Opposition immediately accused the government of politicizing the civil service 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 Premier Greg Selinger whether a politician had told Rempel to send the email. When Melnick appeared before a budget estimates committee on May 30 of last year, she denied being behind the plan.

"Who directed ... Ben Rempel, then, to send the email?" asked Mavis Tallieu, the Tory immigration critic at the time.

"I'm not sure this really relates to the estimates process, and we don't know. There was no direction to send this email," Melnick responded, according to legislature Hansard.

Melnick also said in a media interview at the time that she was not behind the email.

Earlier this week, ombudsman Mel Holley revealed that Melnick had in fact directed Rempel to send the email.

Tory Leader Brian Pallister called Friday for Melnick to be removed from the NDP caucus. Melnick was one of three cabinet ministers who were demoted to the backbenches earlier this year, but she continues to sit in caucus as the representative for the Riel constituency in south Winnipeg.

"This is perjury. This is lying," Pallister said.

"(The premier) has taken no action whatsoever — zero action — as a consequence of knowing that a member of his caucus lied under oath before a committee of this legislature."

Pallister also called for an inquiry.

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.

Selinger was not available for comment Friday. While talking to reporters Thursday, he did not directly answer questions about when the government became aware Melnick's committee testimony was untrue and why no one cleared the air prior to the ombudsman's report.

Government house leader Andrew Swan also refused to answer those questions Friday. He said Melnick's apology is enough.

"It's our expectation that that apology will be the end of the matter," Swan said.

Melnick is not the first politician to apologize for committee testimony.

Last year, then-finance minister Stan Struthers told another legislature committee he never received free tickets to National Hockey League games. Within days, it was revealed that he had been given tickets to Winnipeg Jets games by Red River College and the Manitoba Homebuilders Association.

Struthers apologized in the legislature and was not sanctioned by the premier.