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Manitoba minister says she wasn't behind email to immigrant groups

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's immigration minister says she was not behind an email to immigrant groups that is being investigated by the legislature Speaker's office.

Christine Melnick also says there is nothing wrong with the email from Ben Rempel, her assistant deputy minister, which suggested that non-profit government-funded immigrant service agencies give their staff the afternoon off to attend a politically charged debate at the legislature.

"The (immigrant) community asked to be kept involved, kept informed and that's what's happened here," Melnick said Wednesday.

"This is the way the department has communicated in the past and I think open communication is important."

The opposition parties have cried foul over the email. They call it a blatant attempt to politicize the civil service and pressure government-funded groups to support the governing NDP. The Progressive Conservatives have filed a complaint with the Speaker.

The email was sent shortly before an extended debate last week over the federal government's plan to take over delivery of immigrant support programs in Manitoba, as it has already done in most other provinces.

The Manitoba government has said the end result will be cuts to services. The government scheduled a debate in the legislature on a motion criticizing the federal move last Thursday, and the public galleries were filled with immigrants and support workers.

The day before, government-funded agencies that provide immigrant support programs had received the email from Rempel, in which he wrote: "I would like service agencies, especially, to feel free to release staff and clients to attend tomorrow's session in the gallery of the legislature, if they choose.''

Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard demanded Wednesday the government ensure that no more such emails are issued.

"What action will the government take today to immediately return the civil service to non-partisan status and end this politburous style of government?" he asked Melnick in question period.

The debate is part of an ongoing, heated battle over how immigration programs are delivered. Until now, Manitoba has been one of three provinces that has played a role in administering support services such as employment and language training for newcomers.

The federal government recently announced it is taking sole possession of service delivery to bring Manitoba in line with most other provinces. The province says its immigration program is a success that should not be tampered with.

The debate has become so heated, four Conservative members of Parliament showed up for last Thursday's debate and held a news conference to deny the province's accusation that cuts are looming.

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