05/01/2012 06:07 EDT | Updated 07/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Manitoba's immigration minister unable to say who received controversial email

WINNIPEG - More than a week after controversy erupted over a bureaucrat's email to immigrant groups, Manitoba's immigration minister was unable to say Tuesday who received the email and whether civil servants got an afternoon off to show support for the NDP government.

"The department communicates. I'm not continually monitoring this," Christine Melnick said.

Melnick has been on the hot seat over a debate she led in the legislature chamber April 19 in which she criticized the federal government's changes to immigration policy. The previous day, her department's assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, had sent out emails that invited people to watch the mid-afternoon debate.

One of the emails appeared to be targeted at non-profit agencies who are paid by the government to deliver support programs to immigrants, although it is unclear whether department staff received the email as well.

"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," Rempel wrote.

Another email was issued — it's unclear to whom — without the suggestion that people take time off work.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives filed a complaint with legislature Speaker Daryl Reid that accuses the government of politicizing the civil service and pressuring non-profit groups to attend a political event.

Reid ruled that some government staff may have felt intimidated by the email, but they are not covered by parliamentary privilege.

Under repeated questioning Tuesday in the chamber and in a scrum with reporters outside, Melnick was unable to say how many, if any, immigration department staff got time off to watch the legislature debate. Hundreds of people filled the public galleries and a spillover room that day.

"Look, we had over 450 people here. We didn't know when people were coming in, what they were coming in for. I was very focused on the issue in the house."

The NDP responded Tuesday by releasing a third email from Rempel which was sent hours after the first two. In it, he suggests that staff not take the afternoon off.

"I expect that some staff will be interested in attending in the gallery tomorrow. I would strongly recommend against this because if staff are recognized in the gallery, we would only be providing grounds for more criticism of the government as wasting taxpayers' money," he wrote.

The Tories are pushing for Melnick to appear before a legislature committee to answer questions about how extensively each of the emails was circulated and whether bureaucrats took time off work.

"We have absolutely no answers. This minister has totally evaded every single question put to her," Tory house leader Mavis Taillieu said.