WINNIPEG - Newly released documents show more Manitoba bureaucrats than first believed were involved in an effort to have immigrants attend a legislature debate in a show of support for the NDP government.
The documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under Manitoba's freedom of information law, shed new light on the extent to which efforts were made to fill the legislature's public gallery April 19 while the province criticized federal changes to immigration programs.
To date, only the assistant deputy minister of immigration, Ben Rempel, has been named as being behind the effort. Rempel sent out an email to immigrant support agencies and other groups asking them to attend the debate led by Immigration Minister Christine Melnick.
The email has been criticized by the Opposition Progressive Conservatives as an attempt by the government to use civil servants and new Canadians for a political rally. The Tories complained to legislature Speaker Daryl Reid, who said some of the email recipients may have felt intimidated into attending the debate, but the matter was outside his jurisdiction.
The newly released documents show at least four other bureaucrats echoed Rempel's email and sometimes added their own comments.
The day before the debate, Rempel wrote a message in which he invited people to attend. He suggested that government-funded non-profit groups, which provide support services to immigrants, let employees take time off work.
"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.
Rempel asked seven other people in the Immigration and Labour department to forward the message to "business, ethnocultural, service provider and related stakeholder distribution lists."
Antonio Alfaro, a regional co-ordinator in the department, sent Rempel's email to a number of groups outside of government, and added the message: "Please circulate to all your contacts. They would like as many there as possible."
It's not clear how many people ended up receiving the emails. The list of recipients has been deleted under a freedom of information exemption that protects the privacy of third parties.
Benjamin Amoyaw, director of the province's multicultural secretariat, sent Rempel's email to the Manitoba Immigration Council and the Manitoba Ethnocultural Advisory and Advocacy Council — groups that include government appointees.
Within hours of the first email being sent, bureaucrats started to plan to take time off work to attend the legislature debate.
"Do you want the staff from our department to go or not? Many have expressed interest in going already," Lei Wang, a manager of immigrant employment, wrote to Rempel.
"Probably not a good idea," Rempel replied. "If staff are recognized in the gallery, then it is a 'why are the taxpayers paying salaries for bureaucrats to attend question period for political purposes' sort of issue."
Rempel later sent an email to managers in the department in which he said he "would strongly recommend against" having staff in the gallery.
In question period Tuesday, the Tories demanded to know how many people in the bureaucracy were involved.
"Will the minister today table the emails and come clean about the extent of her involvement of the civil service for her own political purposes?" Mavis Taillieu asked.
Melnick said the civil servants were responding to concerns from immigration support agencies about the federal government's changes.
"The department was receiving many, many calls from service providers who were very, very concerned," she said.
"It's that sort of open communication and letting people know what is going on that has built the best (immigration) model in the country of Canada."
Rempel has not responded to interview requests. In an email to a member of the government's cabinet communications staff, sent the afternoon of the legislature debate, he said immigrants were worried.
"Since the recent federal announcement, we have been receiving a high volume of inquiries expressing concern about the federal decision and asking what the province would be doing to preserve the quality of settlement services in Manitoba," Rempel wrote.
The federal government funds the majority of immigrant support programs and announced earlier this year it is taking over delivery of those services in Manitoba to bring the program in line with other provinces. The province says its immigration program is a success that should not be tampered with.