WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government was wrong to try to withhold a cabinet minister's controversial comments about "do-good white people," the provincial ombudsman's office has ruled in a report.
The report, obtained by The Canadian Press, appears to set a precedent by limiting what kind of comments politicians can keep secret under a section of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Section 23 (1) (a) of the law is broadly worded and says the government does not have to release "advice, opinions, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options developed by or for the public body or a minister."
The ombudsman's report says the exemption can only be applied to comments made in connection with a ministerial decision.
But Eric Robinson, the deputy premier and aboriginal affairs minister, was criticizing a burlesque fundraiser at the Osborne House women's shelter, which is governed by the Department of Family Services.
"Unless it can be shown that particular comments made by an individual were developed or sought in the context of making a government decision, developing a government policy or while carrying out the responsibilities or duties of their office, such comments will typically not fall under the exception," the ombudsman's report said.
The decision is not binding on the NDP government, but a spokesman said it will be respected.
"The ombudsman is the authority on how the law should be interpreted and we welcome the clarity provided on section 23 (1)," Nammi Poorooshasb, the director of cabinet communications, wrote in an email Thursday.
"The ombudsman’s decision has been shared with staff in all departments who handle these (freedom-of-information) requests. A reminder will also be sent to staff on the appropriate use of work email."
Robinson's comments are part of an ongoing battle between the government and Osborne House. Last fall, Robinson wrote an email to a government staff member that said the burlesque fundraiser demonstrated "the ignorance of do-good white people without giving it a second thought.''
The comments only came to light this summer, after Osborne House CEO Barbara Judt obtained them under a freedom-of-information application for government documents related to the shelter.
The comments might never have come to light, because the government blacked them out with a marker. But the marker didn't fully cover Robinson's words. They were visible when the documents were held up to a light.
Robinson initially said he would not apologize for the remarks, then issued a written apology for his choice of words. The Opposition Progressive Conservatives have called on Premier Greg Selinger to reprimand Robinson, but Selinger has stood by his minister, saying he has done a good job in cabinet.
Osborne House, meanwhile, has been subjected to an operational review by the province. Last week, the government ordered Osborne House to devise a plan to address what it says are long-standing issues about the safety of women and children at the facility.
The government says there are problems with the level of counselling at the shelter and the front-door security is lacking. The government has also cited one instance where a possible case of child abuse was not reported to authorities.
The shelter's CEO, however, says she is being targeted because she once stood alongside the Tories for an election campaign event in which the party promised $5 million to upgrade the shelter.
"They're just trying to discredit us in any way possible," Judt said Thursday.
"They're just picking away and of course our board will defend the agency and its reputation."
Judt is currently on medical leave. She says she has mobility issues and is not expecting to be back at work until sometime next year.
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