01/16/2014 11:57 EST | Updated 03/18/2014 05:59 EDT

Manitoba Opposition says event to commemorate women's vote may violate law

WINNIPEG - Manitoba's Opposition Progressive Conservatives criticized a plan to commemorate women's right to vote Thursday, and soon found themselves on the defensive.

Tory deputy leader Heather Stefanson cried foul over a ceremony planned by the provincial women's advisory council, slated for Jan 28 at the legislature. The event is to mark the 98th anniversary of when Manitoba women became the first in Canada to win the right to vote.

The date is also when voters in two constituencies — Morris and Arthur-Virden — go to the polls in provincial byelections. Stefanson said the event at the legislature may violate the Election Financing Act, which forbids most government advertising and announcements during election campaigns.

"We don't know what they're planning to do there, are they planning to make an announcement?, Stefanson said.

"It seems that their concern is more with a photo op in the middle of a byelection — something that they'll put out there that looks positive for them."

The minister responsible for the status of women, Kerri Irvin-Ross, said the event is a non-partisan celebration of an important milestone, and politicians of all stripes have been invited to attend.

Liberal Leader Rona Bokhari, the only female party leader in the province, said she was surprised by the Tory complaint.

"As a woman, it does not sit well with me," Bokhari said.

"This is a very important date for women in Manitoba. To make it political, to make it partisan ... I'm just not okay with that."

Irvin-Ross's press secretary also took a swipe at the Tories.

"Manitoba's election law is designed to prevent the government from announcing new initiatives during an election, including byelections," Rachel Morgan wrote in an email.

"Women in Manitoba already know they have the right to vote."

The ceremony is aimed at honouring the life of Nellie McClung, who led the battle for women's suffrage. It was arranged by the women's advisory council in mid-December before the byelections were called, Morgan added.

The controversy is the latest flare-up in an ongoing debate over what politicians can and cannot do during election campaigns.

The Election Financing Act says a government department or Crown agency cannot "advertise or publish any information about its programs or activities" during campaigns, but there are several exceptions such as public health emergencies. There are also exemptions for government contract notices and continuations of pre-existing advertising campaigns.

The NDP have already been found guilty of violating the act. The province's elections commissioner ruled the NDP was wrong to organize a media tour of a new birthing centre in south Winnipeg just prior to the 2011 election campaign.

In that case, government workers were used to help then health minister Theresa Oswald highlight the new facility. But the commissioner ruled the violation was inadvertent and the NDP suffered no penalty.

The NDP government has cited the ban on advertising and promotion as part of the reason for not releasing a long-awaited inquiry report into the death of Phoenix Sinclair, a one-time foster child who was brutally killed by her mother and mother's boyfriend after social workers closed her case.

The Tories have said there is nothing in the law that prevents inquiry reports from being made public.