02/03/2014 04:49 EST | Updated 04/05/2014 05:59 EDT

Ousted Manitoba cabinet minister says premier hanging her out to dry

WINNIPEG - An ousted cabinet minister says she was told she would have to protect Manitoba's premier by taking the blame for a controversial immigration debate.

Christine Melnick, one of three ministers sent to the backbenches in a cabinet shuffle last fall, said Premier Greg Selinger was wrong when he recently told The Canadian Press that she acted without his staff's knowledge in setting up the debate in April 2012.

"I'm very disappointed in Greg Selinger. I have been loyal. I believe I have been a hard-working minister and MLA and have been part of the team," the former immigration minister said in an interview Monday.

"To be treated like this is reprehensible and just not acceptable."

Melnick said she was acting on orders from the premier's advisers when she asked bureaucrats to email invitations to immigrant support agencies to attend the debate.

The NDP government was criticized at the time by the Opposition Progressive Conservatives for stacking the gallery.

Melnick said when the emails were questioned by the ombudsman last fall, she was told by Selinger's press secretary, Matt Williamson, that she would be taking the fall.

"I was told that it did not matter what I had to say. The decision had been made to hang me out in order to protect the premier."

The premier's office responded quickly Monday.

"Christine Melnick's claim that she did not direct the civil service to email the invite has proven false. Her accusations today are also false," Williamson, who is now also director of cabinet communications, wrote in an email to The Canadian Press.

"Her previous explanation for making false statements was undiagnosed diabetes," he wrote. "Today she is blaming staff."

On April 19, 2012, Melnick introduced a resolution in the legislature criticizing the federal government’s plan to take over some immigration programs run by the province.

The previous day, her assistant deputy minister, Ben Rempel, and other bureaucrats issued an email to government-funded immigrant service agencies telling them about the debate and saying that employees should feel free to come — even if it meant taking the afternoon off. More than 400 people packed the public gallery and an overflow room.

The Opposition accused the government of politicizing the civil service and of rounding up immigrants to orchestrate a show of support. It also said government-funded agencies and immigrants would feel pressure to obey the request to attend.

Melnick told a legislature committee that no one had directed Rempel to send the invitations.

Nineteen months later, ombudsman Mel Holley revealed in a report that Melnick had in fact directed Rempel. Holley said the way the invitations were sent out "clearly gave rise to the perception of partisanship" in the civil service.

Melnick said she had forgotten she'd given the order because she had undiagnosed diabetes. She apologized for her misleading statement.

The former minister, who had kept a low profile until Monday, said she came forward because of the premier's statement that she had acted alone. On the contrary, Melnick said, top advisers had directed her from the start.

Melnick made the following detailed accusations, all of which were denied by Williamson:

— Anna Rothney, head of the NDP cabinet's priorities and planning committee, instructed that the email invitations be sent.

— Liam Martin, the premier's chief of staff, told her not to do any more media interviews after the ombudsman's report, when she blamed diabetes for her memory loss.

— Williamson, acting as the premier's press secretary, told her she would bear the blame so as to protect the premier.

"The strategy had been ... to deliberately cut me out of the process of response in order to protect (Selinger)," Melnick said.

"And I'm very concerned about that. I'm very concerned about ... who might be next."

Melnick, who remains in the NDP caucus, said she fully intends to run for re-election in 2016 in her south Winnipeg constituency of Riel.