04/08/2014 02:57 EDT | Updated 06/08/2014 05:59 EDT

Erin Selby, Manitoba Health Minister, Apologizes For Infant Death Comments

WINNIPEG - Manitoba NDP Health Minister Erin Selby expressed regret Tuesday for remarks she made about 12 infants who died in the 1990s, but stopped short of apologizing for linking the then-Tory government to the deaths.

"Upon reflection, and hearing the words of the family (of one infant), I can see that my words did hurt them," Selby told the legislature.

"It was never my intention for these families to relive this tragedy, and I am sorry," she finished as her caucus colleagues applauded.

The apology came two weeks after Selby told a legislature committee that the Progressive Conservative government of the 1990s let babies die in a troubled infant cardiac surgery program at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. The program became the subject of a lengthy inquest.

The inquest did not blame the government of the day. It instead faulted a physician whose skills were lacking and improper oversight by the hospital.

On March 26, Selby was answering Opposition questions about the province's air ambulance program when she said the NDP government had improved health care since the 1990s. She said the Tory government "allowed 12 babies to die," according to the committee transcript.

The Tories called on Selby to apologize. She ignored the demand. On Monday, a grandmother of one of the babies who died attended the legislature and, helped by the Tories, called on Selby to resign.

"Minister Selby doesn't have the right to politicize the memory of our babies and grandbabies," said Margaret Feakes, whose grandson Ashton died at the age of 15 months after cardiac surgery.

Feakes said she met briefly with Selby on Monday. Selby did not say she was sorry, Feakes said, and instead suggested that her committee comments had been taken out of context.

On Tuesday, Selby apologized for hurting Feakes and others related to the babies. But when asked outside the chamber whether she was sorry for blaming the former Tory government, she did not answer directly.

"Our government believes in having open transparency," she said, referring to legislation the New Democrats have enacted to ensure problems in health care are reported and examined.

"There was a time when there was a secret culture, where things were buried, where things were not talked about. We're not going to do that."

The Tories said the apology was half-hearted and two weeks overdue.

"It was only because of public pressure that she has stood in this house, and it does not come from an honest feeling in her heart," Tory health critic Myrna Driedger said in question period.

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