Stefanson the candidate to beat in Manitoba Tory race Longtime Tuxedo MLA distances herself from unpopular Pallister

The first candidate to replace Brian Pallister as Manitoba Tory leader has pledged to heal the division he wrought and scrap his hugely controversial school reforms. As a result, Heather Stefanson has the support of almost all of the party caucus.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/08/2021 (367 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The first candidate to replace Brian Pallister as Manitoba Tory leader has pledged to heal the division he wrought and scrap his hugely controversial school reforms. As a result, Heather Stefanson has the support of almost all of the party caucus.

“Over the last 18 months, I’ve heard from countless Manitobans who are looking for a different approach,” Stefanson told a news conference Wednesday, shortly after resigning as health minister. 

Caucus endorsements

Cliff Cullen* – Spruce Woods

Wayne Ewasko* – Lac du Bonnet

Cameron Friesen* – Morden-Winkler

Audrey Gordon* – Southdale

Cliff Cullen* – Spruce Woods

Wayne Ewasko* – Lac du Bonnet

Cameron Friesen* – Morden-Winkler

Audrey Gordon* – Southdale

Josh Guenter – Borderland

Sarah Guillemard* – Fort Richmond

Reg Helwer* – Brandon West

Len Isleifson – Brandon East

Derek Johnson* – Interlake-Gimli

Scott Johnston – Assiniboia

Andrew Micklefield – Rossmere

Janice Morley-Lecomte – Seine River

Bob Lagassé – Dawson Trail

Alan Lagimodiere* – Selkirk

Brad Michaleski – Dauphin

Doyle Piwniuk – Turtle Mountain

Jon Reyes* – Waverley

Ron Schuler* –Springfield-Ritchot

Andrew Smith – Lagimodière

Dennis Smook – La Vérendrye

James Teitsma – Radisson

Jeff Wharton* – Red River North

Ian Wishart – Portage la Prairie

Rick Wowchuk – Swan River

There are 11 other MLAs who have not endorsed Stefanson:

Eileen Clarke – Agassiz

Cathy Cox* – Kildonan-River East

Myrna Driedger – Roblin (Speaker)

Ralph Eichler* – Lakeside

Scott Fielding* – Kirkfield Park

Kelvin Goertzen* – Steinbach

Shannon Martin – McPhillips

Greg Nesbitt – Riding Mountain

Brian Pallister* – Fort Whyte (Premier)

Blaine Pedersen – Midland

Rochelle Squires* – Riel

“I will always strive to bring people together; not to divide them. And that is why we are here today to listen, and to learn,” Stefanson said as she promised to advance reconciliation with Indigenous people.

“We’re hearing from Manitobans, that they don’t feel they’ve been listened to.”

Stefanson was flanked by roughly 15 MLAs, and later issued a list of caucus support, with endorsements from 24 of the 35 other MLAs in her party, or 69 per cent.

“It’s unusual; it’s remarkable,” said University of Manitoba political scientist Royce Koop, particularly right from the start of Stefanson’s campaign.

“That’s the kind of thing you would expect to see when there is clearly a candidate who’s going to become the next leader.”

Stefanson’s caucus colleagues cheered when she said she’d stop the education reforms. Anti-Bill 64 lawn signs are prevalent across Winnipeg, and rural councils have passed motions condemning the bill, which would take power over schooling away from local trustees.

“I think we’ve heard loud and clear (from Manitobans) to get rid of Bill 64,” Stefanson said.

“Instead, a Progressive Conservative government, under my leadership, will listen to parents and make sure we have an education system that prepares our children to succeed in everything they do.”

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Heather Stefanson said she wants to strike a different tone than Premier Brian Pallister. She would advance reconciliation with Indigenous Manitobans and she promised to scrap the hugely controversial school reform Bill 64.

Education Minister Cliff Cullen was among those present, but insisted he could not speak about Bill 64 as minister at an event for a leadership candidate.

He repeatedly referred questions to his office, which said Wednesday that the bill is proceeding until the cabinet or house leader direct otherwise.

Others MLAs who gathered at the South Winnipeg Community Centre on Chancellor Drive included Cameron Friesen, Sarah Guillemard, Ron Schuler, Reg Helwer, Jon Reyes and Janice Morley-Lecomte.

“Folks, this is not about me,” she said. “This is about what we all can do together.”

Koop said the fact Stefanson has so much caucus support behind her pledge to change things shows just how alienated MLAs feel under Pallister’s leadership. He opened the way for the leadership race last week when he announced he will step down before the next election.

“This is the big problem Pallister had… when he ran into problems he couldn’t count on his caucus for support,” he said.

Stefanson has been the MLA for the posh Tuxedo constituency since 2000, getting re-elected five times. She had served as justice and families minister, and was deputy premier when the Pallister government took office in 2016, until early January when she was appointed health minister.

Stefanson had refused dozens of interview requests in recent months — including about a brief medical leave she took in the spring. Her counterparts in other provinces have been a regular, visible presence in news conferences about COVID-19.

She hasn’t had a press conference in six weeks, even as the health-care system continues to buckle under unrelenting strain.

“Instead, a Progressive Conservative government, under my leadership, will listen to parents and make sure we have an education system that prepares our children to succeed in everything they do.” – Heather Stefanson

“I believe in working hard behind the scenes,” she said when asked about being missing in action as health-care in Manitoba takes a beating. She pointed to the presence of so many caucus colleagues at her news conference as proof.

“You don’t always have to be in front of the media to be taking action on things,” she said, adding Pallister has been the public face of the government at news conferences and events.

St. Boniface Hospital has started to prepare to turn away ambulances due to short-staffing, after a patient suffered cardiac arrest while waiting four hours on a hallway stretcher. In the Tory government’s first mandate, it removed ERs from three Winnipeg hospitals.

Stefanson refused to say whether Winnipeg has enough emergency rooms, despite Manitoba evacuating 57 critically ill COVID-19 patients to other provinces — a move no other province had to take during the pandemic.

“I won’t say that it’s a crisis, but we are responding to the serious issues facing our health-care system,” she said.

“You don’t always have to be in front of the media to be taking action on things.” – Heather Stefanson

Stefanson also said the province still hasn’t released its long-promised modelling for the Delta variant, despite that mutation driving a fourth wave in other provinces. 

She was similarly evasive as to why she said nothing about Pallister’s remarks about colonialists having good intentions, which prompted Indigenous leaders to decry the entire PC government as racist.

“I think my voice has been heard behind the scenes,” she said, refusing to elaborate.

Other possible contenders to replace Pallister include Finance Minister Scott Fielding, Families Minister Rochelle Squires, former Winnipeg Conservative MP Shelly Glover, as well as rural Conservative MPs Candice Bergen and James Bezan.

Koop said it will be tough for any of those cabinet ministers to try to take over the government without support from more than two-thirds of caucus — but he said that doesn’t guarantee Stefanson will win.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Stefanson was flanked by roughly 15 MLAs, and later issued a list of caucus support, with endorsements from 24 of the 35 other MLAs in her party, or 69 per cent.

The PC party gives every member one vote in a leadership race, instead of a delegate system in which prominent members can throw their support behind candidates.

Koop said any other Winnipeg contender, such as Squires, would have a hard time differentiating themselves from Stefanson. But someone outside the city might have a shot, particularly someone who wasn’t part of the Pallister cabinet that oversaw disastrous COVID-19 outcomes.

“With Bergen, I could see (her) pushing a right-wing, rural campaign that really appeals to rural party members; there’s a lot of those,” Koop said.

“A lot of the PC membership is in the countryside, not the city.”

Political scientists say the PCs need to win the support of Winnipeg women to remain in government. The party’s popularity has tanked during the pandemic, and urban voters have been put off by fights with labour unions and Pallister’s comments about colonization.

Pallister announced Aug. 10 he was resigning from provincial politics, but it’s unclear whether he intends to continue serving as MLA for Fort Whyte. The party is mobilizing to have its new leader by the end of this year.

The PCs have a majority, meaning Manitoba’s next election isn’t scheduled until Oct. 3, 2023, unless the government seeks an earlier vote.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

 

Gordon health portfolio expands

Manitoba again has just one health minister.

Southdale MLA Audrey Gordon was appointed minister of mental health, wellness and recovery in January, a post Premier Brian Pallister created, with Heather Stefanson serving as minister for health and seniors care.

Shortly after Stefanson announced her candidacy for PC leadership Wednesday, the Tory government announced Gordon would take on both roles. 

History

Updated on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 2:53 PM CDT: Adds details, quotes

Updated on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 3:02 PM CDT: adds photos

Updated on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 3:24 PM CDT: Adds details

Updated on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 3:36 PM CDT: Adds details, quotes

Updated on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 3:43 PM CDT: Adds list of supporters, new photos.

Updated on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 3:49 PM CDT: Corrects detail

Updated on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 6:11 PM CDT: Adds commentary, new headline.

Updated on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 6:28 PM CDT: Adds asterisks to factbox

Updated on Thursday, August 19, 2021 9:30 AM CDT: Corrects community centre location

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