‘Stubborn contrarian’ turfed from Manitoba cabinet over vaccination flap

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Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson has removed Ron Schuler from her cabinet, ending an embarrassing, months-long controversy over his COVID-19 vaccination status.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/12/2021 (276 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson has removed Ron Schuler from her cabinet, ending an embarrassing, months-long controversy over his COVID-19 vaccination status.

She issued a short statement late Thursday advising that he had been replaced and thanked him for his service.

“Liberty has its price, today I paid for mine,” wrote Schuler, MLA for Springfield-Ritchot, on Twitter in response to his ouster.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Springfield-Ritchot MLA Ron Schuler.

Schuler had served in cabinet since the PCs took office in 2016, most recently as infrastructure minister and the minister responsible for the Emergency Measures Organization.

Both of those posts will be filled by Reg Helwer, who heads procurement as minister of Central Services.

Schuler was the only one of Manitoba’s 57 MLAs who refused to reveal his vaccination status, even after Stefanson implemented a mandate requiring all MLAs to be vaccinated or have a medical exemption by Dec. 15.

The media constantly raised the issue since July at public appearances by Schuler, Stefanson and her predecessor, premier Brian Pallister, who had argued it was a matter of personal privacy.

“It’s a fundamental liberty to make our own health-care choices,” Schuler said earlier this month, a point he echoed in numerous interviews and at news conferences.

University of Manitoba political scientist Christopher Adams said Thursday Stefanson has read the room by making the announcement on the very day Manitoba surpassed 1,100 new COVID-19 cases and announced it was shifting resources to bolster the health-care system.

“Stefanson’s marking her own territory,” Adams said.

“We’re into a new phase of emergency response, and so the person who’s in charge of emergency response, who has shown ambivalence about vaccinations, would raise concerns. So it’s a logical thing for the premier to do right now.”

Veteran political observer Paul Thomas, said Schuler holds libertarian and social conservative views that fit the PC party, but less so with the pragmatic direction Stefanson is trying to take the party ahead of the 2023 election.

“Since I taught him decades ago, I have seen Schuler as an opinionated, stubborn contrarian on the far right of the PC party,” wrote Thomas, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba.

He said Schuler didn’t seem to grasp that party politics are a team sport.

“Schuler was undermining the government’s best efforts to gain credibility on the (COVID-19) issue,” Thomas wrote. “He stubbornly refused to reveal his vaccination status, appealing to the anti-vax crowd and embarrassing the government.”

Stefanson’s statement alluded to the vaccination issue.

“I am confident in Minister Helwer’s ability, dedication and leadership skills to take on the new role as Manitoba faces a surge in COVID-19 cases and Manitobans are asked to take every possible step to help limit the spread of this virus, including getting fully vaccinated,” Stefanson wrote.

She added that Manitobans can expect a cabinet shuffle in the new year.

After the announcement, the NDP argued Stefanson is not that different from Pallister. The party’s house leader, Nahanni Fontaine, said both had “allowed an anti-vaxxer to have a seat at the cabinet table and let him lead crucial parts of our pandemic response.”

Fontaine called for Schuler to be removed from the PC caucus, saying he’s been a distraction for Stefanson.

“She’s focused on her party’s own internal dysfunction instead of our health-care system,” Fontaine wrote.

Adams said Schuler’s seat is a Tory stronghold, so he wouldn’t have been able to leverage the prospect of the PCs losing that seat, in an attempt to keep his cabinet role.

Schuler was first elected MLA in 1999 and ran for the PC leader in 2006, coming second at 21 per cent support.

“Clearly, he will feel disappointed to not be in the cabinet; he’s a veteran politician,” Adams said.

Health-messaging experts, such as University of Alberta professor Timothy Caulfield, has said the position taken by Schuler undermined vaccination campaigns by failing to show leadership. “Privacy fearmongering can feed vaccine hesitancy,” he said earlier this year.

This summer, some of Schuler’s largest donors said they found his silence on the vaccination matter off-putting.

In Canada’s Westminster system of government, cabinet ministers are to support government priorities. They can disagree with the nuances of how a policy gets implemented, but can’t actively undermine the government’s goals.

Schuler did not respond to a Thursday evening interview request.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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