‘Moving in the right direction’ Premier Heather Stefanson defends her government’s record on health care, dismisses predictions Tories headed for election defeat in wide-ranging interview with Free Press
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On the heels of a turbulent first year in the premier’s office, Heather Stefanson is buckling up for what will be her biggest political test yet: convincing disenchanted Manitobans to entrust her Progressive Conservative government with a third term.
It’s a challenge that Stefanson is ready to embrace, she told the Free Press earlier this week in a year-end interview delayed first by a head cold and then a family vacation in Florida.
During the wide-ranging, 20-minute question and answer, the 52-year-old premier reflected on the state of Manitoba’s health care, her final budget before the 43rd general election in October and dismal polling results that suggest her government is headed toward defeat.
“We’ve achieved a lot over the last year, but people don’t necessarily know some of the things that we’ve achieved,” she said. “One of our biggest challenges is getting our message out and getting it out properly and factually to Manitobans.
“I think we’ve got a really good story to tell and we’re looking forward to telling it.”
Dressed in a forest-green suit and looking relaxed in a leather armchair in her expansive second-floor office at the Manitoba Legislative Building, Stefanson was upbeat about her government’s record while acknowledging escalating concerns about health care, addictions and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The premier insisted the spending commitments and big-ticket initiatives launched in the past year have set Manitoba’s beleaguered health system on a path towards recovery.
The Tory government budgeted $110 million to cut down surgical and diagnostic backlogs, announced a $200 million health human-resources plan and promised to spend $32 million to enhance long-term care in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, time is in short supply for many Manitobans relying on the overburdened health system to deliver care, treatment and surgeries delayed during the pandemic as burnout from staffing shortages and long hours threaten to drive more workers out.
Opposition critics, front-line health-care providers and patients have all criticized the Tories for failing to include timelines to reduce wait lists and hit hiring targets as a means to measure progress.
“We know what the backlogs are, and we are tackling them,” Stefanson said, side-stepping questions about accountability measures.
The most important thing is that “we’re moving in the right direction,” she said, adding the system doesn’t currently have the capacity to eliminate backlogs, so patients are being sent outside of the province and the country for services.
“I would prefer to be doing that with people here in Manitoba, with partners here in Manitoba,” she said.
Social services likely to headline spring budget
Health, education and social services spending will likely headline the spring budget.
After seven years of austerity, tax breaks and deficit-reduction, Stefanson chuckled before responding to whether she considers a balanced budget or winning another term more important. Despite increased revenues flowing from a 40-year-high inflation rate and Manitoba Hydro, the government will be challenged to satisfy the cash-strapped public sector while reducing the deficit.
“My priority is on Manitobans and making sure that we’re focusing on creating a better life here,” she said.
Labour shortages, immigration and developing a competitive environment for business will also be key budget items, she said. And the PCs will forge ahead with plans to eliminate the education property tax.
“I do believe that we need to have a balanced approach and we’ll continue to take that balanced approach,” the premier said.
Last month, Stefanson expressed sympathy and concern for the families of four women believed to have been victims of an alleged serial killer, and the province shut down operations at a landfill outside the city where police suspect remains are buried.
Why, then, as a mother, has she not acted on similar concerns for families of substance abusers, instead rejecting calls for supervised drug-consumption sites known to save lives?
“Our main focus is on recovery… not about keeping people on drugs and alcohol, but actually finding them the help that they need to get off of those,” she said.
Her government will spend more on rapid access to addiction medicine clinics and the availability of naloxone kits to revive people who’ve overdosed.
“Keeping people alive is very important to us,” she said. “We see what’s happening in downtown Winnipeg… I want to help every one of those individuals. That’s really why we’ll be putting more support services towards those areas.”
Reconciliation still a priority
Although Indigenous reconciliation fell to No. 7 on the throne speech priority list from No. 1 when she first became premier, it’s “absolutely” still a priority, said Stefanson.
An example of reconciliation was having Indigenous leadership take charge when it came initiating a feasibility study to search Prairie Green Landfill for the remains of Morgan Harris, 39, and Marcedes Myran, 26.
“I respect them and what they want to do — that’s what reconciliation is,” she said.
Stefanson repeatedly circled back to growing the economy as the answer to what ails Manitoba. Creating a competitive environment is the No. 1 item on her to-do list before the election, she said.
“I think if we’re focused on growing our economy, that’s how we’ll create more funds that will be available to afford health care, social services and education that Manitobans need.”
“I’m not here for a popularity contest. I’m here to get things done for Manitobans,”–Heather Stefanson
She pointed to $74 million given to the Arctic Gateway Group to establish a trade corridor at the Port of Churchill and $40 million to support the expansion of CentrePort as examples.
“Our clean and green energy and Manitoba Hydro is very attractive to businesses across the country and around the world. I think mining investments, the mining industry, is really going to boom.”
Stefanson — the first woman to occupy the premier’s office in Manitoba — shrugged off comparisons to Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman to serve as prime minister. Both were chosen as leaders when their parties were in trouble and expected to lose — a phenomenon referred to as the “glass cliff.”
“I knew when I took on this challenge that it was going to be a significant challenge. There’s no question,” she said, but dismissed recent public opinion polls favouring a New Democratic Party government led by Fort Rouge MLA Wab Kinew.
“I’m not here for a popularity contest. I’m here to get things done for Manitobans, so I’ll continue to put one foot in front of the other every single day to do what’s in the best interest of Manitobans.”
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.