Premier silent after Tory MLAs attend Poilievre speech


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Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson is refusing to address why members of her Progressive Conservative caucus attended an event organized by a group that has been called out for minimizing the impact of racism and residential schools.

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Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson is refusing to address why members of her Progressive Conservative caucus attended an event organized by a group that has been called out for minimizing the impact of racism and residential schools.

Stefanson, who has said Indigenous reconciliation is a top priority for her government since becoming premier more than a year ago, skirted a question about Tory MLAs attending the Frontier Centre for Public Policy event on Jan. 13, featuring federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

An email from Stefanson’s press secretary focused instead on Poilievre being in Winnipeg: “Premier did have plans to meet with (him), but their schedules didn’t work out.”

A number of prominent PC caucus members attended the gathering at the downtown RBC Convention Centre, including Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen, Health Minister Audrey Gordon, Sport, Culture and Heritage Minister Andrew Smith and MLAs James Teitsma (Radisson), Obby Khan (Fort Whyte) and Kevin Klein (Kirkfield Park).

A PC caucus spokesperson said the party wasn’t keeping track of who attended the Frontier Centre for Public Policy event — and it wasn’t a big deal.

“Just as the Manitoba NDP or Manitoba Liberals would attend events featuring the federal leaders of their respective parties, some PC caucus members attended an event featuring the Conservative Party of Canada leader,” the spokesperson said in a prepared statement.

“Any tickets purchased by PC caucus members were paid for personally.”

Klein (elected last month in a byelection) explained in an email why he attended Poilievre’s speech.

“In my experience, the best leaders are the best listeners and I went to listen, on my own dime. I wanted to listen to Mr. Poilievre’s thoughts on improving health care across the nation, his stance on violent crime, and affordability for Manitobans and Canadians,” Klein wrote Monday.

Last summer, the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre posted a commentary on its website that said stories about murdered and secretly buried children at residential schools are highly suspicious, if not completely false. Last month, the centre posted an article that said anti-white male policies represent the only ongoing systemic discrimination.

Attending such an event as a high-stakes election looms shows a lack of judgment, said Brandon University political science Prof. Kelly Saunders.

“They’re almost 30 points behind the NDP,” Saunders said, referring to the PCs’ Winnipeg polling results from a December Probe Research Inc. survey

“To not think about the optics of every single thing that they’re doing from now until that election time, specifically around public events such as this with flashpoint organizations like the Frontier Centre — it’s shocking to me.”

On Monday, Frontier Centre spokesman David Leis said the organization wants to see criminal investigations when human remains are located at former residential school sites, and have a respectful dialogue about reconciliation — then accused the media of misrepresenting the centre and threatened legal action before hanging up on the Free Press.

The centre has published reports calling for the abolition of the Indian Act, something Poilievre has also publicly endorsed.

On Jan. 13, the Conservative leader — who said he supports reconciliation and has called residential schools “an ugly and horrific blight on our history” — told The Canadian Press: “We speak with groups all the time with which we disagree.”

Taking part in an event associated with the Frontier Centre is a price the PCs can ill afford to pay when they’re tanking in the polls — especially in Winnipeg’s urban constituencies that are considered more progressive, Saunders said.

It also undermines the premier’s messaging Indigenous reconciliation is a priority, she added.

Indigenous relations critic for the NDP, Ian Bushie, said the premier must explain how she can say reconciliation is a priority but not call out the Frontier Centre or her caucus members for participating in one of its events.

“It’s just kind of ‘Here’s talking points for the public, but at the same time we’re gonna go and do this kind of thing, we’re gonna support these kinds of organizations,’” said the Keewatinook MLA and former chief of Hollow Water First Nation.

The PC MLAs in attendance made a conscious decision to hear Poilievre speak at the Frontier Centre’s event, rather than choosing another time to see the federal Conservative leader in Winnipeg, said Bushie.

“They choose to do this but, honestly, we believe that reflects their values, as well.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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