Is Stefanson a worthy role model? Premier’s refusal to condemn hateful presentation makes her questionable choice for grad speaker

The premier has gone full-on Cameo.

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The premier has gone full-on Cameo.

For the uninitiated, Cameo is a website where you can buy personalized video messages from famous people for a special occasion, to motivate a group of people, or just for a laugh. For example, although Brian Cox is no longer appearing as the iconic megalomaniac Logan Roy on the hit show Succession, you can get a video of the actor telling your loved ones to f—- off, à la Logan Roy, for C$1,200.

Ah, the memories.

If that’s too pricey, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson is offering a better deal: for absolutely nothing, she will record a congratulatory message for your child’s graduating class. “As premier, I would like the opportunity to take part in that milestone,” Stefanson wrote in a letter sent out to more than 250 public and private high schools in the province that are overseeing the graduation of more than 17,000 Grade 12 students.


Premier Heather Stefanson

The premier’s staff assured everyone that the videos were not political in any way, but political observers and opposition parties weren’t buying it.

As most of these graduating students will qualify as first-time voters soon, political scientists flagged this as “quasi-campaigning” and an abuse of the advantages granted to a governing political party approaching an election. Opposition critics howled at the idea that a premier of a government that had underfunded the public school system should be pandering to graduating students.

Aside from having all the hallmarks of shameless, cynical political pandering, there is a bigger issue at stake here — whether the premier is a worthy role model for graduating students.

Stefanson is a veteran elected public official and based on all she has accomplished — including becoming Manitoba’s first female premier — she is by any measurement a bona fide role model. She shouldn’t lose that status just because people disagree with her government’s policies.

The premier’s staff assured everyone that the videos were not political in any way, but political observers and opposition parties weren’t buying it.

And yet, it is an unfortunate coincidence that in the same week Stefanson made her personalized video offer, she was demonstrating a profound lack of leadership on another pressing issue.

One week ago, a delegation went before the Brandon School Division board to urge trustees to ban materials that touch on sexual health or LGBTTQ+ people.

The lead activist calling for a ban claimed materials including transgender themes were tantamount to child pornography used by pedophiles to groom their victims. These statements were pure hate masquerading as concern and it should have been easy for Stefanson to condemn them.

However, when asked about the issue, Stefanson fell back on an exhausted evasion.

The premier told reporters in Brandon that while she “condemns any kind of hate crime or any kind of criminal activity” directed at the LGBTTQ+ community, decisions about library materials should be “made at the local level.”

Stefanson’s decision to include the words “criminal activity” is worth noting.

Many acts of pure and unadulterated hatred aimed at LGBTTQ+ people — like the grotesque claims made by the Brandon activist — do not meet the standard of criminality. But they are exactly the kind of statements and behaviours that make non-heterosexual youth five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than their heterosexual peers.

Stefanson’s response was, in a word, pathetic, particularly when you consider that other right-wing politicians in this country have actually done a better job of condemning hate.

Recently, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who is fighting an election, condemned one of her candidates for suggesting that transgender children in public schools were tantamount to “poop” in baked goods. It was too late to remove the candidate from the ballot, but Smith disavowed her as a member of the United Conservative Party.

Calling LGBTTQ+ people pedophiles and child pornographers is as bad, if not worse, than likening someone to poop.

Remarkably, Smith, who is arguably the hardest right-wing premier in Canada, unequivocally condemned her candidate’s comments. “The language… regarding children identifying as transgender is simply unacceptable and does not reflect the values of our party or province.”

That leads to a pretty obvious question: If a politician like Smith — who has questioned the value of COVID vaccines, disputed the science behind climate change and diminished the suffering of Indigenous people — can unambiguously condemn hateful comments, why can’t Stefanson?

Some will want to draw a distinction between what the Alberta UCP candidate said and what the activist in Brandon said, but that’s largely a wasted effort. Calling LGBTTQ+ people pedophiles and child pornographers is as bad, if not worse, than likening someone to poop.

Surely a first minister’s role is to protect the vulnerable and condemn any effort to dehumanize them. Offering half-hearted support for LGBTTQ+ people, while at the same time refusing to condemn haters who are attacking them, is more than just a bad look. It’s a dereliction of her duties as premier.

Stefanson is, for many reasons, a legitimate role model. But her refusal to condemn the hateful delegation before the Brandon school board tarnishes her many accomplishments.

And that might not make her the best choice to appear at a graduation ceremony.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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