As he enters his final months as Winkler’s mayor, Martin Harder hopes residents in Manitoba’s fourth-largest city can begin healing from wounds inflicted by a bitter rift over pandemic measures.
Harder, who has led the community for 16 years, has decided his fourth term will be his last. He will not seek re-election in October.
While the pandemic has been a tumultuous time for most mayors, it’s been particularly testing for Harder, who’s been at the helm of a city divided by COVID-19 public health orders and mandates.
Winkler has been an epicentre of public opposition and protests against restrictions, face masks and vaccine mandates.
Harder, 72, has seen relationships crumble, and he believes it’s going to take a significant amount of time to achieve unity.
"The impact of COVID and what’s left behind when COVID is over will take longer to heal than the disease," he said.
Harder, first elected in 2006, said the pandemic has nothing to do with his decision to step aside.
He’s proud of his work during the crisis, saying he’s tried to bridge the gap between residents on opposing sides of COVID-19 measures.
"It’s been pretty divided. I have taken the approach that I’m willing to listen to both sides," said Harder. "I’m happy with where I am. I have no regrets."
He’s disappointed some residents have pushed anti-restriction or anti-vaccine messages or chosen not to follow the rules.
By health district, Winkler has Manitoba’s second-lowest vaccine uptake. Just 43.4 per cent of eligible residents had had two doses as of Tuesday.
“The impact of COVID and what’s left behind when COVID is over will take longer to heal than the disease.” – Winkler mayor Martin Harder
Harder feels he’s spoken out about issues and been critical of the provincial government’s COVID strategy when warranted.
As Manitoba began to emerge from code red in January 2021, he didn’t think it was fair non-critical retail was allowed to reopen, but restaurants and gyms had to remain closed.
With his own money, he bought and put up signs stating "Be safe. Be Fair. OpenMB."
Being a mayor amid the greatest public health crisis in a century hasn’t been easy, and it’s been impossible to please everyone. A council vote or public comment can lead to flak from all sides or be perceived as an act of allegiance to one group over another.
"I’ve been called all kinds of things — right wing, a liberal, a fence-sitter," said Harder.
Brandon Burley, mayor of Morden, about a five-minute drive west of Winkler, has watched Harder handle the divide. Burley has been impressed by Harder’s ability to engage with both sides.
"The pandemic has provided everybody in public office an opportunity to be disliked by the public," said Burley. "It’s a tough region. I’ve seen him handle those pressures with grace."
Harder’s legacy isn’t defined by the pandemic. He’s overseen massive industry and population growth in Winkler, located about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.
Its population has boomed to 13,745 in 2021 from 7,943 in 2006, making it Manitoba’s fourth-biggest city. Its annual operating budget has more than doubled to about $20 million.
Reflecting on how Winkler has evolved, Harder described it as a "rounded livable community," as he listed projects and infrastructure improvements of which he’s proud.
They include the Bethel Heritage Park, which features a fountain and pavilion that hosts concerts, the Buhler Active Living Centre, which offers health and wellness activities for residents aged 55 and over, and the twinning of Highway 32.
Harder decided not to seek a fifth term after asking his longtime deputy, Henry Siemens, if he was interested in running for mayor. It was the same conversation they had before the 2018 vote.
“His influence has been undeniable in terms of the way he’s been able to grow Winkler. (His departure) will leave a large hole in the city.” – Morden mayor Brandon Burley
"I was concerned when I stepped down there would be no continuity," said Harder.
This time, Siemens told him he was ready to run for the city’s top job.
"That was the deciding factor for me," said Harder.
Harder doesn’t know what’s next for him. The married father and grandfather will remain in Winkler, where he has rental properties.
He’s treated the role of mayor as a full-time job since 2011, when he sold his shares in Delmar Commodities, a grain company he founded in 1995.
"His influence has been undeniable in terms of the way he’s been able to grow Winkler," said Burley. "(His departure) will leave a large hole in the city."
"He’s been steward of some tremendous growth," said Siemens, a councillor since 2006. "He’s done the absolute best he can (during the pandemic). He’s led with passion, wanting to do the right thing."
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.