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This article was published 11/4/2019 (449 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Grit MLA Judy Klassen is prepared to sacrifice the gains it has taken Manitoba Liberals more than two decades to achieve in order to pursue her dream of running for Justin Trudeau in this fall's federal election.
Her decision could significantly weaken the provincial party, which gained official status in the legislature last summer after 23 years without the funding, research staff and guaranteed participation in question period and on committees that accompany it.
If Klassen is successful in her bid to run under the Liberal banner in the federal riding of Churchill Keewatinook-Aski, Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont and MLAs Cindy Lamoureux and former leader Jon Gerrard will be without the necessary fourth seat in the house required to maintain official status.
And after battling both internally and at the ballot box for decades to play more than a token role on the provincial political stage, the surprise move leaves Lamont and the party scrambling on the eve of a possible election; Premier Brian Pallister has hinted recently he may send Manitobans to the polls before the scheduled Oct. 6, 2020 vote.
Klassen was elected as MLA for Keewatinook in 2016, snagging an upset victory against NDP incumbent and former cabinet minister Eric Robinson.
She served as interim party leader after Rana Bokhari stepped down following the 2016 election and then fought for control of the party — eventually dropping out and throwing her support behind Lamoureux — at the October 2017 leadership convention.
Lamont acknowledged that Klassen's pending departure could put the Liberals in a bind, but told reporters he'd support her decision. In March he told the Free Press that he and his three MLAs would be seeking nominations in advance of Manitobans heading to the polls.
The prospect of an early election may be more of an immediate concern, he said.
"We’re all in an odd position because the premier seems intent on breaking his fixed election date… so because of that everything’s up in the air, so we’re trying to cover all our bases and so is (Klassen)," he said.
Klassen, who filed her federal nomination papers Wednesday, said she plans to hold onto her provincial Liberal nomination, but would abandon it in order to legally campaign as a federal candidate.
If nominated federally, she would square off against NDP incumbent Niki Ashton, who has represented the riding since 2015 when it was established and Churchill before that, from 2008 until 2015.
"The investments that the federal government has made in the North have really greatly impacted my communities and I want to make sure that continues," Klassen said, adding said she's confident the Liberals will keep her seat, no matter who the candidate is.
"I’m very confident. The Manitoba Liberals have never been stronger and we will not lose that seat," she said.
Lamont was similarly optimistic.
"We’re going to have official party status going into this election — because I think there’s going to be an election this summer — and we’re going to come out of it with much more than official party status," he said.
Yet according to the latest Probe Research quarterly poll, Manitoba Liberal support is dwindling outside Winnipeg, hovering around 18 per cent in March. Within city limits, the Grits sat around 23 per cent support.
University of Winnipeg political science professor Shannon Sampert said she wasn't surprised to see Klassen seek a federal nod, but described the move as "opportunist."
"Holding both positions at the same time... it doesn’t do much for her constituency; while she’s out door-knocking federally, does she have her head in the game provincially?" Sampert said.
"For First Nations however, it’s true that federal politics has more resonance and thus it is likely why she wanted to make the leap... to have more ability to help people in her area."
Klassen is from St. Theresa Point First Nation, an isolated northern reserve that's home to about 4,500 people. The community is part of the Island Lake region, which also includes Garden Hill, Red Sucker Lake and Wasagamach.
The Churchill Keewatinook-Aski riding is one of the largest in Canada and its population is largely Indigenous. Klassen acknowledged taking on Ashton federally would be challenging. Klassen said Ashton hasn't worked hard enough to help those in the North.
"The North has been opening up and we just need that continued investment and it happened under Justin Trudeau. Whereas the incumbent was there for a long time and we’re still struggling with poverty, still struggling with so many issues," she said.
"Had we had proper representation for my people, I believe that we wouldn’t have had to bury so many people unnecessarily these past decades."
Ashton's office declined a request for comment.
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Updated on Thursday, April 11, 2019 at 6:29 PM CDT: Updates copy