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Theresa Oswald promised to hire 20 more midwives and set up a breast-milk bank if she wins the NDP leadership in March.
"Our government has, without a doubt, made real progress in women's health. We have lots to be proud of, whether it's hiring midwives, opening a birth centre in its own right and committing and building a new women's hospital... I also know clearly there is more work to do," Oswald told media Sunday.
Premier Greg Selinger, who launched his own leadership race Friday, challenged all comers to a leadership contest after a caucus revolt that saw five cabinet ministers and a backbench MLA call for him to step down due to the NDP's low poll numbers.
The so-called Gang of Five ministers, which included Oswald, later resigned from cabinet. Selinger kept them in caucus but removed some of their privileges, such as attending caucus meetings.
Oswald was the first out of the gate, followed by veteran cabinet minister Steve Ashton. No other rivals are anticipated in the three-way race.
'We have lots to be proud of, whether it's hiring midwives, opening a birth centre in its own right and committing and building a new women's hospital... I also know clearly there is more work to do'‐ NDP leader hopeful Theresa Oswald
The NDP leadership will be decided March 8 during the NDP's annual convention.
Oswald's latest campaign announcement was held in the Wolseley home of a supporter.
"I know there are many women who cannot find a midwife. That is why as leader, and premier, I would ensure there is funding in place to hire 20 more midwives over the next two years," Oswald told reporters in the crowded front room.
Oswald, a former health minister, was flanked by the vice-president of the Midwifery Association of Manitoba, Tracey Novoselnik, and by a mother and her six-month-old son, Liam, who was born last summer at the city's birthing centre.
Baby Liam stared wide-eyed at reporters and was quiet in his mother's arms, appearing at home despite the throng of clicking cameras. He didn't utter a peep.
His proud mother, Katie Findlater, said she felt more at home having Liam delivered at the birthing centre under a midwife's care than in a hospital with a doctor.
She said she gave birth to her daughter in hospital, unable to find a midwife to take her through her first pregnancy.
The experience was like night and day, she said.
"The real difference with the midwife is the care. You're treated more like a person than a patient. I was pregnant. I wasn't sick," Findlater said.
Oswald's plan would provide funding to regional health authorities for the new hires, starting with 12 permanent positions at a cost of $1.5 million this year.
A three-pronged strategy would see recruitments from a pool of current Manitoba midwife graduates, followed by more hires from wider pools outside Manitoba and beyond Canada.
The province currently has about 50 licensed midwives; the birthing centre on St. Mary's Road has a capacity for 500 deliveries a year but only has staff to accommodate about 400.
The program to train midwives faltered at the University College of the North in The Pas last summer and was halted.
It has since been overhauled and is to be relaunched in September as a four-year program under joint administration with UCN and the University of Manitoba.
Plans call for students to enrol and attend classes at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Oswald promised to provide improved breastfeeding support for mothers and to establish a breast-milk bank for women to safely donate and access breast milk.
Currently, breast milk is imported from outside Manitoba.
"Breastfeeding doesn't come easily to all women," said Oswald in her release.
"Better breastfeeding support for new moms, combined with a new breast-milk bank, will help more families choose breast milk, one of the best ways to ensure a healthy start in life, especially babies born to low-income mothers."
-- with files from Larry Kusch