A group of conservatives, fed up with the provincial government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, is forming a new party that will push for more rights and freedoms for the unvaccinated.
"In our parties right now, there is nobody representing what the people really want, and people are feeling like their rights and freedoms are being infringed on, in different ways," said Charlene Hancox-Senow, who is part of the committee working to establish the Keystone Party.
The political party isn’t yet registered, but has garnered support in southern Manitoba, including from Winkler Mayor Martin Harder.
Keystone is to be based on eight principles that would align with many PC voters, such as a market economy that’s environmentally sustainable, balanced budget, "measures to reduce discrimination within government," and a "robust" justice system that deters crime.
"The PCs can say 'these are our principles' but if your actions are not backing up your principles, you're losing your credibility among the citizens," Hancox-Senow told the Free Press.
The committee also includes Manitobans who normally vote for the NDP or Liberals, but many are PC voters who don’t feel the governing party is listening to the grassroots, she said.
"The only alternative is to create new policies, and create a party that is in the interests of the people."
Volunteers have been talking since spring about starting a party, and gradually ramped up efforts this summer as former premier Brian Pallister faced public criticism from his own cabinet, Hancox-Senow said..
The PC Party of Manitoba has been challenged throughout the pandemic by its rural base. MLAs have pushed behind closed doors to have lighter COVID-19 restrictions, while Winnipeg MLAs have faced constituents furious over hospitals pushed beyond capacity and restrictions doctors said were too late.
"We believe there is a different approach, that hasn't actually been chosen, to all of this. We do support vaccines; we just support the right to choose whether you want one or not," Hancox-Senow said.
"We do feel that the passports infringe on the rights of our citizens; we don't feel that it's backing up the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
The nascent party will have to be careful about who it affiliates with, as some of its principles could be viewed as coded language for far-right beliefs, said political scientist Raymond Hébert.
"It sounds a lot like the People's Party (of Canada)," said Hébert, a professor emeritus at Saint Boniface University.
"People interested in the political scene in Manitoba should be watching this very closely. I actually find it disturbing, but it depends what shape this group takes."
He noted anti-vaccine protesters tossed rocks at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on Monday, just as People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier held a Winnipeg rally against vaccine passports.
"They don't want vaccines mandates, and (feel that) those who insist on not being vaccinated should not pay any penalties, like being barred from airplanes," he said.
"There's definitely a market in southern Manitoba for this kind of, what I would call, extreme-right positioning."
However, Hancox-Senow said her group wants the opposite, by channelling the ongoing rancour into positive change.
"People say how angry they are toward the government, and the answer isn't to go and do rallies; the answer isn't to cause a ruckus but to be part of the change," she said.
"We're not a protest party at all."
Hancox-Senow said Harder is an adviser to the upstart party, which the Winkler mayor did not deny Tuesday.
"I've heard of it, I've had conversations with people who are on the steering committee, but they're at a very beginning stage now," Harder said. "That's all I would like to say about that."
So far, the party has a simple website in which people can sign up for email updates; it cannot issue memberships until it has registered with Elections Manitoba.
It is attempting to gather signatures from 2,500 eligible voters, which are necessary to submit a formal application. Hancox-Senow stressed those knocking on doors around rural Manitoba are following public health rules.
"We believe very much in respecting authority, so we want to do everything correctly and we're encouraging our volunteers to do the same."
The PC Party did not reply to a request for comment.
— with files from Malak Abas