Manitoba

PC leadership candidate Stefanson ready to speak out after months of 'healthy debates' behind closed doors

Heather Stefanson, a favourite in the race to lead the governing Progressive Conservatives in Manitoba, won't point fingers at Premier Brian Pallister's sometimes adversarial leadership, but said she'll handle the job differently.

Veteran cabinet minister says Manitobans shouldn't interpret her public silence as approval of Pallister

Heather Stefanson is vying to become the next leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. Shelly Glover and Shannon Martin say they will run against her. (Darrin Morash/CBC)

Heather Stefanson, a favourite in the race to lead the governing Progressive Conservatives in Manitoba, won't point fingers at Premier Brian Pallister's sometimes adversarial leadership, but said she'll handle the job differently.

"No approach is right or wrong, I just have a different approach," she said in an interview Friday with CBC Manitoba's Information Radio host Marcy Markusa. 

"What I'm hearing is that Manitobans want that kind of collaborative and conciliatory approach, and someone that's going to listen, and I think that that's what I bring forward."

Tuxedo MLA Stefanson is vying to replace Pallister as leader of the Progressive Conservatives and, by extension, as premier. The shakeup comes as the party's popularity has plummeted, with recent polls suggesting the PCs would be hard-pressed with present leadership to win the next election. 

Up to this point, Stefanson's approach was to raise concerns behind closed doors.

The veteran MLA defended her silence after Pallister's widely condemned remarks in July that the people who came here to this country "didn't come here to destroy anything, they came here to build." His Indigenous relations minister resigned after that and the premier announced his retirement from politics a few weeks later.

Asked why she didn't condemn Pallister's remarks publicly, Stefanson rejected the question.

"I wouldn't say that I didn't," she said. "I work, you know, behind the scenes and we have our discussions behind the scenes."

'Healthy debates'

Discussions around the cabinet table are kept confidential, she said, though she wouldn't condemn the handful of her colleagues who distanced themselves publicly from Pallister's statements. Stefanson took part in "healthy debates" with her colleagues, she said.

"We have discussions in caucus and cabinet and that's the way we do things. That's fine," she said.

"But moving forward now, absolutely, am I committed to further reconciliation and to working with our partners in the Indigenous community moving forward? There's no question about that."

If Stefanson curries favour with enough party members, she will become the first woman premier in Manitoba's history.

She's pledged to heal divisions in the party and abandon the controversial school reforms etched out in Bill 64.

Her campaign had the backing of two-thirds of Tory MLAs only a week after Pallister said he'd step down. 

Former Conservative MP Shelly Glover and PC MLA Shannon Martin have said they are planning to run against Stefanson. 

Stefanson was health minister during the pandemic's devastating third wave, in which hundreds of Manitobans died and the province held dubious distinction of being the only Canadian jurisdiction forced to send patients to other provinces because its health-care system ran out of capacity to treat them.

Asked what responsibility she took, Stefanson said there were challenges and "for my part, I take responsibility for that."

She then spoke about the vaccine implementation task force, which she helped set up when she took over the health portfolio in January. 

Heather Stefanson, right, then health minister, looks on as Premier Brian Pallister speaks to media following a tour of the COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Jan. 13, 2021. (Tim Smith/Pool/The Canadian Press)

"What I was pushing behind the scenes was to get as many Manitobans vaccinated as possible, because what we know is that those that end up in the ICU are not vaccinated," Stefanson said.

"That was my primary focus and, obviously, looking to increase capacity within our ICUs, which we did."

The local nursing shortage is a national problem as well, she said. She wants the federal government to step up funding to boost capacity in emergency departments.

Stefanson said she would not reverse the health-care overhaul in which three Winnipeg hospital emergency departments were converted into urgent care centres. Most of those reforms were completed by 2019. 

"Prior to COVID hitting, we had reduced [wait times] significantly. The system was working more efficiently and effectively, and then COVID hit."

Emergency wait times made some gradual improvements in the years before the pandemic, though Manitoba's hospitals continued to trail behind most Canadian hospitals.

Stefanson has been the MLA for Tuxedo since 2000, getting re-elected five times. She's served as deputy premier, families minister and, most recently, health minister. Her lengthy experience will be an asset as party leader, she said.

The party has been criticized for rushing its leadership race, which some have said has undermined the efforts of any challengers.

The rules were announced this week and require candidates to pony up $25,000 to enter, sign up by Sept. 15 and sign up at least 1,000 members by Sept. 30. The new leader will be chosen on Oct. 30.

Stefanson defended the timelines, saying she was just one voice at the table deciding on the rules. 

"I think it is very important that we move as quickly as possible," Stefanson said. "Rather than looking internally, we need to look externally and see, you know, who the real competition is here, and that's the NDP.

"We want to ensure that we have enough time to get in and make sure the NDP don't get back into power." 

She also wants the party to return to the legislature quickly to get back to work, she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Marcy Markusa, The Canadia Press

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